Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone to Japan. His five-day visit promises to scale up the India-Japan relationship, preventing, what some commentators see, as the rise of a China- centered Asia. The focus will be on improving defence and commercial ties, discussing regional security, and perhaps, getting an agreement on a civil nuclear cooperation.

Modi is reported to be fascinated with Japan, and its prime minister, Abe Shinzo. But it seems to me that his fascination is with what Japan used to be in the heyday of its “miraculous growth” period from the 1950s to the 1980s and does not reflect an understanding of what it is today. The India-Japan relationship is important and has much to offer but are we really looking to where we should be?

Japan, at one time, was projected as the model of a future Asia – a consensus society wedded to high technology and the promise of endless economic growth. That dream shattered some decades ago and present-day Japan faces a range of problems unimaginable in those heady times. These problems include economic stagnation and the migration of Japanese industry to China and other cheaper labour markets, the destruction of Japanese agriculture and the depopulation of rural Japan.

The period of economic growth led to the rise of large overpopulated urban centres, in part sustained and created by the introduction of the high-speed shinkansen or bullet trains. These improved connectivity between major cities but cut off smaller towns. Traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka is fast and expensive. Traveling in the interiors is slow and time consuming.

Skewed urbanisation

Since the ’70s, Japanese governments have been trying to work out a plan to decentralise and reduce the excessive concentration in Tokyo and its environs. This skewed urbanisation has led to an excessive reliance on energy. The demographic decline and the fall in the working population added to the financial woes of the people. Small municipalities are bankrupt, and a growing number are what a documentary produced by the national broadcaster NHK called the “working poor”. The last nail was the Fukushima nuclear disaster that has contaminated the landscape and scarred the national psyche.

Japan has much to offer India, particularly in what happens when nations focus exclusively on economic growth and the magic of GDP numbers. The promise of the so-called Japanese miracle has long been forgotten. The Japanese themselves are dealing with the aftermath in creative ways, not all reflected in the politics of the present Abe government. Is government and the policy establishment drawing appropriate lessons from this?

Modi will meet the mover and shakers in Japan and see the major sight, including a visit to Kyoto, the old imperial capital. If he had the time it would have been an instructive experience to go to a little village called Yanaka northwest of Tokyo and then upto the Ashio copper mine. The history of this place speaks to our problems today. It was here that Tanaka Shozo, a village headman who was elected to the first Japanese Diet (parliament) in 1890, launched Japan’s first environmental movement. Tanaka saw the problems of the Meiji government’s desire to industrialise at the expense of the land and the people. He saw it first-hand as the waters of the Watarase river were poisoned by the Ashio copper mine upstream.

To counter the government’s blind focus on industrialisation, Tanaka developed his thinking into what he called Yanaka gaku or Yanaka studies arguing that rights could not exist in a poisoned environment. Yanaka was a village threatened by submersion from a dam building project. But even as the villagers were being evicted by the state their children were dying in the war against Russia in 1904-’05. So Yanaka became the site of resistance to the state’s militarist policies and its industrial policies – both a product of the same thinking. Tanaka’s ideas recall Gandhi’s thinking and seem prescient today as Japan struggles to deal not just with the Fukushima disaster but also the long-held promise of technology.

If Modi went to Yanaka, he would see that volunteers still go there to replant a ravaged environment still suffering from the pollution caused more than a hundred years ago.

Buying a dream

The Abe government has bought into this dream and seems to be unquestionably accepting the inevitability of development if the right policy decisions are taken. It is looking for new markets and new areas such as defense equipment, long a taboo in Japan.

What does this mean for India? Take toilets. Modi has promised every Indian a bank account and a toilet. Providing toilets so that 500 million don't defecate in the open will be truly transformational. Modi, and many in his entourage have been to Japan and no doubt seen the wonders of the Japanese toilets – the seat rises as you approach, there is a control panel that adjusts the temperature of the seat and water. It's a talking point for all foreign visitors and a wonder for those from sanitary challenged environments.

How are toilets going to be provided? The step that has been taken doesn't promise much hope. The Japanese toilet maker Toto, the biggest in Japan, has started a factory to produce sanitary ware in Gujarat. This US$58 million facility, the Wall Street Journal reports, will produce 500,000 toilets per year. Toilets that will retail for about Rs 10,000 per seat. Remember they need both regular water and electricity. Is this the road that we need to take?

Brij Tankha is a professor of modern Japanese history, retired from the University of Delhi.