Remembering the Tagore-Noguchi letters

The revealing letters of two prominent intellectuals from almost a century ago resonate in contemporary choices between a 'realist' endorsement of nationalism and war and the pursuit of a cosmopolitan global order.

Anand Upendran
14 November 2013

While Rabindranath Tagore’s (1861-1941) lyrical poems still charm his readers, his visionary writings on politics and international relations are less read or known today, even in his country India where he is reverently addressed as Gurudev (Great Teacher). This is in fact a great loss because it hides from the world the heritage and guidance from the intellectual contributions of a man deeply committed to international peace, cooperation and cultural exchange. Among those contributions, the letters Tagore exchanged with the renowned Japanese poet Yone Noguchi in 1938, 75 years ago, offer significant glimpses of his rich political philosophy. 

Like many other men of his country, Tagore was fascinated by the remarkable economic and scientific transformation of Japan. Having observed in his writings that European politics as it stood and its offspring colonialism were based upon ‘exclusiveness’ and exploitation, he saw in Japan’s rise the promise of a slow evolution of internationalism. In his lecture, The Message of India to Japan, delivered in Tokyo in 1916 during his first visit to the country, Tagore explained why Japan’s progress was of ‘utmost interest’ and why the path that Japan had taken in its march towards distinction—eagerly assimilating the achievements of western civilisation while never losing sight of its own human and cultural values—merited Asia’s attention:

…Japan, the child of the Ancient East, has also fearlessly claimed all the gifts of the modern age for herself…the whole world waits to see what this great Eastern nation is going to do with the opportunities and responsibilities she has accepted from the hands of the modern time.

For the same reason, perhaps no one was as disturbed as Tagore by Japan’s determined turn to militarism in the first half of the twentieth century. Noted author Pankaj Mishra, in his recent book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, observes that even in 1916, Tagore ‘was alarmed… to see a country that was then in the midst of an extraordinary growth of national self-confidence and imperialist expansion, and preparing, too, for more battles ahead with both old enemies and new friends.’[1]

When Japan attacked China in 1937, in what was the beginning of the tragedies of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Tagore was vehement in his condemnation of Japanese violence. In a chapter on Tagore in his insightful book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen notes how Tagore wrote that Japan ‘has now become itself a worse menace to the defenceless peoples of the East.’[2]

Yone Noguchi (1875-1947), famous for being the first Japanese poet to write in English and whose verses filled with imagery and ‘delicate exclamations’ found much appreciation in the west, tried to reason Tagore out of this opinion. The two writers shared a warm friendship, portrayed by Tagore’s remembrance of ‘the spirit of Japan which I learned to admire in your writings and came to love through my personal contacts with you.’ In the correspondence that followed, Tagore and Noguchi vigorously debated and defended their opposed notions of war, patriotism and the responsibility of intellectuals.


Noguchi justified Japanese aggression on China, explaining it to be unique, as Japan believed that Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek had ‘sold his country’ and his Kuomintang government was a ‘miserable puppet of the West.’ Hence, war became ‘the inevitable means, terrible though it is, for establishing a great new world in the Asiatic continent. It is the war of “Asia for Asia”.’

And the purpose of the war, Noguchi claimed, was not conquest, but it was ‘for the correction of China's mistaken ideas and for the uplifting of her simple and ignorant masses to better life and wisdom.’ In words that would have epitomised the obstinate determination of any imperial power, he declared: ‘If Chiang Kai-shek wishes a long war, we are quite ready for it. Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? As long as he desires, my friend.’

In his reply, Tagore refuted Noguchi’s claim of the uniqueness of Japan’s position by pointing out that military situations ‘are always unique.’ For him, nothing ennobled the bloodshed of a 'war of ‘Asia for Asia’’:

Humanity, in spite of its many failures, has believed in a fundamental moral structure of society. When you speak, therefore, of ‘the inevitable means, terrible though it is, for establishing a great new world in the Asiatic continent’—signifying, I suppose, the bombing of Chinese women and children and the desecration of ancient temples and universities as a means of saving China for Asia— you are ascribing to humanity a way of life which is not inevitable even among the animals and would certainly not apply to the East, in spite of her occasional aberrations. You are building your conception of an Asia raised on a tower of skulls.

While Noguchi hoped that after ridding the Chinese masses of the ‘polluted people’ who controlled it, Japan could work together with China, ‘perhaps with some sense of repentance,’ in reconstructing Asia, Tagore doubted if true reconciliation could ever follow war, given its human and cultural costs.


In an era in which nationalist movements grew in both number and strength, no topic could have been as engaging as patriotism. Noguchi wrote proudly that the Japanese people, called under the flag of ‘service-making,’ were countering adversity and making great sacrifices for the ‘realization of idealism’: ‘We must have as our neighbour a country that is strong and true, and glad to cooperate with us in our work of reconstruction.’

But patriotism which bred egotism and effected violence held no appeal for Tagore. His belief was unwavering that:

…patriotism which claims the right to bring to the altar of its country the sacrifice of other people’s rights and happiness will endanger rather than strengthen the foundation of any great civilisation.

However, Tagore did agree with Noguchi that there were no better standards or examples prevalent in the world around them. He did not object to Noguchi’s observation that America has ceased to practice ‘the lesson of freedom’ and that England had ‘ledger-book diplomacy’. Pankaj Mishra points out in his book that ‘Tagore was, of course, aware that Japan’s ‘obnoxiousness’ was itself a reaction to the nationalistic and imperialist West and its ‘unreasonableness’[3]. But instead of launching its own brand of imperialism to counter Europe and America, he wanted Japan to lead Asia in the transmission of eastern ideas to the west, and, in the words of his 1916 Tokyo lecture, in ‘substituting the human heart for cold expediency’. He told the poet: ‘If you refer me to them, I have nothing to say. What I should have liked is to be able to refer them to you.’

For Tagore, patriotism was an acceptable concept only if it eventually led one to embrace the entire world, its people, their cultures and their rights. He was unflinching in his conviction, expressed in the lecture, that friendship is ‘the only natural tie which can exist between nations.’

The responsibility of intellectuals

Noguchi contended that the war on China had the support of the Japanese people, ‘from the Emperor to a rag-picker in the street,’ and that despite the ‘considerable freedom of speech and action’ they enjoyed, no one opposed it. He wrote that Chinese propaganda against Japan and the threat of communism had urged Japan’s intellectuals to be of one mind in endorsing the invasion:

…who will promise us the safety of Japanese spirit that we cultivated for thousands of years, under the threat of Communism across the fence? We don’t want to barter our native land for an empty name of intellectuals. No, you mustn’t talk nonsense! God forbid!

A dismayed Tagore called this ‘another authentic symptom of the modern intellectual’s betrayal of humanity’. ‘It is sad to think,’ he wrote back, ‘that the passion of collective militarism may on occasion helplessly overwhelm even the creative artist, that genuine intellectual power should be led to offer its dignity and truth to be sacrificed at the shrine of the dark gods of war.’  He tried to convince Noguchi that ‘there is no propaganda like good and noble deeds’ and that if Japan’s intellectuals could make certain that their country’s actions would be so and that its poor and workers are not exploited, they need fear neither propaganda nor communism.

Indeed, history is opportunity—particularly so when lessons that guide the present and future are learnt from the past. It will be an injustice, both to Tagore and Noguchi, to use these letters merely as an opportunity to condemn Japan for its actions of the past. Even today, their distinct opinions resonate in different perspectives on world affairs. In fact, what is most striking about the Tagore-Noguchi correspondence is the contemporary relevance of the arguments they raised: the justifications of war, the place and boundaries of patriotism in our interlinked world and, perhaps most importantly, the responsibility of artists and thinkers to guide and enlighten public opinion when it is impaired by the absence of critical thought.

In our age, when calls for intervention under the banner of humanitarian purposes, the troubles of post-war reconciliation and the justifications for violations in the name of security are commonplace, the sanctity Tagore reserved for reasoning is worthy of emulation. As Sen concludes, ‘it is in the sovereignty of reasoning—fearless reasoning in freedom—that we can find Rabindranath Tagore’s lasting voice.’[4]

[1]Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia (2012), p 233

[2]Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian (2005)p 110

[3]Mishra, 245

[4]Sen, p 120


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