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There are currently around 40,000 Indians living in Japan and their stories, similar to minority groups in other countries, are often ignored or pushed aside. This lack of public awareness and representation can lead to cultural misunderstanding, or worse, discrimination.

Indian Migrants in Tokyo: A Study of Socio-Cultural, Religious, and Working Worlds, by Megha Wadhwa
214 pages
ROUTLEDGE

Enter Megha Wadhwa, 37, a postdoctoral fellow at Sophia University and a resident of Japan for the past 14 years. Through her research, as well as her work as a contributing writer for The Japan Times, she has shown an urgent yet sensible concern for the Indian community in Japan. With her book, “Indian Migrants in Tokyo: A Study of Socio-Cultural, Religious, and Working Worlds,” Wadhwa has managed to synthesize her research into an ambitious narrative that sheds much-needed light on a growing population.

“India-Japan ties are a unique paradox,” Wadhwa writes. “These two nations do not have any history of serious conflict, and yet at the same time, their relationship has never risen above the level of lukewarm.” In her text, Wadhwa illustrates how Indian migrants have developed roots here that should not be overlooked.

Most academic books I read are dry, emotionless treks through important information. They are written either for other scholars in the same field, or with a neutral tone so that a large and potentially diverse college class can read it and not be offended. It is with relief I can say that Wadhwa’s text is no such thing. In fact, from an academic standpoint, the book is an eye-opening study based on comprehensive research and personal experience.

Wadhwa interviewed over 100 Indian residents, and readers are provided with numerous biographical portraits that show how these individuals balance their love of Japan with their strong ties to India. One man, Chanderban G. Advani, a pillar of the Indian community who passed away in February 2018, was a Tokyo resident for 65 years. After living in Japan for seven years, Advani started Nephew’s International, which became the “go-to distributor for Indian customers interested in Japanese products.”

Wadhwa’s curiosity and desire to better understand Advani’s attachment to his adopted country remains with me. “I asked him if he would like to apply for Japanese citizenship,” Wadhwa writes, “but he dismissed the idea without a second thought. He further added, ‘I love India and I am Indian first and I would want to die as an Indian. But I also love Japan. I am a Hamakko (child of Yokohama) as much as I am an Indo-jin (Indian).’”

'Indian Migrants in Tokyo' by Megha Wadhwa
‘Indian Migrants in Tokyo’ by Megha Wadhwa

Although for many Indians who build lives here, their affection for Japan runs deep, Wadhwa’s interviews also make it clear that there are struggles that come with being a minority in a largely homogenous country. For some Indian women, those struggles include racial and gender discrimination. “Mrs. Mukherjee” (who withheld her real name to protect her privacy) gives a direct and honest account of her experiences living in Japan for 20 years. The 47-year-old English-language business program trainer says, “I have to face a glass ceiling all the time at the company where I currently work. … That’s because the Japanese do not consider Indians native (English) speakers, or the accent we have is not the accent widely accepted in this country.”

Mukherjee also touches on prejudices against women in the workplace, saying that “the Japanese participants in the (business) training program often look up to my male colleagues for questions, and sometimes it makes me feel as if I don’t exist.” While such gender biases exist abroad as well, the complexity of being both a racial minority as well as a woman in Japan plays a significant part in what it means for individuals like “Mrs. Mukherjee” to create a home away from home.

“Indian Migrants in Tokyo” does not shy away from such difficult topics, and upon finishing the book, I could see a need for more cultural awareness programs in Japanese companies and schools. Since 1997, the Indian population in Japan has nearly quintupled, oftentimes filling roles in the ever-growing IT sector. For Japan to remain an economic power while its population continues to decline, the biggest challenge may be learning how to adjust their steadfast ways with the increase of skilled foreign workers. This means becoming more flexible and open to understanding other cultures.

Wadhwa believes there is an enormous amount of business potential to be realized between the two countries, but she also understands there are complications. Part of the fault, she says, lies with the limitations in Japan’s current political and corporate strategies. “The lack of English skills among Japanese, and also the prevalence of sakoku (isolation) and Nihonjinron sentiments (the theory of the uniqueness of Japanese people) are some of the elements that generate popular anti-migrant feelings,” she writes. “Japanese companies and the government need to adopt more forward-thinking policies to meet the shortage of labor in diverse sectors.”

Other minority communities in Japan — the rapidly growing Vietnamese population immediately comes to mind — need deep, intellectual studies such as this. In this age of information, which bombards us with facts and figures, ethnographic books like Wadhwa’s are vital in understanding the human pulse that keeps our societies going.

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