I am writing this from Japan and South Korea, both ancient Asian cultures like ours, and it gives one the opportunity to compare them with us.
Today, South Korea has a per capita income six times that of India’s, while the figure in Japan is seven times higher. As many readers would know, the difference in this capacity between us and them was not that great a few decades ago.
Seoul, the capital of South Korea, got its first elevator in 1968. Mumbai had elevators for years before that.
The Jongno area in Seoul was where their industrial growth began, with small machine tooling shops that still exist. These took off in the 1980s and followed the classic path to shaping a developed economy. They first engaged in light manufacturing and textiles, which are high-employment but low-margin businesses. (When I joined my family’s polyester yarn business in Surat, the imports were often from South Korea.)
The country then moved to heavy industries and finally, the highest end of electronics. Traditional and small South Korean companies became global giants in this period — today, South Korea-based Samsung manufactures the screens that even Apple products use; Lucky Goldstar, which made television sets, renamed itself to LG, and today, is a brand recognised around the world, along with Hyundai and other South Korean firms.
Japan followed the same path, albeit slightly earlier. It developed the capacity to make large warships and advanced airplanes around 90 years ago. After its defeat in the World War 1945 following the use of atom bombs as ordered by the then American president Harry S Truman, the Japanese decided to give up their militarism and focus on their economy.
They originally made cheap cars that were copies and were laughed at in the West. Today, the top two best-selling four-door cars in the US are Japan-based Toyota and Honda. Japanese-made guitars and pianos — once very cheaply produced — are the best in the world today.
Like India and Pakistan, South Korea and Japan hated each other. Japan occupied Korea for many years till 1945, and Japanese soldiers abused tens of thousands of Korean women in this period.
The Korean region, too, was partitioned like India into two countries, both of which now have a dangerous border and the threat of nuclear warfare.
However, South Korea and China — which was also occupied by Japan around the same period — made peace with Japan. Today, a majority of the tourists who visit Japan are Chinese and Korean. The differences still exist, but they have been set aside to ensure the economic progress of their populations.
The other interesting aspect to note is how they came to this point. Both Japan and Korea leaned on their own culture. Only a fraction of the population speaks English in Japan, but that does not stop the country from being modern. These countries made the effort to improve themselves through their own culture by focusing on the internal positives. So much so, that the western world today borrows the Japanese way of manufacturing and quality control.
Both Japan and Korea changed their nationalism and turned away from hating their neighbours and their minorities. A large number of Koreans live in Tokyo and Osaka today.
They had a limited engagement with the West and were occupied by America for a few years after 1945; we were occupied by the British for much longer.
The Koreans and the Japanese learned from this engagement and used it to improve themselves by refining their own culture. Their elites don’t speak English, and their nationalism has not focused on hating and harming their minorities.
We should examine our history and see what we did differently to land up in the space we have compared to our Asian neighbours.
Korea became a big economic power only in the past 30 years, whereas India’s prime minster continues to blame Nehru, who died in 1964, for all ills. We have had 27 years of liberalisation, during which period Korea, Japan and China transformed themselves forever.
How much of our nationalism is focused on refining our culture? To answer that, ask yourself how often our nationalist party talks about Indian music, literature, architecture and art, and what is done to use it to improve our lives.
India’s nationalism has focused on its religious minorities, which has had two results — it leads to continuous internal strife of high order, the results of which are reported by the media every day, and it doesn’t address the primary challenge of engaging with modernity through our own culture, which is negative, not positive, and seeks to disrupt the lives of Indian citizens, not improve them.
This is why we remain where we are, despite having as rich a history and culture as other Asian nations that have succeeded in delivering a better and more prosperous life for their citizens.
Updated Date: Dec 30, 2018 15:29 PM