'Learning a foreign language is a way of bridging cultures'

The Inquirer

'Learning a foreign language is a way of bridging cultures'

While it has been weakened in recent years by economic decline, political uncertainty and aging workforce, the technological prowess of the Japanese and their legendary rise from the ashes of the Second World War continue to dominate our perception of the country.

Yet, as much as we wanted to imbibe its propensity for perfection and quality, Japan’s language and culture had been alien to us. According to Dr Savitri Vishwanathan, retired professor of Japanese studies at Delhi University, who has spent nearly 45 years teaching Japanese and spreading its culture in India — an accomplishment that brought her the Japan Foundation award this year — Japan’s isolation from Asia in the latter half of the 20th century was the price it paid for its attempt to ‘get rich’. Savitri (76), who extensively travelled in Japan both for research and as official interpreter for Indian prime ministers and foreign ministers, told L Subramani of Deccan Herald how India, as a young nation, can learn many lessons from Japan. Excerpts:

You are the first Indian to get the award. How did you learn the Japanese language, especially at a time when there were fewer opportunities to do so?

In 1963, I enrolled myself for Ph D in Far Eastern Studies with the School of International Studies (later merged with the Jawaharlal Nehru University). My interest then was narrowed down to Japan since I never felt ideologically closer to China. I was also curious to learn how Japan could maintain its independence, as except Thailand, all the other Asian countries had come under foreign rule. My decision to learn the Japanese Language for my research on Japan, was a huge challenge for me as I was 30 years old then. But I thought it was necessary to learn the language if I were to reach out to the people of that country. I had a scholarship from Japan’s ministry of education to stay in the country for two-and-a-half years to learn the language and to collect material for my PhD. The Japanese are always happy if a foreigner speaks to them in their language, which, personally, was a big motivation.

Was it difficult to get support?

It was quite the other way around. I was learning the language more or less like a child with close guidance. Professors who saw my interest were quite happy to help me. When I lived in Japan on the scholarship in 1966, I wrote an essay on ‘People’s movements against authoritarianism in 100 years of Japan’s history since Meiji Restoration in 1868’ for an essay contest by UNESCO, Japan open to foreign students only to celebrate the Meiji Centenary. It was highly praised and I was given the prime minister’s award for the essay, it showed how far people and the academic community in Japan were supportive of my learning of the language and the culture.

That was when Japan was on its way to becoming a major economic force in the world. What did you think was the single most important characteristic of the Japanese that had made them achieve their goals?

In their economic reforms after 1868 and after 1945, the country’s leaders tried to create a national consensus on achieving their policy objectives. The people were made to unite behind the leaders. Japan was therefore able to work as a country to wipe out the humiliation of the War and prove to the world that they could work their way up. Also, the Japanese were good at correcting their mistakes. I did a project in the early 1970s on the citizen movements in the country, for which I chose the movement against paper pollution in Fuji city near Tokyo. It was first-hand knowledge for me as to how they tried to overcome the effects of pollution. They were so effective that within a few years the Japanese were able to guide the Chinese on how to mitigate environmental disruption.

How was the experience of being an interpreter, especially accompanying Indian prime ministers and foreign ministers?

I was not trained to be a professional interpreter, but I used to help Indians in Japan during emergency situations. In the mid 70s, famous Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa wanted a new interpreter since he was unhappy with the person who interpreted for him. I did the discussion programme with him for the television and a few other programmes when Japanese delegations visited India. I assisted Indira Gandhi in India, in her talks with the Japanese prime minister and other ministers from Japan, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Japan (when he was foreign minister in 1978), P V Narasimha Rao (when he was foreign minister and prime minister). Besides being an interpreter, I had to assure Narasimha Rao that the food served to him in Japan was vegetarian. I had to interpret from Hindi to Japanese for Vajpayee, who preferred to speak in Hindi. The job was both exhilarating and also exhausting since an interpreter had to be alert all the time.

Do you think it is easier to learn the language now?

Today learning a foreign language is seen more as commercially beneficial. Though that may not be entirely wrong, I feel foreign language learning should be seen as a way of bridging cultures and bringing greater understanding. It was with this intention that I translated Shimazaki Toson’s 1906 Japanese classic ‘Hakai’ into Hindi and Tamil. Thankfully, many are now showing interest in taking Japanese language and culture to the grassroots level. For instance, one of my students has set up a Japanese language and culture department in American College in Madurai. Such a department is also active in Bangalore University. As a scholar, I have always  provided help and support wherever possible to connect India and Japan  and it would be gratifying for me to see people take more interest to learn about Japan.

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