In an eastern area of downtown Tokyo, classes are being held in a six-story building promoting Thai language and culture.
Kinshicho, in Sumida Ward, has all the trappings of a “Little Bangkok,” with Thai import stores, massage shops and restaurants that blend into the city scenery.
In a small classroom at the Thai Education and Culture Center, also known as ThaiTEC, teacher Sucharat Mana asks her students about their holidays. “Where did you go?” she says in Thai, pointing to ethnic foods that some had brought back as souvenirs. A woman manages to translate the phrase into Japanese.
The introductory class consists of five adults, each of whom has an objective for learning the language at the culture center.
ThaiTEC was established by Pimjai Matsumoto, 69, in 2007, the same year Japan and Thailand celebrated their 120th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties.
Originally coming to Tokyo from Thailand in 1976 to study Japanese and fashion, Matsumoto’s interests soon shifted and she wound up becoming a pioneer in helping spread Thai restaurants across Japan.
In 1988, and now married to a Japanese national, she launched a trading company called P.K. Siam Co. to import Thai ingredients.
“After I came to Japan, I realized that I couldn’t find anything from Thailand. I started to think that spreading Thai food was necessary,” says Matsumoto, who wisely established a trade route before opening a Thai restaurant, Keawjai, near the company in Kinshicho in 1990.
“It was originally my aim to open a restaurant, but if there were no good Thai ingredients, no Thai food could be made,” she says. “I had to open the company first.”
After Matsumoto established the trading company, Thai food restaurants began to increase in Japan, according to the Japan Thai Food Association. This may be because now it was much easier to get indispensable ingredients such as Thai fish sauce.
Matsumoto says she opened the company and restaurant in Kinshicho because of lower land prices in the downtown location, but accessibility from Narita Airport was another factor.
Her restaurants offer a genuine Thai experience: The employees are from Thailand, where chefs must receive a qualification to cook abroad, and the ingredients and spices are imported directly from the country.
“Our chefs have to train in Thailand for a certain amount of time to be certified by the government,” Matsumoto says.
A place of learning
As of Oct. 1, around 400 Thai nationals were residing in Sumida Ward, which incorporates Kinshicho, according to the Statistics Division of the Metropolitan Government’s Bureau of General Affairs. According to Matsumoto, a couple of dozen of those Thais who live in the area also work for her.
After founding the company, Matsumoto says she saw an increase in the number of Thai restaurants in Tokyo.
“I think people started to open Thai restaurants because they were able to get Thai ingredients such as herbs and spices from my company,” she says.
Matsumoto’s new goal is to make ThaiTEC a cultural hub. Other than language, the center offers classes in cooking Thai food, as well as Thai fruit carving, a traditional art in which fruits are carved into decorative flowers — a technique originally taught to women in Thailand’s royal palace.
When Matsumoto was still considering opening the cultural center, the Thai government and Suan Dusit Rajabhat University in Thailand reached out to her to find a location for it. She decided to just renovate her original restaurant into what is now ThaiTEC, and soon after reopened the restaurant in a nearby location.
For the first five to six years, the university granted her financial support, she says. “This is volunteer work for me now. If you die, you cannot bring anything with you, but I can leave this as a legacy. That is why I opened it and continue to do it,” Matsumoto says.
Mana, head teacher at ThaiTEC, came to Japan from Thailand in 2008. She was a Japanese language teacher on weekends and worked for several Japanese companies while in Thailand before being offered the job by Matsumoto.
The 48-year-old has lived in Kinshicho ever since, and she welcomes the convenience of the area where she can see and hear Thai people right outside her door. “It is also a relief that I can purchase many Thai foods around here,” she adds.
“I had always wanted to come to Japan, as I studied Japanese at a Thai university,” says Mana, who attended a Japanese language school for a year before working for ThaiTEC. She has now been a teacher for more than two decades, teaching language students in Thailand and Japan.
Mana teaches mainly Japanese people at the moment, including those who work at Japanese companies and do business in Thailand, as well as those who are simply fond of the country.
“In my life, I had a lot of chances to go to Thailand, including on business trips and holidays. I was enthralled by Thai culture,” said Ryoichi Sekiya, 37, a student at ThaiTEC, who works for a trading company. “I think the Thai language is difficult with unique writing, but it’s meaningful to me.”
The language class is for both adults and Thai children.
“It is important for them to build their identity as Thai people,” says Mana, adding that she has noticed an “increasing number of Japanese-born Thai, too.”
Thai people also tend to gravitate to the area because their children do not get bullied for not being Japanese, Matsumoto says.
The number of Thai nationals has increased by around 140 in Sumida Ward since the year 2000, according to official data.
There were close to 54,000 Thai nationals living in Japan as of June 2019, the fourth-largest contingent from Southeast Asia, and the 10th-largest of all foreign nationals.
Kinshi Elementary School hosts classes aimed at preventing bullying by teaching about diversity and the different cultures and lifestyles of non-Japanese, according to the school.
Since 2007, the ward has run a program at the Sumida International Learning Center, teaching conversational Japanese to foreign junior high school students, including those from Thailand, who are lacking in language ability.
But there are linguistic barriers for adults and children alike. Mana says she sometimes has trouble communicating with other people in Japanese.
“For example, when I go to see a doctor, I do some homework first so I can explain my symptoms,” she says. “But overall, I think it is a good environment for Thai people,” and there is a potential for more students because “in the area, there are quite a few Thai children who do not come here.”
Mana says she is satisfied with her life in Japan and will continue to work at ThaiTEC.
“As my hometown does not have snow, I love the different seasons here. I love it when it’s cold,” she says. “For Thai people, Japan is an alluring destination.”