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Chandru G. Advani, 1924-2018: ‘Uncle’ to Japan’s Indian community

by Megha Wadhwa

Contributing Writer

I first met Chandru (whom I affectionately referred to as “Uncle”) while researching the Indian community in Japan in 2015. The departing Indian ambassador to Tokyo at the time, Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa, introduced me to him. She said he was a kind, knowledgeable man who would be of great help to my research.

Indeed, Chandru turned out to be a reservoir of information, not only on India and Japan but also many other aspects of life. Even at 92, he never allowed a day to pass without reading the newspapers, poring through every English publication available in Japan.

He would often send me cuttings he thought would be of help to me, and I was not the only beneficiary of his generosity. He loved to share his knowledge and wisdom with people he knew, eager to help however he could.

Though many Japanese and Indians alike knew him simply as “Chandru,” I was far from the only one to call him “Uncle” — or “Dada” in Hindi. After his passing on Feb. 10, following a year of intermittent hospital stays due to age-related illnesses, the president of the Indian Commerce and Industry Association Japan, Jagmohan S. Chandrani, offered this tribute:

It was my good fortune to know Dada Chandru (as all addressed him out of respect). He was very unusual in that he took part in business activities but also build profound relations with the people he met, be they Japanese or Indians.

His understanding of the Japanese culture and ways was immense. The best part about him was that he was willing to share this knowledge with others. Dada Chandru was very generous in sharing these connections and supporting the younger generation, and would try to help by introducing various opportunities which he felt would be beneficial for our growth.

Time and again he would call me or send me information which he felt would help me in my business or in furthering the relations between Japan and India, a subject dear to his heart. To many of us in my generation, he was like a father figure. He will be deeply missed.

Partition to postwar Japan

Chandru G. Advani was born on July 23, 1924, in Sindh Province, in what was then British-administered India.

Seven years earlier, his father, Ghanshamdas Advani, had moved to Yokohama to work at the Japan branch of his own father’s company. After three years there, Ghanshamdas returned to India to take part in the fight for freedom from British rule.

After independence was finally won in 1947, religious conflict engulfed the country, leading to its partition into Pakistan, an Islamic state, and secular India. Sindh became a part of Pakistan, suddenly turning Chandru and his family, who were Hindus, into members of a minority in their own land.

By that time, Chandru was in his early 20s and had begun working in the family trading firm, which was thriving. As the atmosphere grew more threatening, however, he decided to move his parents, brothers and sisters across the border to India, while he stayed behind with his uncle to look after the business.

But the religious strife only worsened, and in 1951 the pair were forced to abandon their assets and belongings in Pakistan and join the rest of the family in India. While his family settled in Bombay (now Mumbai), Chandru went farther south to Pondicherry to work.

Having so often heard stories about Japan from his father, visiting the country had been Chandru’s childhood dream. With his family thrown into financial hardship amid the fallout from partition, he concluded that it was the right time to seek his fortune in Japan.

The British ship Eastern Queen finally docked at Osanbashi Pier in Yokohama on Feb. 9, 1953, after a 45-day journey from Bombay. Chandru described the Yamashita-cho area surrounding the pier as being strewn with debris from the war, and said members of the U.S. forces were everywhere. Yet despite the signs of conflict and occupation, he tried to maintain a positive frame of mind.

He became the general manager of an Indian trading company based in Yokohama and worked hard day and night for almost six years with the firm. He struggled with the language, but whenever he found the time, he had language exchanges with Japanese friends he had made. Chandru married a compatriot named Veena in 1958 and they began building a family in Yokohama.

In 1959, his seventh year in Japan, Chandru left the trading company and began building his own. “I called it Nephew’s International in a tribute to my uncle, who used this name years earlier in India,” he told The Japan Times in an interview in 2007.

Through his business, Chandru introduced new Japanese electronics to independent India, acting as a gateway for firms such as Sony, Toshiba and NEC. His company became the go-to distributor for Indian customers interested in Japanese products. As well as exporting into India, the company imported materials into Japan from the subcontinent and matched domestic firms with Indian partners, leading to enduring partnerships.

Though Chandru’s charm and sociability were no doubt key to his success, he was a humble man who would deflect all praise toward the Japanese people whose trust and support he said had helped him along the way.

An Indo-jin and a Hamakko

Chandru was as proud of being an Indian as he was of living in Japan. Even after 64 years in Yokohama, he never considered relinquishing his Indian passport.

“I love India, and I am Indian first, and I would want to die as an Indian,” he said. “But I also like Japan. I am Hamakko (a child of Yokohama) as much as I am an Indo-jin (Indian).”

It was this boundless love for both India and Japan that powered his lifelong mission to bring the two nations closer together. He helped establish a sister-city relationship between Yokohama and Mumbai in 1965. A year later he went a step further, founding the Yokohama Mumbai Friendship Committee.

In 1985 he played a key role in ensuring the 20th-anniversary celebrations of sister-city ties went with a splash. With his support, Mumbai gave two elephants to Yokohama, and in return the city established a Japanese garden in Mumbai. In 2008, Chandru was awarded the Yokohama Cultural Award for his efforts.

In a letter that was read at Chandru’s funeral, Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi wrote that “the present relationship between Yokohama, Japan and India would not have been possible without Chandru’s efforts.”

In 1923, 28 Indians were among the thousands killed in the Great Kanto Earthquake. Yokohama’s Indian community donated a fountain to the Japanese as a symbol of gratitude for taking care of Indian quake survivors, and as a memorial to the Indians who died.

In the 1970s, however, Chandru realized the fountain was in a state of neglect. Rather than complain, he took it upon himself to ride there every day on his trademark red bicycle with a broom to clean the area, light incense and offer prayers. He also moved nearby so that this daily ritual would be less of a trek.

These acts caught the attention of the city government, which promptly offered to take over responsibility for keeping the fountain maintained and clean. Every year on Sept. 1, Chandru organized a ceremony at the fountain to honor those who died in the quake.

Akira Suzuki, a Yokohama high school teacher, writes: “Every year my students and I attended the Indian fountain ceremony and Diwali in Yamashita Park to meet Chandru. Two years ago year in May, he invited us to his house, and since then sent us English newspaper cuttings almost every week. In those cuttings, he would underline and would add a message like “Benkyō gambare” (Study hard) and “I Love Yokohama” — as his message to my young students.”

Nalin Advani, Chandru’s son, offered this tribute:

I grew up seeing my father as a kind of Superman. He seemed to be on the phone, typewriter and telex machine at the same time. He traveled extensively for business and worked late hours.

While he loved his work, he loved even more that he could use it as a tool to connect people. And this was his greatest strength. Not only did he send handwritten birthday and anniversary cards to his friends and family, but he also sent them cuttings and articles, carefully curated to match their interests and passions. He was meticulous in capturing the two or three points that tagged his friend’s interests.

I noticed that at his farewell ceremony that so many who came to say goodbye were getting connected and reconnected. As he did in his life, he also did at his passing — connecting people.

Uncle Chandru was a man of principle who valued time and human relationships. Even at 93, he had a contagious zest for life. For him, each day was a God-given opportunity to be of use to the community and those he loved and cared for, and I was blessed to be one of them.

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