Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Welcome to Tokyo's 'Little Nepal': A microcosm of Japan's evolving identity

by Dave Hueston

Kyodo

Stroll down the streets of this residential area in the west of Tokyo and you are sure to be struck by the presence of a growing ethnic minority, a very uncommon sight in largely monocultural Japan.

Here in “Little Nepal,” Nepalese families shop for their groceries at supermarkets, Nepalese business owners operate curry and spice shops, and Nepalese children in distinctively logoed uniforms commute to and from school or play with their friends in the vicinity of Asagaya Station.

Walk inside any of the convenience stores in the area, located 10 minutes west of Shinjuku Station on JR’s Chuo Line, and chances are many of the clerks will hail from Nepal.

When the Everest International School, Japan (EISJ) was established in Asagaya in 2013, Nepalese families began flocking to the area.

It is the first international school anywhere in the world to operate with a curriculum prescribed by Nepal, a country that is less than twice the size of Hokkaido with a population of 29 million located atop the world in the Himalayas, bordered by China in the north and India in the south.

According to government data, in five years through January 2018, Suginami Ward, the administrative area in which Asagaya sits, has seen an almost threefold increase in its Nepalese population.

Many in this community relish a future in Japan for its safety, security and economic stability, but they still deal with financial pressure, a longing for home while struggling with the reality of living in a country where being a cultural “other” means acceptance into the wider community may remain a pipe dream.

General store: Jeevan Budhathoki stands in front of Everest Spice & Halal Food, which sells authentic Nepalese groceries and offers a money transfer service to Nepal. | KYODO
General store: Jeevan Budhathoki stands in front of Everest Spice & Halal Food, which sells authentic Nepalese groceries and offers a money transfer service to Nepal. | KYODO

Of spice and yen

In a shopping arcade just north of Asagaya Station, the unique double-pennant Nepali flag flies next to New Namaste Himal, an Indian family restaurant run by Deepak Sapkota, 39, who came to Japan 13 years ago from Baglung District, a municipality in western Nepal, and his wife Narayani, 28.

Deepak, who has four siblings who operate businesses in Tokyo, took over the restaurant from his brother seven years ago after first working for a Japanese-run Indian restaurant in Fukuoka Prefecture, southwestern Japan.

The Tokyo restaurant, which touts authentic Indian curries and fluffy naan, among other dishes, opened nine years ago. The family of four lives in a rental apartment above the restaurant.

“My sister, who was already in Japan, told me it was a good country to live in, and since I knew people who were here the timing was right to come,” Deepak says, speaking in Japanese. “My brother ran this restaurant before me, so I think I was lucky.”

Deepak also owns another Indian curry restaurant in the area around Musashi-Kosugi Station in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, and his two sons, Himal, 6, and Samir, 8, attend EISJ, which consolidated last August to a larger building in neighboring Ogikubo from two smaller locations to accommodate a growing student body.

“This is a convenient area for Nepalese to live since it’s close to the school and work, and it’s pretty cheap and central with the Chuo Line running till late. After work, you can also do your shopping in the neighborhood,” Deepak says.

Everest Spice & Halal Food, where Deepak buys spices and meat for his restaurant, is a short walk away and run by Jeevan Budhathoki, 41, and his wife Anita, 36. The shop, which also arranges money transfers to Nepal, has been open for five years.

“When I first opened, the target was to sell spices to Nepalese people since many live in this area, but after a while many Japanese started to come. Now I have both Nepali and Japanese customers,” says Jeevan, who came to Japan from Nepal as a student 16 years ago. “Japanese customers will ask me what spices to use to make delicious curry at home.”

His Nepali customers also rely on the money-transfer service to send support to their families, a practice that is vital to his homeland’s economy, with remittances accounting for almost 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2018, according to the World Bank.

Taking a break: Preschoolers enjoy lunch at the Everest International School, Japan, a school in the Ogikubo neighborhood of Suginami Ward in Tokyo that serves as the heart of the Nepali community in the area. | KYODO
Taking a break: Preschoolers enjoy lunch at the Everest International School, Japan, a school in the Ogikubo neighborhood of Suginami Ward in Tokyo that serves as the heart of the Nepali community in the area. | KYODO

The heart of a community

Whereas Jeevan’s teenage son attends a Japanese high school in Toshima Ward, the Sapkotas’ two boys are among the 255 children enrolled at EISJ, which provides three years of preschool as well as primary education through Grade 9 — the equivalent of third-year junior high school in Japan but the first year of high school in Nepal.

Bhupal Man Shrestha, 45, the chairman of the Nepal Education Center in Japan that oversees EISJ, was a key organizer of the school. He says the idea for the school sprang from the Nepali community and fully formed when he was managing editor of the Nepali Samachar, the only Nepali-language newspaper in Japan.

While in the role at the newspaper, he surveyed nearly 500 Nepalese parents with school-age children in Japan.

“There was an overwhelmingly favorable response with more than 400 replies from people saying they want an affordable school teaching Nepali and English languages,” says Shrestha, the acting principal of EISJ who holds a Ph.D. in management from a Japanese university and speaks in fluent Japanese. “We came to the conclusion that the need was there. Since it’s a school, we figured it should be brought about by the community.”

Shrestha gathered successful people in the Nepalese business community in Japan to provide funding for the school which, with just 13 kids, opened its doors to its first location in Asagaya running to Grade 3 in April 2013. A second location later opened in nearby Ogikubo for seniors before the school moved to its gleaming three-story building with enhanced facilities including a computer lab last year.

“Nationwide we have seen a large increase in the Nepali population and the school probably has had a big influence on that. There has been a dramatic rise in Nepalese with children moving from various places in Japan to Suginami Ward,” Shrestha says.

According to official data, as of the end of 2018, there were approximately 89,000 Nepalese living in Japan — up 11 percent from the previous year. There are 10 times as many Nepalese living in Japan compared with 10 years ago.

By visa status, as of June 2018, an overwhelming 28,000 were Nepali students studying abroad, while 12,700 were skilled laborers such as chefs. Close to 24,000 are on dependent visas, which permit part-time work up to 28 hours per week.

As of April, Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, which has a plethora of Nepali and Indian restaurants in the area around Shin-Okubo Station, which itself is famous for being Tokyo’s Koreatown, had the most Nepalese with 3,441, while Suginami Ward was fourth with 2,222, according to the Bureau of General Affairs, Statistics Division.

Shrestha says many of the EISJ children might go on to study at colleges outside Japan, return to Nepal with their families or even attend Japanese universities once they leave the school, which plans to add grades 10, 11 and 12 in the next three years.

He envisions a continuing increase in the Nepalese population in Japan, especially with the availability of the new specified skills visas, one of which allows holders to both bring in family members and apply for renewals indefinitely.

“The proportion of visa statuses will change. There will be more Nepalese working at Japanese companies in the future. They will become more anchored as permanent residents of Japan,” Shrestha says.

According to Shrestha, a major concern for Nepalese parents living in Japan is education, and particularly that their children may be unable to communicate in Nepali and English, the primary business language in Nepal. Nepalese kids born and raised in Japan who attend Japanese school can speak Japanese but often are unable to speak or write in their native tongue, he laments.

“One of our major achievements is creating an environment where our kids can learn their native language, and English and Nepali culture. Before, parents would often live in Japan while their kids stayed in Nepal. Now they feel assured of living together.”

Shrestha sometimes holds orientation seminars for the Nepali community, passing on his knowledge about how to function in Japanese society while respecting the myriad rules related to everything from schooling to renting, paying taxes, contributing to national health insurance and setting up a business.

Narayani, whose boys are in first and third grades at EISJ, says, “I chose the school because they can study Nepali, English and Japanese and also have a life in Japan.”

Added Deepak, “We worried what would happen if we put the kids in a Japanese school. It would be unfair since they couldn’t speak Japanese like the other kids. At Everest, if we went back to Nepal one day they could go to school right away.”

Other than Suginami Ward, some of the children commute on trains and buses from as far away as Chiba, east of Tokyo. The school, which has 25 teachers among a staff of about 30, also has four Japanese students — three in kindergarten, one in elementary — as well as one student each from Bangladesh, New Zealand and the United States.

EISJ, which required ¥30 million ($280,000) to establish, is relatively affordable compared to other international schools in Japan, charging a monthly fee of ¥45,000 for preschoolers and ¥40,000 for Grades 1-9.

The students also have a Japanese language class three times per week and are offered the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, Shrestha says, adding that the school is considering introducing a class before the students graduate high school to prepare them for Japanese college entrance exams, although there is no concrete plan yet.

“Our No. 1 goal as Japanese language teachers at the school is raising the students’ level of communication,” says EISJ Japanese language instructor Mami Igarashi.

“This means the communication ability to live in Japan as well as wanting them to learn Japanese culture through the language,” says Igarashi, adding that the school is making efforts to improve the student’s Japanese writing and reading abilities to strengthen their future career prospects in Japan.

The day's lessons: Junior high school students learn social studies at Everest International School, Japan. | KYODO
The day’s lessons: Junior high school students learn social studies at Everest International School, Japan. | KYODO

Making the move

Shrestha says the primary reason Nepalese, the largest nationality group in Japan from South Asia, come is because Japan is an advanced country with opportunities to earn money they do not have at home.

A great exodus of migrants began after the decade-long Nepalese Civil War which started in 1996 and led to the declaration of a secular republic in 2008, ending the world’s last Hindu monarchy. Japan became one of the many destinations for immigrants trying to escape the unstable political situation.

“When they get here they can see that their lifestyle is better. They can live safe in a secure environment and after working for some years, many decide that they want to stay instead of returning to Nepal where there aren’t as many opportunities,” Shrestha says.

But even though economic opportunities abound in Japan due to its tight labor market caused by the country’s chronic demographic issues, Nepalese sometimes take on tremendous education debts and fall into financial difficulties, while children growing up in Japan face discrimination or alienation, says Shrestha.

Iki Tanaka, 40, who is in charge of Tokyo-based nonprofit Youth Support Center, an organization providing help for young foreign nationals living in Japan, says there are three basic obstacles they face in Japanese society: language and culture barriers, institutional barriers, and “a wall of the mind.”

She says although there is some emphasis being placed on expanding Japanese language opportunities or governmental multilingual services, unless Japanese people learn to accept and embrace diversity, the divide between foreigners and locals will remain or even calcify.

“This wall of the mind must be broken down,” Tanaka says. “Specifically, there is a need for ‘diversity education,’ for example through ‘diversity toys.’ Children who will be responsible for the next generation will live in a more diverse society. Learning the diversity of people living in Japan from an early age is vital to foster a spirit of respect.”

Pradip Thapa, 37, the founding principal of EISJ who now runs his own international nursery in Tokyo while still promoting EISJ, says that although there is a cultural exchange with the Japanese community on an institutional level, little interaction is happening between individuals due to the language barrier or other factors.

“Considering the need for human resources in Japan, I think Nepalese children growing up here with Japanese language skills will have opportunities career-wise, but as far as assimilation, a lot will depend on how Japanese change as well.”

EISJ has extracurricular activities allowing students to participate in Japanese speech contests and cultural exchanges organized by the Suginami Association for Cultural Exchange. Each year, the school holds a Nepalese cultural festival, inviting Japanese to hear presentations from the kids.

Everest Spice’s Jeevan says that although he has enjoyed his life in Japan he intends to return to Nepal one day. His son, who can speak Nepali but cannot write it and is fluent in Japanese, will likely remain.

“If I went back to Nepal today I wouldn’t make as much money as in Japan, but I could make a living there I’m sure,” Jeevan says.

As for the Sapkotas and their children, they are, for the foreseeable future, in Japan to stay. A favorite Nepali proverb of Deepak’s states: the fruits of labor are always sweet.

“You can enjoy life but you have to work hard and it can be expensive. All my siblings are in Japan and we are satisfied with our life now. My kids are safe and learning in a great school. I want to continue living here,” Deepak says.

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