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Indians in Japan — a love story beset with challenges

by Megha Wadhwa

Scarcely 100 years ago, the very notion of migration evoked feelings of unease among inhabitants of the South Asian subcontinent, for crossing the kalapani — the “dark, dreaded sea,” as the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea were commonly called — was anathema to many.

Migration in those days was not viewed as propitious. Times, however, have changed, and migrants today have become targets of envy and symbols of success. The Indian diaspora today is widely dispersed over vast areas of the globe, to the extent that you could say the sun never sets on them. In recent years “IT,” like “curry,” has become synonymous with India, and unlike in past years, Indians today migrate not just as laborers but also as professionals.

From the days of Rabindranath Tagore, the composer of the Indian national anthem, who visited Japan in 1917, to the 2014 visit of the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, relations between the two nations have indeed come a long way. According to official statistics, the number of Indians in Japan has risen from 7,478 in 1997 to 24,524 in December 2014.

While this increase might appear substantial, it is small compared to the influx seen in nations such as the U.K., U.S., Singapore and Malaysia, to name but a few. So why the big difference? While undertaking research for my Ph.D., I interviewed approximately 100 Indian immigrants, and I found a number of factors that help answer this question.

Of course, the language is a major challenge for many Indians in Japan. Winding your way through the busy Japanese streets and picking up useful words and phrases from time to time may be easy, but they are no guarantee against the sudden, unexpected situations newcomers to the nation can sometimes face.

As one woman explained to me: “The major hurdle is language, and I had ample experience of it when I had a miscarriage. It was not my doctor but the language barrier that frustrated me. Eventually I did find an English-speaking doctor but he wasn’t living in the vicinity, and so to avoid future trouble, we decided to move near to that area.” Additionally, there have been cases where couples have decided to pack up and move back to India.

Indians by and large are vegetarians, and while some might indulge in a little chicken or fish from time to time, most tend to steer clear of beef or pork. (I am an exception to the general rule, since I eat almost anything.) Having a fair grasp of the language can enable people to check the ingredients or order a personalized meal in certain restaurants, but those who are unschooled in Japanese have no choice but to limit themselves to homemade food, or food whose ingredients can be easily recognized.

India, unlike Japan, is loud and lively, and even when stuck in traffic jams, the honking of vehicles can keep you entertained. Festivals and parties add a further flavor to Indian life — a life suffused with color, music, prayer, food and, most of all, fun. Celebrating an Indian festival in Japan with the same gusto is indeed a challenge. Most Indians are wary of disturbing their Japanese neighbors, though sooner or later they often end up doing so.

Education of children poses another challenge for Indian parents. Good international schools are not easily affordable, while Indian schools are limited in terms of their location and other factors. India, when compared to Japan, offers healthy competition among schools in terms of curricula and atmosphere, as well as extra-curricular activities at reasonable prices for children. In terms of individual attention to children, however, international schools in Japan possibly rate higher. Indian parents rarely send their children to standard Japanese schools.

Indian women who move to Japan after marriage face their own share of trials. Some had stable jobs in India, but upon moving to Japan, job-hunting proved to be a nightmare. There are possibilities for those qualified in English, but here again there are issues that serve as stumbling blocks for many. The need for someone to lend a helping hand with household chores is a hot discussion topic among Indian women.

Despite these challenges, Indians in general love Japan, particularly the Japanese values of punctuality, patience and civic and social responsibility. These are qualities most Indians wish to incorporate, in keeping with Prime Minister Modi’s aim of creating a “clean India.”

The paucity of Indians in Japan is not solely an outcome of the immigration laws. After all, the same rules apply to Chinese, Korean and Filipino residents, whose numbers are far higher. It is rather due to the basic nature of the Indian people and community, who will tend to choose one community or country over another based on their own priorities — be they work or educational issues, food or language.

Considering these priorities and the somewhat limited opportunities for them here, it would seem that the recent bonds of friendship that have developed between India and Japan at a diplomatic level are unlikely to lead to a rapid increase in the number of Indians in the country any time soon.

It might help to view Japan as a wealthy husband capable of providing his wife with all she needs, albeit requiring lots of patience from his wife to understand his expressions of love. However, perhaps unfortunately, not many care to wait that long — particularly considering that there are plenty of easier options out there.

Megha Wadhwa is a Ph.D. candidate at Sophia University who is researching the Indian diaspora in Japan. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp