It’s a famous last name in Japan and by extension in India. Kalpana Abe wears it lightly as she does her formidable list of accomplishments. From being a cardiovascular surgeon to travelling the world introducing mosquito-resistant paint to poor communities to prevent malaria, to being a Formula One racer to promoting sustainable development — the lady doth wear many hats comfortably.
Kalpana is getting ready to help take the India-Japan Global Partnership (IJGP) to Africa and present an alternative model of development that doesn’t “exploit but empowers” the people. Her connections, her access and, above all, her savvy will come in handy as India and Japan get down to real work in the coming years to strengthen their partnership and spread in and out of Asia.
She is married to Isao Abe, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cousin. She is not comfortable talking about her last name or boasting of her proximity to Japan’s first family. If anything, she actively downplays it — perhaps a Japanese trait she has picked up because it isn’t Indian for sure. With great difficulty she admits Shinzo Abe sometimes picks up the phone to call her to get insights into what the young people are thinking because she has three kids. He calls her Pana — short for Kalpana.
Looking at Africa
India and Japan have some big ideas for Africa, which if thought through and supported by the two governments could establish a counter to China’s model, which is primarily based on squeezing the continent dry of resources. But awareness is rising among Africans about how the Chinese create no jobs for the locals while they bribe generations of leaders into submission.
Several Indian, US and Japanese stakeholders came together recently for a reception on Capitol Hill to highlight the IJGP’s upcoming summit in New Delhi next month which will focus on the “power of the collective” for a more responsible development model. Vibhav Kant Upadhyay, the organiser and a key player in building the India-Japan relationship, says it all started with Tokyo’s interest in the massive Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. China’s dominance in Asia and beyond is pushing the India-Japan-US trilateral to come up with alternatives.
“China’s model is exploitative. It will crash automatically. We want to empower the people and we have managed to put the idea across to many African heads of government,” says Upadhyay, while describing the plan to do more joint projects in Africa.
He is trying to deepen the American involvement by seeking support from the US Congress and invite senators and congressmen to attend the December 11-14 summit. Kalpana Abe, currently vice president at Kansai Paint, Japan’s largest paint company, has worked Washington before and was present at the Congressional reception.
It’s helpful that India’s history with Japan is less complicated than with most other important countries, barring the post-1998 phase when Tokyo became India’s worst critic for conducting nuclear tests. Relations froze for a while. A semblance of normalcy was achieved in 2000 with the launch of IJGP, followed by a visit of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Japan in December 2001. In 2005, Shinzo Abe, in his first stint as prime minister, expanded the partnership to include security, defence and maritime cooperation. Meanwhile, the IT boom was sending a good number of Indians to Japan.
“India has a great reputation in Japan. Both Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe wanted to build the relationship because they saw India as the answer both in terms of security and economics,” says Kalpana. A common thread or threat has been China. Now Abe is back with a thumping majority and he could very well go on to become Japan’s longest serving prime minister.
More importantly, he has plans to change Japan’s pacifist constitution, which allows only “self-defence forces” and forbids offensive operations, to develop a more robust posture. “He can’t do it overnight but changes will come,” says Kalpana.
“The United States is Japan’s most important ally and India is seen as the second most important. Our cultures are also similar.” Kalpana is a trailblazer in Japan at many levels. As an Indian — a foreigner in other words — married to a Japanese, she has successfully navigated the deeply traditional society and managed an impressive career and family. It’s not easy when you come from a relatively informal culture to a forbiddingly formal one.
“My husband has been my spine,” she says. “He is not typical. Without him I wouldn’t have a career.” Kalpana, a Tamil born in Singapore in an upper class industrial family, and Isao fell in love while both were studying in the US. Although the families knew each other well, their children getting married wasn’t part of the plan. Opposition came from both sides — the Indian parampara against the Japanese dento or tradition. “Isao told me he would always take care of me no matter what. I was also like, ‘do or die’,” says Kalpana, who was 18 at the time.
They got married though it was tough getting assimilated in Japanese society. But it’s been 32 years of happiness, she says. They have a son and two daughters — Hyunsu Narayan, Hitomi Vidya and Hiromi Baghya — and three dogs, two of whom were adopted from the Fukushima nuclear disaster site.
“I feel very Japanese today, but my samskara hasn’t changed — respect for elders, religious tolerance, no religious evangelism,” Kalpana says. She is fluent in Japanese and says her knowledge of Tamil helped her master the sentence structure.
If all goes according to plan, Kalpana Abe is set to play an important role in another complex project — strengthening the India-Japan partnership and giving teeth to a more holistic model of development.