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Indian works to serve expat enclave

From provider to guarantor to provisioner to educator, tea merchant turns Nishi Kasai into hub

by Mami Maruko

Once you get out of Nishi-Kasai Station on the Tozai subway line, it’s likely that you will bump into at least half a dozen Indians in the first five minutes on the street.

Nishi-Kasai in Edogawa Ward is known as “Little India,” home to more than 2,000 Indian residents, or about 10 percent of the 22,858 in Japan as of 2009. It is the biggest Indian community in Japan, served by an Indian grocery store, Indian restaurants and Indian schools.

The development of this community owes partly to Jagmohan Chandrani, 59, head of the Indian Community of Edogawa and one of the first Indian people to settle in Nishi-Kasai.

The group voluntarily helps new arrivals find housing and offers them an eatery catering to their native tastes.

Chandrani arrived in Japan 33 years ago and set up Japan Business Services, specializing in import and sales of Indian black tea in 1981. Chandrani and his wife started out with only one employee but now have 17, mainly Japanese. Some 300 different kinds of tea are sold regularly at Shanti, its shop in Nishi-Kasai.

Later, he opened two Indian restaurants, one northern and one southern (both called Spice Magic Calcutta), and supported opening two International Indian primary schools in the area, where more than 800 students study. He is helping to set up the first Indian temple in Japan this year.

Chandrani says that during his first 20 years in Nishi-Kasai, there were only four Indian families. The Indian population grew rapidly in the area after Japan loosened visa requirements for Indian information technology engineers in 2001.

“Most IT engineers, when they first arrived, complained of the lack of housing and lack of vegetarian food for Indians in Tokyo,” said Chandrani. The engineers were employed by companies in India and were sent to Japan for two to three years to work on IT projects for Japanese companies. Most of them came on their own, and first stayed at hotels or weekly accommodations, but found them uncomfortable and wanted to rent an apartment, he said.

The engineers searched for housing in Nishi-Kasai, because they mainly worked at financial service companies in central Tokyo — including Otemachi, Kayabacho and Toranomon — and Edogawa Ward happened to be a convenient location for them. However, landlords turned them away, claiming the worried that rent wouldn’t be paid.

Chandrani knew some real estate people, so he asked them to persuade landlords that the engineers earned high salaries and were able to pay the rent. He even had to show them the balance in their bank accounts, and became a guarantor upon renting the apartments, as they had no other acquaintances to rely on.

“My wife was angry when she found out (that I became a guarantor), but the engineers were desperate and I felt the obligation to help them,” said Chandrani. “I had to do something, as I was the one who started asking the real estate people. Who else would do it apart from myself?”

Fortunately, he says he hasn’t had any problems in the last 10 years as a guarantor.

To provide short-term housing, he initially opened a guest house of 20 rooms with a shared kitchen and living room. It was later closed when the need lessened.

Another problem the engineers faced was food. Most were vegetarians and could not find a suitable restaurant. So an eatery was offered to them just in the evenings that served reasonable, homemade vegetarian Indian cuisine.

Later, as the engineers started to bring their families to Japan, and the need for a kindergarten grew, Chandrani opened an Indian kindergarten. It was later expanded and became an Indian school for students up to high school.

The only thing missing in the Indian community now in Nishi-Kasai, says Chandrani, is a place to meet up after work, like a club. “We have to think of a place where people will feel comfortable coming to after work with their families.”

Born in Kolkata, Chandrani was brought up in a family running a trading business mainly in electronic parts. After graduating from the University of Delhi, he was told by his father to do part of their business in Japan.

Chandrani arrived in Japan when he was 26. “I knew nothing about Japan then, and spoke no Japanese. I had no worries, though. A man aged 26 is an adventurer, and goes wherever he can,” he said. He was single at the time, but later married and had two children.

He learned Japanese by “immersing into the (Japanese) environment.”

“There was no deadline for me to learn Japanese, because I didn’t have to take an exam or anything. I learned it as I went along. If there was a word that I didn’t know, I just learned it on the spot,” he said. “If it were a test and I failed in it, I could try over and over again, but there was none of that for me. It was tougher, because I had to survive in everyday life.

“The Japanese tend to talk about the differences between Japan and India, but I feel that there are more similarities than differences between the two countries,” Chandrani said, noting he finds similarities in the language and customs, including festivals.

For example, the old custom “kamioki,” in which children age 5 have their heads shaved as a prayer for good health until old age, also exists in India. Also, Japanese and Sanskrit have similar words, he said. The word “hina” in Hina Matsuri (Girl’s Festival) means “little” in Sanskrit, he said with a smile.

After living in this country for over 30 years, Chandrani said he feels totally at home.

“I won’t be here if I felt uncomfortable,” he said. “I’ll stay here unless Japan chases me out.”