Amidst sabre rattling between China and Japan, Japanese emperor Akihito and empress Michiko reached out to India on Monday during their six-day visit aimed at strengthening bonds with Asia’s third-largest economy.

Akihito, who arrived in New Delhi on Saturday, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday. The meeting lasted 45 minutes, well past the time allotted for the engagement, said Sakutaro Tanino, former Japanese ambassador to India, who is part of the royal couple’s delegation. It focussed on the changes in India since Akihito’s father Hirohito visited the country in 1960, the uses of alternate and renewable sources of energy including solar energy, the progress made by India in agriculture, Japanese aid and investments helping India build its infrastructure like the New Delhi city rail service and the ambitious $90 billion Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor (DMIC).

“There was a shared chemistry (between Singh and Akihito), it is clear that they are fond of each other," said Tanino. “The Prime Minister conveyed that India was very much honoured to receive their majesties." Singh thanked Japan for its assistance in India’s development. Singh also spoke about how Suzuki Motor Corp. helped India’s automobile industry develop, Tanino said, referring to the Japanese firm setting up an Indian unit in the early 1980s, which revolutionized the sector and introduced the small car concept in the country.

During a banquet hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee, emperor Akihito is expected to thank India for its assistance to help locate survivors during the March 2011 earthquake, Tanino said. The royal couple were impressed by the pomp and ceremony of the guard of honour accorded to them at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, he said.

The royal visit comes against the backdrop of a spike in tensions between Japan and China over Chinese territorial claims over an island group in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China. Last month, China said aircraft flying over the islands have to take permission from it. The US responded by flying bomber planes over the claimed air space without any permission. Japan and South Korea followed suit. India, too, shares disputed borders with China dating back to a war in 1962. The two sides were locked in a stand-off in April that took three weeks to resolve and almost derailed a visit by the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in May.

Tanino refused to draw any connection between Japan’s problems with China and the royal visit to India. “The main objective of the visit is to enhance ongoing friendly relations" between India and Japan, Tanino said. Business relations are important, Tanino said, but “that alone is not enough to sustain relations, There is a need to widen the horizon of relations," he said.

Despite the strong economic links—India’s trade with Japan in 2012-13 was $18.5 billion rising marginally from $18.3 billion in the previous 2011-12, according to the commerce ministry—and political contacts, Tanino regretted that there were only 23 weekly flights between Japan and India in contrast to the 527 weekly flights between Japan and China. There are only 573 Indian students in Japan compared with the 87,000 Chinese students in Japan, Tanino said. Tourism flows were also dismal—mainly due to the lack of cheap, clean hotel accomodation in India, Tanino said. These were the trends that the royal visit were trying to reverse, Tanino said. It was a similar royal visit to China in 1992 that helped transform Sino-Japanese relations.

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