In 1907, Hariprabha Basu Mallick (1890-1972), a young Brahmo middle class woman from Dhaka, fell in love and married Oemon Takeda (1875-1949), a Japanese soap maker, who was hired as a manager by her father. Her progressive Brahmo family strongly believed in constructive social work. Apart from establishing this soap factory, they also ran a home for destitute women, Matri Niketan in Dhaka. In fact, Hariprabha, before and after her marriage, was closely associated with this home for women. It is not clear exactly how Oemon reached India or Calcutta but during the Swadeshi movement (1905-11), a number of new age soap factories came up in Dhaka, including the Bulbul Soap Factory, where Oemon was employed. After their marriage, Oemon set up his own Dhaka Soap Factory.
This unlikely marriage between a Japanese chemist and a young Bengali woman in Dhaka needs to be seen in the overall context of Bengal’s fascination with Japan at that point. Rise of Japan as an Asian power – as attested by Japan’s victory against Russia in 1904-05 – had captured the imagination of Bengal, then in the throes of the Swadeshi movement. Umpteen number of Bengali children born around the turn of the century had their nicknames after prominent Japanese war heroes and politicians. One of the major planks of Swadeshi in Bengal was economic self-reliance through both traditional means and modern technology. Japan appeared to be a role model in that respect too. Bengalis collected money to send talented youngsters to Japan to learn new technologies. Some of them came back to play pioneering roles in new industries like machine-made potteries or chrome tanning. They also welcomed Japanese technicians proficient in various trades like Oomen.
For Rabindranath, Bengal’s premier cultural icon, Japan remained a lifelong obsession. Interaction between him and the famous Japanese artist and art critic Okakura in Calcutta in the early twentieth century inaugurated the Indo-Japan relations in modern times. Rabindranath visited Japan four times and was hailed as a symbol of rising Asia (later on, his stringent criticism of rabid nationalism compelled Japanese intellectuals in turn to criticise him and begin their own introspection). Japanese culture left an indelible imprint on Rabindranath – he started writing short poems in Japanese fashion (haiku) and introduced in Shantiniketan, Japanese style ink and wash paintings, flower-designing (Ikebana), marshal art (Jujutsu) and carpentry with Japanese teachers. Apart from Rabindranath, Okakura Kakuzo (also known as Okakura Tenshin) developed close friendship with stalwarts of Bengali socio-cultural life, including Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita and painters like Abanindranath and Gaganendranath. Okakura also developed a romantic liaison with Priyambada Debi (1871-1935), a leading Bengali poetess and she translated Okakura’s famous book The Book of Tea in Bengali.
Five years after her marriage, Hariprabha sailed with her husband and some of his Japanese friends to meet her in-laws. This was the first known voyage of a South Asian woman to Japan in modern times. After a long journey, they finally reached Oemon’s family in a village near Nagoya. Despite the language barrier, Hariprabha was warmly welcomed by her mother-in-law and other relatives of Oemon. Hariprabha, in turn, observed the Japanese social life through her keen eyes. In those days, the Japanese, particularly outside the major cities, had seen very few foreigners. Their visit had naturally been a matter of popular interest and a Japanese newspaper, Kobe Yushin Nippo had published an interview of the couple. Three years after her maiden voyage to Japan, in 1915 she published what seems to be a rather straight forward account of what she saw in Japan.
Published by her sister Shantiprabha, Banga Mahilar Japan Jatra (Journey of a Bengali Woman to Japan) was not the first or the only account of Japan travel in Bengali. At least two Bengalis had published their travelogues by 1910 – Japan Probas by Manmathanath Ghosh (1882-1944) and Japan by Sureshchandra Bandopadhyay (1882-?). A number of eminent Bengalis had visited Japan either before her or around the same time – the list includes Swami Vivekananda, who was perhaps the earliest, followed by scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, historian Jadunath Sarkar and social scientist Benoy Kumar Sarkar, who in 1923 published a large scholarly book on Japan titled Nabin Asia r Janmadata Japan (Japan, the Mother of New Asia). Rabindranath’s much-acclaimed account Japan Jatri (A Sojourn to Japan) would come out in 1919, three years after her first visit to the land of rising sun.
But what sets Hariprabha’s story apart is her unique perspective – none of the others could gain entry into Japanese social life as a family member. She wrote about the lives of ordinary Japanese women, their social and child-rearing practices (and her implicit criticism of Bengali social mores) – themes which were generally absent in our travelogues.
Even as the Second World War raged on, Hariprabha went back to Japan a third time in 1941 under much strained circumstances (her second trip in 1924 was undocumented). Plagued by illness, her husband had to close down his soap-making unit and he was also afraid of being jailed by the British government. Her writing paints a dark picture of war-torn Japan – death in almost every family, food ration, broken roads, and a general atmosphere of crisis. Amidst all these, Hariprabha risked her life to find money and medicine for her ailing husband. When she writes about her experience of meeting Rashbehari Bose or Subhas Chandra in Japan, personal recollections merge seamlessly with the historical narrative. Rashbehari Bose offered her a job of Bengali newsreader for Azad Hind Radio and every night, she walked through dark, bomb-battered streets of Tokyo to go to the radio station.
Shortly after the end of the War, the couple shifted back to India (Judge Pal of the Tokyo trial fame was among the well-wishers, who had helped them with the passage money) and started living with one of her sisters in Jalpaiguri. Oemon, physically unwell and completely heartbroken by the fall of Japan, passed away soon after. Later in her life, Hariprabha shifted to Kalyani with one of her nephews and eventually passed away in 1972 in Calcutta’s Shambhunath Pandit hospital when hardly anyone remembered her story. Today, along with Rabindranath, Okakura, Rashbehari, Judge Pal and Subhas Bose, her story is also counted as one of the milestones of the Japan-India/Bengal relations.
A Bangladeshi scholar, Monzurul Huq located a copy of Hariprabha’s book in London’s India Office library and published it in 1999. Since then, there has been a lot of interests in Hariprabha’s extraordinary life and her writings. A recent translation by Somdatta Mandal features her handwritten experience of Second World War ravaged Japan and some other relevant pieces. In 2012, exactly 100 years after her epoch-making first visit to Japan, filmmaker Tanvir Mokammel made a documentary on her life titled ‘Japani Badhu’ (The Japanese Wife). In 2021, another documentary on her life titled Hariprabha Takeda: An Unsung Traveller of Bengal was produced by Eliza Binte Elahi.
In these hundred years, both her homeland and Japan have undergone tremendous changes. Amidst renewed interests in Hariprabha’s life, a fluent Bengali-speaking Priyanka Yoshikawa Ghosh became Miss Japan in 2016. Her father is a Bengali settled in Japan and her Japanese mother is a Bengali teacher by profession (Priyanka also happens to be the great-granddaughter of Bengal’s first Chief Minister Prafulla Ghosh). Excitement over her success briefly brought back the memories of Bengal’s fascination with Japan more than a century back.