Helping new arrivals from India find their feet

by Angela Jeffs

There are some 5,000 expats from India currently in Japan, mostly working in the IT industry, and mostly in Tokyo. And if A.P.S. Mani is to be believed, the number will grow over the next few years.

The first thing any Indian national should do on arrival, Mani says, is check out his Web site. This will help them find their feet fast and begin networking. “If only there was such a facility when I first arrived,” he notes across the table at the Bombay Club, an Indian restaurant in Shiodome, Tokyo.

Mani and his wife arrived in Japan 29 years ago, together with a babe in arms. “There has been a strong Indian community in Japan since the late 19th century, initially in Kobe, then Yokohama and finally Tokyo. In fact, I believe the Indian Embassy was second only to the British Embassy in opening here.”

His first experience of Japanese culture was through an International Dolls Festival in the Japanese Consulate in Bombay; even in those days embassies were located in New Delhi. “The Japanese consul was so interesting and kind. It was through him I joined the local Indo-Japan Association.”

At the time Mani was working in advertising. “I was with India’s third-largest agency.” Seeing an ad in a newspaper that looked interesting — a post in Tanzania — he went along and found himself being interviewed by a former colleague. “I got the job. The main office was in Switzerland, with a plan to open in Japan. Two years later, at the age of 33, I was invited to take up the position in Tokyo.”

He has seen the greatest changes in the last decade. “The Internet and the potential of IT business has made a big difference.” When he first came, he says, Indian expats mainly were from the north. “Now they are from all over the continent — Chennai (Madras), Bangalore, Kerala — with 10 to 15 percent from Bombay.”

The Indian Institute of Technology offers the best qualifications for getting work in Japan. Japanese companies like NEC and Toshiba just gobble up its graduates, who tend to be far better trained and motivated than their Japanese counterparts.

“A quarter of Indian expats” — who are male almost to the man — “marry Japanese girls and settle down. The rest either bring over their families once they are settled, or save and then go home. Here they may earn 500,000 yen a month, but in India they can establish a far better lifestyle earning less than half that.”

Even while they are here, his young compatriots want a meaningful life. Which is why Mani, who claims now to be “semiretired,” works nonstop to keep his Web site up to date. “There is not a single function with relevance to the Indian community that escapes me.”

The largest social gathering of the year is to celebrate the festival Diwali. Last year, 2,000 people gathered in the gymnasium of St. Mary’s International School. “We always began with fellowship at 3:30 p.m., followed by a cultural program that utilizes local talent, but with one big name flown in from India. There is a fundraising raffle, and food — dishes cooked up from all over the Indian continent — from 6 p.m.”

Diwali (also Deepavali) is the Hindu Festival of Lights. For Jains it is one of the most important festivals, and marks the beginning of the Jain year. It is also a significant festival for the Sikh faith. Observed for five consecutive days in the Hindu month of Ashwayuja (which usually corresponds to October or November), Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike use the occasion to celebrate life and strengthen relationships.

Mani offers fellowship and support via his Web site and any number of interactive activities. There are no subscriptions or fees, he says. “I work to enable people to work out how the city functions, find one another, and experience the comfort and security of community.”

He is president of India IT Club Japan, which meets at the Indian Embassy six times a year. If dignitaries visit from India, he organizes welcome parties. Mother Teresa came thrice, he recalls. “She was concerned with what she called the mental poverty of Japanese people. At age 79, she was also worried about her Mission of Charity in Tokyo. She asked my wife, ‘Please take care of my sisters.’ “

Mani is involved with International Family Service, an association that takes care of children, their well-being and adoption. IFS also provides counseling for needy non-Japanese in respect to the adoption of babies from Japan.

Mani is also a member of the YMCA’s Foreign Community Support Committee, which raises funds for the underprivileged, irrespective of their religion or denomination. “In my home state of Kerala, we are one-third Christian, one-third Hindu and one-third Muslim, so this comes very naturally to me.”

After lunch, he is off to meet the chairman of an Indian bank. “I have an office nearby with an IT company. Actually, I’m not so hot on IT myself. But I do know the IT policies of India and Japan, and can cope with the day-to-day technical stuff.”

Amazing as it seems, Japan’s homegrown pool of IT talent is not sufficient to meets the country’s needs. As Mani notes, if Japan had the qualified professionals it needs, it would not be bringing in people from outside. Japanese talents are different — and more economical. Still it seems that companies are hungry for Indian talents.

“But I don’t want any Indian coming to Japan just to earn money and then go home,” he adds. “I want them to adopt Japan’s good qualities. Some of course we share already: courtesy, discipline, being a useful citizen, respect for elders. This in particular is still very strong in our society.”

Mani predicts that in five years, there could well be a minimum of 15,000 Indians living and working in Japan. But this could be a nightmare in terms of adding to his own workload. “I already get hundreds of e-mails a day. Sometimes I have to get up at 2 a.m. to clear the backlog, answer them all.”

He says his wife is very tolerant of his widespread interests and workaholic habits. “What do I tolerate in her?” Here Mani laughs. “That she knows me better than I do!”