The Japanese are about relationships and prime minister Narendra Modi's visit is high on the soft signals over talking shop. Work may definitely get done but the second track of symbolic gestures is headlining what appears to be a new equation in the regional game. Narendra Modi and Abe hugged each other on arrival instead of a customary handshake.
The two leaders also participated in a Japanese ritual called 'feeding the fish', which is considered to be an auspicious beginning. Modi's visit is less about deals and more about signals. Modi presented Abe with a Bhagwad Gita in Japanese and a book on Swami Vivekananda. What come with it are talks on security, business and other priorities over another common thing between the two, chai.
That Modi is keen to do what may take to warm the Japanese with personable gestures, something that's appreciated in their culture. They value trust. And how? The most important consideration in initiating business in Japan is to select people capable of building relationships and establishing mutual trust with the Japanese people. Japanese are well known for not getting enamoured by facts, figures and sales charts, instead they value business driven by someone with good interpersonal relationships.
Modi may not play golf but Abe does and this visit is no doubt high on golf's cultural subtext and inherent qualities, which incidentally are very popular with Japanese people who use the sport as an icebreaker. A business watcher in the country, Kazuo Nishiyama, the author of 'Doing Business With Japan' commented, "Japanese love the sport and often introduce business executives on the course giving them an opportunity to spend about 4-6 hours together." It's besides the point that Japan houses some of the world's best golf developments and Abe uses the sport to diplomatic use, and not always by playing the game but using its delicate lessons.
If chemistry has to change how Japan and India have treated each other in history, then golf's lesson and etiquette are likely to be in full display as the two countries plan more joint development. The nations have signed a partnership agreement to turn the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, which forms part of Modi's parliamentary constituency, into a "smart heritage city". He later tweeted: "It was gladdening to witness the signing of MoU between Varanasi and Kyoto. Its yet another instance of furthering India-Japan cooperation."
Over the five-day visit, may be the next few days will take up defence, nuclear, geo-political and business talks, but like the Japanese themselves Modi is first laying the course with the subtleties. A few other exchanges on twitter before Modi took off included tweets in Japanese.
"Friends from Japan asked me to talk to the people of Japan directly in Japanese. I also thank them for helping with the translation," Modi explained. Using English, Abe tweeted back: "India has a special place in my heart. I am eagerly waiting for your arrival in Kyoto this weekend."
For the two men who celebrate their birthdays later in September, they are aware that the world is watching this visit. From edging out China via a stronger Indo-Japanese relationship, signing big deals, getting more Japanese funding for India – these are all a matter of detail. Instead what the leaders seem to be projecting is a bit what many do with their golf …that signals are stronger than scores.