Aug 18, 2020

The Legacy of Renkoji Temple - Ashes of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

Renkoji Temple stands in a quiet residential area in Tokyo and at first glance looks rather simple and unassuming. It seems just like one of the many neighborhood temples that dot Tokyo, till you peep inside its usually open gates. Inside, you will find a very life-like statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. 

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian revolutionary and freedom fighter had a very deep connection with Japan. Very few people know about the small but significant influence Japan had on India’s freedom struggle and the Azad Hind Fauj. 

During World War 2, In a quest to find support for a free India, Subhas Chandra Bose first traveled to Germany and then decided to ask for support from an Imperial Japan. He made the long and arduous journey from Germany to Japan in a submarine. As soon as he landed in Japan, he was granted a meeting with Prime Minister Tojo who promised him full support in his fight for India’s independence. Bose assumed the mantle of leading the Indian Independence Movement from outside India and supported by the Japanese aid and influence, proceeded to revitalize the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army or INA) that was originally created using Indian soldiers who were taken prisoners of war by the Japanese during their campaign in South East Asia. The resurrected INA fought alongside the Japanese soldiers against the British forces in Burma, Imphal and Kohima and for a short while managed to turn the tide against the British.

Unfortunately, things changed with Japan’s defeat in World War 2 and on 18th August 1945, three days after Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender, Netaji boarded a plane, supposedly to escape to Manchuria. The sequence of events is somewhat clear till this point, but after this point, there are many theories. The most accepted theory is that the plane caught fire over Taipei and Netaji lost his life in the plane crash.

It is widely believed that his ashes were brought back to Japan where they were handed over to the priest at Renkoji temple for safekeeping. His ashes remain interred there to date. Besides Indian dignitaries, members of Netaji’s family have also visited the temple and Netaji’s daughter Anita Bose Pfaff has also requested the Modi government to conduct a DNA test on the ashes kept there. She along with a large fraction of people believes that her father did indeed lose his life in the plane crash. 

Image - Wikipedia

Every year, on 18th August, the purported death anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the inner sanctum of the temple is opened to the general public and a memorial service is held inside in Netaji’s honor. Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the temple and witness the ceremony.

The Renkoji temple belongs to the Nichiren sect of Buddhism and is inspired by the Goddess of Wealth and Happiness. The alter is indeed magnificent but what makes it significant for us Indians is the huge photograph of Subhas Chandra Bose kept at a place of prominence. Beside it is a tall wooden plaque with his name written in Japanese. On that day, the alter was beautifully decorated with huge candles making the gloomy interior radiant.

wooden plaque with Netaji's name written in Japanese 

The ceremony was officiated by the head priest and Buddhist sutras were chanted for more than an hour. During the ceremony, the silence was absolute, and we were asked to respect the dignity of the occasion and not click any pictures. I was touched by the sincerity and reverence with which the Japanese pray for the soul of someone who does not belong to their country and whose ashes they just have in their safekeeping. After the prayers, we were allowed to go up to the altar and pay our respects. 

The complete altar with the chair on which the priest sat to officiate the ceremony

On the right of the altar, surrounded by incense and flowers was a small box that contained the purported ashes of Netaji. The box is usually kept inside but is brought out once a year every August 18th. 
Although the Indian Embassy in Tokyo pays for the upkeep and maintenance of the ashes, the head priest at the Renkoji temple considers it a great honor that they have been given this responsibility

The ashes 

Amongst the motley crowd of Indian visitors, you will also find a few Japanese whose families in one way or the other have been associated with Bose and the INA. When we spoke to them, they had wonderful tales to tell about Netaji’s association with their fathers and grandfathers. It was heartwarming to see how much he is still revered there and how his tales of valor have been passed on to the younger generation. 

Outside, in the temple grounds, behind the bust of Netaji are plaques carved with words from Indian dignitaries who had visited the temple, right from Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and most recently Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The Indian government began the process of declassification of files related to Bose on 23rd January 2016, but even now the controversy continues around Netaji and whether the ashes at Renkoji are indeed his. 
All controversy aside, I find it a matter of immense pride and honor to see one of our freedom fighters remembered with such reverence outside our country. 

Aug 12, 2020

Song of the cicadas and other Japanese summer follies

For the Japanese, it is not spring till they have seen the first cherry blossom and it is not summer till they have heard the cicadas sing.
Normally, you would wake up with blissful silence around you till one day you are rudely shaken out of deep slumber by a sound that is similar to the sound your grandfather's ancient alarm clock made back in India. This is the cicadas tuning up for their summer concert. All through the summer, you will hear this sharp, drill-like noise till the entire island is positively vibrating with it. A sound that I loath because not only do I find the sound highly annoying but it also signifies the beginning of one season I detest the most in Japan – Summer.

The sound besides the sound of the water are the cicadas and their symphony. 

It rains non stop all through June and July and Japan is perpetually hidden behind a layer of rain and mist, making everything seem all mysterious and surreal. But as soon as August begins, the rains suddenly disappear to be replaced by clear untarnished blue skies. The sun is out in all its glory and perhaps miffed that it had to spend two months behind clouds, now shines down with a vengeance. It rises at 4.30 am and refuses to set before 7 pm making the day not only long but torturous for those who need to step out. Japan being an island does not help at all as now the hot and humid air rolls over from the Pacific so that you feel as if you are trudging through a sauna. If the sun doesn’t kill you, the humidity does.

Heat exhaustion or Natsubate is very common in Japan, but the Japanese being Japanese, have found several ingenious methods to deal with the heat.

One is the Fan. We have all seen pics of Japanese ladies daintily fanning themselves with pretty paper fans. But with technology, there has come a newer version of the good old paper fan. Come summer and shops are flooded with small battery-operated handheld fans. You can see a lot of people walking about outside while holding these fans close to their faces. I find it a bit silly and would prefer a traditional fan if I must use one, but whatever works!

Portable fans at Tokyu Hands store
Portable fans at the Tokyu Hands store

Another interesting thing are the cooling sheets. They are small methanol gel filled sheets that you can put on your forehead or on the back of your neck while you go about your work. They give you an instant cool feeling. There are also special cooling sheets you can put under the soles of your feet and on your ankles when you have been walking a lot and your feet and tired and hot.  I have tried them and now this is the first thing I stock up on as soon as summer starts. 

Another quirky Japanese invention are the sweat pads that you put under your clothing – usually around the armpits and they absorb all the sweat. Japanese deodorants are usually very mild and for the life of me, I cant understand why they would make something like these sweat pads instead of just making heavy-duty deos.

If you don’t like the idea of sticking sweat pads under your clothes there is something called the shirt spray very creatively named as 'Shirt cool'. You spray it on your clothes just before you put them on and every time you sweat the substance in the spray reacts and gives you an instant cool feeling.

All these things are displayed in shops under a sign that has a lot of ice or snow with penguins and polar bears sliding ecstatically in it. Once you see this sign you will trip over yourself in a rush to buy all the products under it so that you can feel as cool and happy as the polar bears.

Another interesting thing about Japan is the food. Every season they come up with some interesting food combinations. The flavor of summer is usually mint. Everything right from ice-cream to chocolate to cookies to coffee is mint flavored. This year even my hairstylist offered to wash my hair with a mint shampoo.

One traditional Japanese dish that I am extremely fond of eating in the summer is zaru soba. This is cold soba noodles eaten after dipping them in a light summerish soy broth. I find them very tasty and refreshing.

Besides the interesting food items and ingenious inventions to beat the heat, the saving grace in summer are the firework festivities held throughout the country. August is also the time for the Obon festival. Obon is when the ancestors are supposed to visit you and they are welcomed not only by solemn Buddhist ceremonies but feisty Obon dances. This year corona has put a dampener on all festivities. 
So, with not even the fireworks or the Obon dances to lure me outside, I shall stay indoors while the summer lasts, gorging on mint ice cream and cold soba and dreaming of October when it is pleasant once again and the leaves start turning a reddish-golden in the anticipation of autumn.  


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