Indians and Koreans in Crosscolonial Solidarity: Part II. Rabindranath Tagore and His Transimperial Encounters

Category: Essay 0


Part II of my blog series continues to explore Indian feelings of “crosscolonial solidarity” with Korea, focusing on how such feelings are manifested in the emotions, ideals, and deeds of one person, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941)―a polymath intellectual most famous for his poetry, which won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Tagore visited Japan multiple times, in 1916, 1924, and 1929, where he met not only Japanese but also people from Korea, a country that Japan had ruled since 1905. His interactions with both Japanese and Koreans resulted in the poems “The Song of the Defeated” and “The Lamp of the East,” both of which were translated, published, and widely read in Korea.[1]

(A photo taken on 11 July 1916, showing Tagore (center) in Yokohama, along with Korean, Chinese, Japanese Hawaiian, and other visitors to Japan, Chŏng Chun 11 (1917), p. 107)

In his poems, Tagore exhibited an extraordinary empathy with the suffering of others. Nonetheless, my argument is not that he was exceptional among Indians in possessing a sense of solidarity with Koreans as a people experiencing colonization. As we saw in Part I, both anger over Japan’s colonization of Korea and feelings of solidarity with anticolonial Koreans were widely expressed by the contributors to the Indian press.[2] What makes Tagore’s case special is that he communicated these feelings directly to both of the involved parties―Japanese and Koreans. Unlike articles in the Indian press that circulated mainly within India, Tagore’s remarks and writings spread across the Japanese empire, stirring responses from both the colonizers and the colonized.

1. Japanese colonialism and an “Asia” divided

1.1. Japanese “Pan-Asianism”

Much due to his long friendship with Japanese art historian Kakuzo Okakura, Tagore has often been represented as a symbol of the bond between India and Japan as “Asian” nations at a time when much of Asia was under the yoke of Western imperialism. By the time he first visited Japan, however, Tagore no longer saw Japan’s rise to power as a symbol of Asia’s awakening. On the contrary, he was profoundly shocked by Japan’s imperialist treatment of other Asian peoples. As he saw it, imperialism had become so entrenched that even an “Asian” people had come to learn and internalize the ways of colonizing nations.  One of his motives for visiting Japan in 1916 was to warn the Japanese people of the “moral danger” they were in because of the imperialism of their own nation.[3] In his speeches, he expressed admiration and respect for the cultural refinement of the ordinary people of Japan, but at the same time he made himself unpopular by making clear his critical view of the nation’s imperialistic patriotism.[4] Insofar as Japan continued to subjugate other Asian societies, Tagore found it difficult to regard Japan with a sense of solidarity. In fact, his critique of Japanese imperialism unfolded in ways that condemned the Japanese brand of “Pan-Asianism” as soon as its influence began to be felt.

In 1924, when Tagore visited Japan for a second time, anti-Western sentiment was running high because of racist immigration policy in the United States that directly affected Japanese immigrants. This was a major reason the Pan-Asianist movement picked up pace. Only two years later the first global Pan-Asianist conference would take place in Nagasaki, with an Indian revolutionary in exile, Rashbehari Bose, presiding as the chair. In a speech he made in 1924 in Japan, Tagore expressed profound sympathy with the Japanese people as victims of white racism with a legitimate right to protest. He refused, however, to propagate the Pan-Asianist cause. Instead, he argued that the Japanese people should sublimate their anger into self-critical reflection: they should use their experience of being on the receiving end of racist treatment as an opportunity to call for universal condemnation of discrimination, and should criticize their own nation for its denigrating treatment of other Asian peoples.[5] Long before it became an official ideology in the 1930s justifying Japanese expansion, Tagore was keenly aware of the danger of Pan-Asianism exploiting the wrongs of Western imperialism to justify Japan’s own.

1.2. The “ill-treatment of Koreans”

My argument here is that Indo-Korean solidarity was one of the key elements that served to shape Tagore’s view that Pan-Asianism would be used to justify Japanese imperialism. In 1929, just before his final visit to Japan on the way back to India from North America, Tagore himself endured a highly humiliating experience of racist treatment by US immigration authorities. This incident was widely reported in Japan. Tagore sensed that expectations would be high among the Japanese that Tagore would declare Indo-Japanese solidarity against the West. However, in a speech he made after arriving in Japan, Tagore did not mention Pan-Asianism. Instead, what he chose to talk about in front of a Japanese audience was their nation’s colonialism in Korea. Unlike in his previous speeches in 1916 and 1924, Tagore explicitly mentioned Korea in yet another warning against Japan’s imperialism. He stated, “when I chance to hear of some instances of ill-treatment to Koreans and to others who are less fortunate than yourselves, it hurts me very deeply causing keen disappointment.”[6]

This explicit reference to Korea was partly a result of Tagore’s personal encounters with Koreans. Earlier that year, on his way to North America, Tagore had met a Korean journalist in Japan to whom he gave his poem “The Lamp of the East,” which was published in the Korean newspaper The Tong-a Ilbo on 2 April (see below for discussion of the poem). After arriving in Japan on his way back from North America, he had also met, prior to his speech, some Korean students with whom he discussed Japanese rule of Korea and the possibility of Korean freedom therefrom. Such encounters made his critique of Japanese imperialism inseparable from his sense of solidarity with the Korean people as its victims. As for the Pan-Asianist claim that Japan’s intention was to protect and liberate Asia by driving Western powers out of the region―a claim championed by Rashbehari Bose and his Japanese supporters―Tagore was firmly negative from the beginning. Around the time he met these Koreans, Tagore also met Mitsuru Toyama, the grand old man of Pan-Asianism who had promoted and protected Bose. In his encounter with Toyama, Tagore strongly criticized Toyama’s politics as imperialist in disguise, saying with indignation, “You have been infected by the virus of European imperialism!”[7] With this as the last word, Tagore declared that he would never visit Japan again―a promise he would keep.

2. Indo-Korean solidarity

2.1. Japanese criticism of Tagore

At the core of Tagore’s thoughts on Asia was a philosophical understanding of suffering. His solidarity with fellow Asians was mediated through a shared sense of loss and pain as colonized peoples. Although themselves Asian, the Japanese appeared to Tagore to be enthralled by the expansion of their own nation, and in not opposing that expansion to be in a state of anesthesia when it came to the pain endured by other Asian peoples. At the beginning of the century, Tagore had had high expectations for Japan and had rejoiced at Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese war. However, it did not take long for him to realize, as many other Indian intellectuals did (see Part I), that Japan’s rise was that of yet another imperialist nation. Tagore would find it difficult to feel solidarity with Japanese people unless they acknowledged and renounced the imperialist nature of their own nation’s attitude towards Asia. It was during the First World War that Tagore first visited Japan, and it was well known among Indian intellectuals that Japan was not only on the winning side in this catastrophic war but was taking advantage of its victor status by imposing explicitly imperialistic demands on China. Tagore took it as a self-assigned mission to warn the Japanese people of the danger of their nation adopting imperialist norms.[8]

To Tagore’s dismay, the response of influential Japanese intellectuals and artists to his views was generally one of indifference, scorn, or both. He was unable to find Japanese sympathizers who would denounce the imperialism of their own nation―like C. F. Andrews, an English friend of his who renounced British imperialism and chose to work with both Tagore and Gandhi. Thus, Tagore found himself isolated during his first stay in Japan. His Japanese critics viewed his ideals as characteristic of a “bōkoku,” a “defeated country.”[9] This term was an obvious reference to India’s loss of sovereignty under British rule. As he later wrote: “the [Japanese] newspapers praised my utterances for their poetical qualities, while adding with a leer that it was the poetry of a defeated people. I felt they were right.”[10]

2.2. Poetic solidarity

Mentally depressed by this experience, Tagore spent the rest of his stay in Japan in a state of self-seclusion, writing what would be among the chapters of his book Nationalism. Importantly, it was precisely during these days that a few Koreans visited him, to whom he later sent a poem written for a Korean readership. This poem was published in Korea in 1917 in the literary journal Chŏng Chun (Youth). Titled “The Song of the Defeated,” the poem in part read:

My Master has bid me while I stand at the roadside, to sing the song of Defeat, [… ] She is forsaken of the day, and God’s night is waiting for her with its lamps lighted and flowers wet with dew. […] the stars are singing the love-song of the eternal to a face sweet with shame and suffering.[11]

(On the left is the original English version of Tagore’s poem, “The Song of the Defeated,” published in the Korean journal Chŏng Chun 11 (1917), p. 99. On the right (p. 98) are poems from Tagore’s poetry collections The Crescent Moon and The Gardener, translated into Korean)

Tagore’s own traumatizing encounter with his Japanese critics gave him a sense that Indians and Koreans shared a common sense of loss, pain, and humiliation experienced under colonialism. Paradoxical as it may sound, however, by calling both himself and the Korean people “defeated,” the poem carries a subtle but unambiguous message of hope for the future. As in many of Tagore’s other writings, the metaphor of “night,” when contrasted with “day,” is given a philosophical meaning. The silent darkness of the night signifies not meaningless desolation but an infinite potentiality of ideals yet-to-be realized.

This positive message is seen more explicitly in his short poem “The Lamp of the East,” which he wrote for the people of Korea in 1929:

Korea was one of its lamp-bearers.
And that lamp is waiting to be lighted once again.
For the illumination in the East.[12]

What is interesting about the case of Tagore’s crosscolonial solidarity is that he communicated the Indian sense of solidarity towards (anticolonial) Koreans directly to Koreans. “The Lamp of the East” was widely read in Korea, inviting profoundly emotional reactions. The force of these reactions was such that the Japanese colonial authorities tried to stem the poem’s influence through censorship.[13] I argue that it was very much because of Tagore’s sense of suffering as a catalyst for solidarity that his poetry reached the inner recesses of the Korean psyche. As Ham Sok-hon, a famous anti-colonial thinker and activist, wrote about the meaning of Tagore’s poetry for anticolonial Koreans:

Ideally, we would have a song of our own to sing, but our suffering has been so suffocating that it has prevented us from having a good one. Let us then borrow someone else’s.[14]

The sense of crosscolonial solidarity was what motivated Tagore to write such poems as these for the Korean people. He expressed his feelings in a letter to Andrews, saying, “men are suffering all over the world, and my heart is sick. I wish I had the power to pierce this suffering with music and bring the message of abiding joy from the deeper regions of the world soul.”[15]

In contemplating Tagore’s sense of solidarity, it is important to note that, as the phrase “all over the world” in the above citation suggests, its scope was universal and all-inclusive. In responding to the situation in East Asia, it was not as though Tagore was being either “pro-Korean” or “anti-Japanese” in any simplistic sense. Tagore’s criticism of nationalism was not directed at specific nations, such as Japan or England. As he wrote in Nationalism, “I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations.”[16] Nor was his circle of solidarity confined to any specific peoples like the Koreans; it included all subjugated peoples in any empire. For example, while in London in 1922 he said:

I deeply feel for all the races who are being insulted and injured by the ruthless spirit of exploitation of the powerful nations belonging to the West or the East. I feel as much for the Negros, brutally lynched in America often for economic reasons and Coreans [Koreans] who are the latest victims of the Japanese imperialism as for any wrongs done to the helpless multitude of my own country.[17]

Tagore’s transimperial encounters in East Asia should be understood as part of a broader sweep of crosscolonial solidarity he felt which extended far beyond the relations between just the two empires in question, British and Japanese. Despite its reference to the Korean people, the poem “The Lamp of the East” was not meant as a “patriotic” song blessing narrowly-defined Korean nationalist sentiments. Rather, in Tagore’s vision, it would be through solidarity with many other suffering peoples in the world that Korea would play its part in “illuminating” the world.

(The Tong-a Ilbo (East Asian Daily), 2 April 1929. On the left is Tagore’s poem, “The Lamp of the East,” translated into Korean)

3. Korean influence

In highlighting the influence of Tagore’s poetry in Korea, I am not suggesting that Tagore―or for that matter, India―was always in the position of exerting influence. Among the Korean students Tagore talked to in 1929, there was one who profoundly influenced him. The name of this student is unknown and it does not seem that he was a recognized public figure, but Tagore was so impressed by what this person told him that he kept a record of their conversation, which was published in 1931. The influence is attested by the fact that Tagore talked passionately about the student in a conversation with Mohandas K. Gandhi on 18 January 1930. According to a record by Gandhi’s personal secretary published in Gandhi’s journal Young India, the conversation ran as follows:

He [Tagore] had vivid in his memory the picture of a Korean who had visited him. The man was dreaming dreams of a free Korea. […] he [the Korean] had said: ‘The world may be divided into two classes―exploiters and exploited, and it is only by means of the combination of the exploited that we can fight Japan. That combination is coming, and one day we will find all the exploited people together, and we will find even the Japanese exploited fighting by the side of us’. ‘Wasn’t it true, Mahatmaji? Prosperous people can never combine, it is only the oppressed and the downtrodden who can combine. That was his idea.’
‘Very true, very true’, said Gandhiji. ‘And he said’, added the Poet, ‘that we can’t fight the exploiters with their weapons, that is modern weapons; but the day is coming when the whole world will fight on our side’.[18] [my italics]

What we see here is a context of crosscolonial anticolonialism in which one of the most renowned poets in the world is talking passionately about a nameless young man from a distant colony located in another empire. And he is saying this to the one of the most famous anticolonial leaders in the world. This gives us some indication of the extent to which the flow of influence ran from Korea to India, and not just the other way around. Tagore uses the pronoun “we” / “our”, rather than “they” / “them”, when he talks about the united resistance by colonized peoples as envisioned by the Korean. This implies that, in Tagore’s mind, the Koreans and the Indians were fighting essentially the same anticolonial fight, even though they found themselves in different empires and their master nations were different, one being Asian and the other Western.

The Korean man’s influence on Tagore is also important in considering the latter’s view of the relationship between the leftist variety of “internationalism” and crosscolonial solidarity. In September 1930, Tagore accepted an invitation from Soviet Russia to visit that country for two weeks. He accepted the invitation partly because, as he said, “what the Korean youth had said to me was ringing in my ears.”[19] He continued, “If their aim is to overthrow the power of the powerful and the wealth of the wealthy, why should I fear, why should I be angry?”[20] The words of the Korean youth touched Tagore’s soul because they made him realize how someone from a distant part of the globe could not just share the same experience of loss and pain as his own, but also entertain a vision of human solidarity similar to his own. Tagore was not a communist thinker, but neither was he ever anti-communist.  After all, Tagore’s own unique vision of “internationalism” was a radical one all along.

4. Towards a radical “internationalism”

Tagore questioned the very idea of “nation” as the basic unit of the kind of “internationalism” he advocated, firmly rejecting “patriotism” as the affective basis of relations among and within different peoples. However, in rejecting the idea of colonized peoples becoming “nations,” Tagore simultaneously believed that relatedness among different peoples was of absolute importance. Whatever the alternative to the “nation” might look like, Tagore believed the element of “inter”—as in the term “international”— to be indispensable. Tagore’s rejection of the nation-state as the basic unit of human society was in a sense anarchic, a radical vision looking outwards in space and forward in time. What was central in his thinking was the ideal of world cooperation based on a sense of interconnectedness that spanned geographical barriers and cultural differences.

This view was rooted in his sensitivity to human suffering. In the absence of a shared sense of close interdependence in the world, he believed, it would be impossible to end the suffering caused by imperialism, and the resulting world wars. He stated:

the great world of man is suffering from ceaseless discordance. We are beginning to discover that our problem is worldwide, and no one people of the earth can work out its salvation by detaching itself from others. Either we shall be saved together or drawn together into destruction.[21]

Tagore recognized that imperialism connected formerly isolated parts of the world into a single system. Imperialism allows powerful people to manipulate this interconnectedness for self-aggrandizement, leaving the less powerful nowhere to hide to escape exploitation. Pursuit of new territories continues indefinitely, with the competition among colonizing nations becoming increasingly intense. As a result, the world becomes divided into hierarchies, with “barricades of fierce separateness” erected everywhere “in the name of national necessity.”[22] This, in his understanding, caused immeasurable suffering.

This suffering, however, became the starting point for humanity’s struggle to remake the world anew. This is precisely why Tagore was attracted by the ideas of the young Korean mentioned above. According to Tagore, the Korean man said:

The helpless inherit the earth to-day; suffering will be their bond of union! The wealthy and the powerful will ever guard their thrones and treasures, but will never be able to unite. Korea’s strength lies in her suffering.[23]

This sort of suffering endured by Koreans was taken by Tagore not as a gross kind without meaning but as a tragic one endowed with potentialities. It was precisely because of their “defeat” that colonized peoples such as Koreans and Indians would find themselves in a rightful position to radically transform the world’s interconnectedness from what it had been into what it should be: from one of separation and exploitation to one of unity and cooperation.

Further Reading

Stephen N. Hay: Asian Ideas of East and West: Tagore and His Critics in Japan, China, and India, Cambridge 1970.

Uma Dasgupta, Institute of Advanced Study (eds.): Friendships of “Largeness and Freedom”: Andrews, Tagore, and Gandhi: An Epistolary Account, 1912–1940, New Delhi 2018.

Matin Kämpchen, Imre Bangha (eds.): Rabindranath Tagore: One Hundred Years of Global Reception, New Delhi 2014.

Satoshi Mizutani: Anti-Colonialism and the Contested Politics of Comparison: Rabindranath Tagore, Rash Behari Bose and Japanese Colonialism in Korea in the Inter-War Period, in: Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 16/1 (2015).

Pankaj Mishra:  From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia, New York 2012.

[1] Rabindranath Tagore: The Song of the Defeated, in: Chŏng Chun 11 (1917), p. 99; Tong-a Ilbo, 2 April 1929, p. 2.

[2] Satoshi Mizutani: Indians and Koreans in Crosscolonial Solidarity: Part 1. The Indian Press on Japanese Rule and Korean Independence, in: Transimperial History Blog, 25 January 2022, URL: <>.

[3] For Tagore’s later recollections of his 1916 visit to Japan, see Rabindranath Tagore: International Goodwill, in: The Visva-Bharati Quarterly June (1931), pp. 200–202.

[4] For his speeches, see Rabindranath Tagore: The Message of India to Japan: A Lecture by Rabindranath Tagore. New York 1916; Rabindranath Tagore: The Spirit of Japan: A Lecture, Tokyo 1916.

[5] Rabindranath Tagore: International Relations, in: The Visva-Bharati Quarterly January (1925), pp. 309–311.

[6] Rabindranath Tagore: Address to the Indo-Japanese Association, in: The Visva-Bharati News February and March (1933), p. 80.

[7] Quoted in Stephen N. Hay: Asian Ideas of East and West: Tagore and His Critics in Japan, China, and India, Cambridge 1970, p. 319.

[8] Rabindranath Tagore: Nationalism, San Francisco 1917, p. 53.

[9] For details of the Japanese reception of Tagore during his visit to Japan in 1916, see Kyoko Niwa: Japan, in: Martin Kämpchen, Imre Bangha (eds.): Rabindranath Tagore: One Hundred Years of Global Reception, Delhi 2014, pp. 3–24.

[10] Tagore: Nationalism, p. 53.

[11] Tagore: The Song of the Defeated, p. 99.

[12] Tong-a Ilbo, 2 April 1929, p. 2. The English original is available in Ramesh Sharma: New Trends in Modern Literature of East Asian Countries with Special Reference to Modern Korean Poetry, in: P.A. George (ed.): East Asian Literatures: An interface with India, New Delhi 2006, pp. 96–97.

[13] For details, see Satoshi Mizutani: Anti-Colonialism and the Contested Politics of Comparison: Rabindranath Tagore, Rash Behari Bose and Japanese Colonialism in Korea in the Inter-War Period, in: Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 16/1 (2015), URL:<> (Accessed: 9 November 2022).

[14] Quoted in ibid.

[15] From Tagore to Andrews on 6 May 1921, in: Rabindranath Tagore: Letters to a Friend. Edited by C.F. Andrews, London 1928, p. 161.

[16] Tagore: Nationalism, p. 131.

[17] Rabindranath Tagore: Letters from Abroad, in: The Modern Review June (1922), p. 697.

[18] M.D. [Mahadev Desai]: The Poet’s Visit, in: Young India 23 January 1930, pp. 30–31, here p. 31.

[19] Rabindranath Tagore: Letters from Russia. Translated by Sasadhar Sinha, Calcutta 1984, p. 14.

[20] Ibid., pp. 13–14.

[21] From Tagore to Andrews on 13 March 1921, in: Tagore: Letters to a Friend, p. 133.

[22] Ibid., p. 134.

[23] Tagore: Letters from Russia, p. 12.

Author profile

Satoshi Mizutani is Professor at the Faculty of Global and Regional Studies, Doshisha University (Kyoto, Japan). He has engaged in transimperial history for over a decade. He has explored theoretical issues on the ‘transimperial’, endeavoring to establish it as a viable theme/field of historical research. His case studies concern the interactions across the British and Japanese empires among both the colonizing and colonized peoples from these two empires. He has published on the ‘politics of comparison’, analyzing how Japanese administrators, scholars, and journalists saw British colonialism in their efforts to formulate a suitable method of rule to be applied to Taiwan and Korea. Currently, Mizutani’s research explores the convergence of anti-colonial sentiments and ideals across different colonized contexts across the two empires in question. In particular, it focuses on the mutual awareness and sense of anti-colonial solidarity shared by Indians and Koreans since around 1907, using articles that appeared in the Indian and the Korean press as primary sources.
Select publications:
- Introduction to ‘Beyond Comparison: Japan and Its Colonial Empire in Transimperial Relations’, in: Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review (e-journal) 32 (2019), pp. 2–21 (
- Transimperial Genealogies of Korea as a Protectorate: The Egypt Model in Japan’s Politics of Colonial Comparison, in: Cross-Currents: East Asian History and
Culture Review (e-journal) 32 (2019), pp. 22–49 (
- Anti-Colonialism and the Contested Politics of Comparison: Rabindranath Tagore, Rash Behari Bose and Japanese colonialism in Korea in the inter-war period, in: Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 16/1 (2015) (

Leave a Reply