However long a migrant group has lived within a host culture, that settlement process can feel incomplete without a place to call their own — a focal point for the community where they can come together, celebrate important occasions and preserve their traditions. That was certainly the case for Tokyo’s small Sikh community as the 300th anniversary of an auspicious date approached at the end of the millennium.
The year 1699 marks the institution of the Khalsa, the Sikh fraternity created by their 10th spiritual leader, Guru Govind Singh, to protect the rights of the community, which at the time faced violent oppression. Among Tokyo’s Sikhs, their joy as the April 1999 third centennial drew closer was tempered by their yearning for their own temple, or gurdwara, within the city, a spiritual emblem that would mark their origins.
While a gurdwara already existed in Kobe — the Guru Nanak Darbar, a place Sikhs in Tokyo often visited to fulfill their spiritual needs — traveling to Kobe proved costly and inconvenient for many.
For three years starting in 1998, devotees would gather once a month or on special occasions at one of a number of Indian restaurants, where they had set up a temporary temple in what was usually a limited space. Here they were able to offer worship, and the temple would move from one restaurant to another. Since Indian immigrants owned these restaurants, the space was granted on a voluntary basis.
“We came early morning and arranged the restaurant space for the one-day temple, cleaned the hall, prepared food for the devotees, and made the traditional offering called Kada Prasad,” recalls Bhupender Singh Sokhi, who played a key role in setting up the temporary temples.
The most commonly used restaurant was The Great Punjab in Akasaka, which is today known as Dining Bar Sonia, owned by Latesh Kumar Gajria. Three years later, in 2001, Sokhi asked Gajria if the community could rent a vacant room in the basement of an office building he owned in the Myogadani district, Bunkyo Ward, and here, finally, Tokyo’s Sikh community established its first small house of worship, known as the Guru Nanak Darbar Tokyo. Initially, community members paid a fixed amount toward the monthly rent, but later the temple committee purchased the entire basement floor.
Sikhs initiated into the faith are required to wear what are known as the five Ks, which all have important symbolic meaning and value. These are kesh (uncut hair — often wrapped in a turban), kara (steel bracelet), kanga (wooden comb), kacchera (cotton underwear) and kirpan (dagger). In famously homogeneous Japan, Sikhs that keep these traditions can’t help but stand out from the crowd, which has been a source of problems in the past.
“Even though we finally found a permanent place, along with it also came some challenges,” explains Sokhi. “Many Sikhs give up their five Ks on moving overseas, but there are also those who stick to their faith and faithfully follow religious laws. A person with knowledge of the Sikh religion can easily identify a Sikh by appearance, but some get intimidated on seeing a male Sikh with a turban and beard. The Japanese in the temple vicinity experienced something similar on seeing large numbers of us once in a month.”
There were several complaints from neighbors in the initial years — some locals apparently even feared they were terrorists — and the police kept a close eye on the activities of the gurdwara devotees. But with time, things changed, and soon Japanese too were joining the faithful and even donating food and money regularly to the temple, as well as helping with the cleaning and other preparation during festivals.
The Japanese who visited and supported the gurdwara were mainly friends and colleagues of members of the congregation, as well as researchers who were keen to study the community. The Japanese wives of Sikhs also attend the temple, some regularly along with their husbands and children, with a small number dressing in the traditional salwar kameez worn in India’s Punjab region and even becoming devout followers of the faith.
The word Sikh means “disciple” or “learner.” Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that originated in the Punjab region of South Asia during the 15th century. Their sacred scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, teaches the importance of faith and meditation in the name of the one creator, unity and equality of all humankind, selfless service for the benefit and prosperity of all, and honest conduct.
Sikhism’s history in western Japan can be traced back to the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when Indians abandoned the ruins of Yokohama and relocated to Kobe. Whether Kanto or Kansai today hosts more Sikhs is an open question, as the Japanese government does not record the religion of its Indian residents. The temple in Tokyo attracts about 70 Sikhs, other Indian residents and locals during festivals and between 35-50 attendees for regular services.
The longer existence and relative economic stability of the community in Kobe makes it easier for Sikhs there to maintain their identity in comparison to their fellow belivers in Tokyo, many of whom work as laborers rather than traders or professionals, making them more vulnerable and often leaving them with tough choices.
Although the Tokyo Sikh community has come a long way in creating a place for itself in a foreign land, outside of the gurdwara issues remain. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is reconciling Sikhs’ duty to wear the five Ks, the most obvious being kesh, while functioning within Japanese society.
“I had to cut my kesh because the boss at my factory had no idea about our religion,” said one temple attendee who requested his name not be published. “He refused to employ me, and told me bluntly that he couldn’t hire me with this appearance.”
For Mandeep Kaur, kesh is already an issue for her son, who is only 5 years old.
“Our biggest challenge is to convince our kids not to cut their kesh, but the truth is many of us fail,” she says. “My son keeps telling me to cut his hair because his classmates find him different, and he is often mistaken for a girl. He also finds his long hair a challenge during swimming lessons.
“A friend’s son decided to cut his hair because it was preventing him being selected for the soccer team, since he was told that he couldn’t join with a turban. He then decided to shave his legs as well, because of frequent remarks by Japanese friends about him being ‘hairy.’ “
While some parents are flexible and cave in in such situations, there are others who find themselves unable to. One couple reported that their son was keen on joining his school baseball club, but was told he couldn’t because of his turban. The boy took the decision to hold on to his Sikh identity and gave up on his dream of joining the baseball club.
Kaur says that while some children are self-assured enough to brush off comments by friends, others are sensitive, and in these kinds of cases parents often feel they have no choice but to give in. She believes that the low number of Sikhs in Japan makes it difficult to imbue children here with a clear understanding and high regard for the five Ks.
For people in business or other white-collar jobs, or those linked to Indian or other international schools, the turban is often much less of an issue. In fact, one Sikh man said that his headwear attracted such a lot of attention that he was eventually interviewed on Japanese TV around the late 1990s, and this in turn brought a lot of publicity to the electronics store where he worked. Later, when he was forced to cut his hair for medical reasons, his Japanese boss was distraught — more so, even, than the man’s family members — because it meant less publicity for his store and therefore less custom.
A frustration that comes up repeatedly in conversations with Sikhs here is with the rigidity of Japanese rules, particularly as they relate to restrictions that prevent them fully participating in society while observing kesh. While Sikhs say they do not experience racism to the degree that exists in other parts of the world, Japan often forces them to make the choice between observing the rules of their faith and qualifying for a job or membership of a school sports club, for example. Compromise rarely seems to be an option.
“Sikhism is in our hearts, and we will always be Sikhs even if we cut our hair,” said one interviewee, but this is not a sacrifice that all are prepared to make, even if the alternative is exclusion.
Megha Wadhwa is a Ph.D. candidate at Sophia University who is researching the Indian diaspora in Japan. Your comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org