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Mahatma Gandhi: India's Greatest Symbol of Peace and His Japan Connections

The bust of Mahatma Gandhi in Hiroshima is a powerful reminder of his message of peace, resonating in the world's first city to suffer an atomic bomb attack.



India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center left) and Hiroshima's Mayor Kazumi Matsui (center right) at the unveiling ceremony of the bust of Mahatma Gandhi in Hiroshima on May 20, 2023. (Pool photo)

In his iconic description of Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein famously said: "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one, as this, ever in flesh and blood, walked upon this earth."

So long after his assassination, Gandhi's ideas and relevance remain, even as we are in the third decade of the 21st century. Gandhi gave India, and the world, a means of resisting unjust authority without using force oneself. This was displayed by means of India's independence from Britain with non-violent resistance. He was both a patriot and an internationalist

This essay discusses the latter aspect, that is, Mahatma Gandhi's connection, albeit scant, with Japan. Gandhi's literature does not cover Japan in depth and detail. However, glimpses of it include an article that he wrote in June 1905, titled "Russia and Japan." 

The article was published by the South African newspaper Indian Opinion. It commented upon the ongoing battle between the Japanese and Russian forces near the Manchurian town of Mukden. The scale of the Japanese victory made Gandhi sit up to take note. He said, "No one ever imagined that Japan was capable of such bravery [...] This was no ordinary deed of daring. Such courage is incomparable."

Mahatma Gandhi, London, 1931. (Public domain)

Gandhi's Observations

Subsequently, Gandhi arrived at the conclusion that the secret of Japan's "epic heroism was unity, patriotism, and the resolve to do or die." These qualities were admired by him as he was just stepping up his campaign for Indian rights against apartheid in South Africa. And so he stated in another article for the Indian Opinion in April 1907, "We should follow the example of Japan and unite, become industrious, and educate ourselves."

Researching Gandhi and Japan, an essay was published in 2015 titled "Mahatma Gandhi: The Japanese Connection." Its authors Akira Hayashi at Hirosaki University and Thomas Weber discussed the influence of Japan's Buddhist Nichiren sect on Gandhi. 

Mahatma Gandhi's ashram (spiritual monastery/hermitage) named "Sevagram" is situated in a small town located in Maharashtra. The state of Maharashtra is in the western peninsular region of India.

There, the morning prayers still commence with the Nichiren Buddhist mantra "Namu Mypho Renge Kyo" (I bow to the enlightened souls). This is chanted thrice, followed by two minutes of silence.


This legacy can perhaps be attributed to the innumerable Japanese visitors, especially the Nichiren monks, who stayed with Gandhi at his ashram. Gandhi resided at the Sevagram ashram from 1936 until his assassination in 1948. 

The monks left a lasting impression. Gandhi's own writings mention the same. In the 1930s, a Japanese monk resided at the ashram, and he was a habitual chanter of the Nichiren mantra. From then on, Gandhi instituted this invocation as the first item of the scheduled daily prayers.

Concerned by Imperialism

The connection between Gandhi and Japan could be described as complex. Gandhi deeply admired Japanese self-respect, unity, and patriotism. This is mentioned in his description of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. However, he later became concerned by Japanese imperialism, especially the prospect of Japan's invasion of British India during World War II.

Medals showcased at the National Gandhi Museum and Library, New Delhi. (Photo by ©Monika Chansoria)

In a letter dated August 28, 1929, a Japanese writer, T Kanai asked for permission to translate Gandhi's autobiography into Japanese. Referring to Kanai as his Japanese friend, Gandhi gave consent in 1930. Subsequently, in 1932, he permitted another Japanese writer to translate his newspaper articles into Japanese. 

Further, an ailing Gandhi invited famous Japanese poet, Yonejiro Noguchi to visit him at his ashram in December 1935. In their discussions, Gandhi admitted that he knew very little of Japan, except what he had read 45 years ago through Edwin Arnold's letters published in an English journal. 

In 1892, Arnold's weekly travel writings focused on Japan and the Japanese way of life. These appeared in the form of two books: Seas and Lands and Japonica. In his interview with Noguchi, Gandhi noted that Arnold wrote about Japan "with intimate sympathy" and that he read Arnold's account with "great avidity."

A Symbol of Peace in Hiroshima

Around eight decades later, to commemorate all this and more, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the bust of Mahatma Gandhi in Hiroshima in May 2023. It now serves as a symbol of friendship and goodwill between India and Japan. 

The momentous occasion was witnessed by many dignitaries. They included Gen Nakatani, Kazumi Matsui (Mayor of Hiroshima City), Tatsunori Motani (Speaker of the Hiroshima City Assembly), Members of Parliament from Hiroshima, and followers of Mahatma Gandhi in Japan. The 42-inch-tall (107 cm) bronze bust was sculpted by renowned Indian artist Ram Vanji Sutar. It was gifted by the Government of India to the city of Hiroshima.

India's PM Narendra Modi unveils the bust of Mahatma Gandhi in Hiroshima. (From PM Narendra Modi's official website)

Significantly, Gandhi's bust has been placed adjacent to the Motoyasu River. The bank of the Motoyasu River borders the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (also called the Atomic Bomb Dome). It stands quietly with the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. The hall was nearly directly under the atomic bomb that exploded at 08:15 (JST) on August 6, 1945. 

Thousands of people, locals and tourists alike visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial daily. Gandhi is undoubtedly the greatest symbol of peace and non-violence that India has given to the world. And he has appositely been etched forever at this location — symbolizing his principles and life.


Paying reverence to Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr said: "To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim."


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Follow Dr Chansoria and her column "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which she is affiliated.

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