KOBE — The port city of Kobe, with the largest concentration of Americans and Europeans in the Kansai region, a few of whom have lived in Japan since the Taisho Era (1912-1926), has long been known as one of Japan’s most Westernized cities.
But what is little known is that it is also home to a large, perhaps the largest, population of Indians in Japan. A stroll through the streets of Kobe’s Sannomiya or Kitano districts reveals a host of Indian restaurants and Indian-run businesses, from textiles to jewelry.
The air is filled with the aroma of spices used in the preparation of curries far more piquant than your average “curry-rice.” Here, the Indian chefs will often make a public production of their cooking: rolling out the naans with a flourish. Outside, at the jewelry and sari shops, the strong scent of incense and the sounds of the sitar create an ambience reminiscent of Delhi or Mumbai. Colorful chiffon scarves flap in the breeze on the racks outside. And in the windows, almost always, sits Ganesha — the Indian elephant-god, symbol of prosperity and good luck.
The history of the Indian community in Japan began with the first textile merchants, who followed the British traders in the late 1800s. Most landed at Yokohama, which became the center of the Indian community in the early years of foreign settlement.
However, a few established themselves in Kobe, where the Indian Club was formed in 1904 by a small community of about 100 businessmen drawn from all over India. Today, presidency of the club alternates every two years between members from Punjab and Gujarat.
“The club continues to be active and hosted Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his visit to Japan last month,” said Indian Consul General Yogeshwar Varma.
Things changed for Yokohama’s Indian community after Sept. 1, 1923, when the Great Kanto Earthquake leveled Tokyo and the surrounding area. Many of the Kanto area’s Indian merchants, who found themselves losing business, packed up and headed to Kobe, entering the textile and other trades.
Today, Kobe’s Indian community thrives in the import and export of textiles and electronics; the sale of Japanese used cars to the Middle East and Africa; and, more recently, becoming involved in Osaka real estate.
“Most Indians, although they have to do business in Osaka, do not want to live there because the quality of life is so much better in Kobe,” says Prem Chablani, a 10-year Kobe resident, who is an active member of several Indian community groups.
So a good number of Kansai-based Indians, like their Western counterparts, live in Kobe and work in Osaka, primarily in the city’s traditional textile and garment center, near Osaka’s business district of Sakaisuji-Honmachi. Many Indian trading companies, as well as the Indian consulate, have offices here.
The Indian community is highly regarded by both local Japanese and Westerners for its knowledge of Japanese business. Many Indian entrepreneurs were introduced to Kobe through a relative — in Chablani’s case, an uncle — who once lived in Kobe. The result is that newcomers can learn directly from those with extensive experience and contacts.
“A major advantage the Indian community enjoys is that most of its business people speak good Japanese. Since Japanese grammar is similar to Hindi grammar, it is not all that difficult to become fluent,” says Chablani.
While figures are imprecise, the Indian consulate estimates that the number of Indians living in Kobe and the surrounding area is about 1,000 — a number way below the approximately 8,000 Indians who were settled there a decade ago.
The reasons for the drastic decline include the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and Japan’s continuing economic slump. Many of Kobe’s Indian traders have simply packed up and moved to Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore or Hong Kong.
The community, though, has lost none of its vibrancy. In addition to the Indian Club, the Indian Chamber of Commerce of Kobe and Osaka has nearly 1,000 members, both Japanese and Indian. And the Indian Society, which has Kobe’s only Hindu temple on its premises, conducts regular meetings and events for its nearly 800 members.
One major difference between Kobe’s Indian and its Western communities is the large number of families that make up the former. While Kobe’s young American and European students, English teachers and entrepreneurs are single, Chablani estimates that nearly 90 percent of the members of the Indian Society are here with their families.
“Indian businessmen in Kobe tend to stay for a long time, and it’s not unusual for entrepreneurs, especially, to live in Kobe for 10, 20, or even 30 years — though most do eventually return to India,” says Chablani.
But in Japan, Kobe’s close-knit Indian community celebrates its festivals, its culture and its culinary uniqueness in an effort to make the city not just a place to work or to study, but a place that can be called home.