This is the India Year in Japan 2007 and the Japan Year in India 2007. It is a significant time for every enterprise interested in the flow of information, goods and people between the two countries.
This is also the 54th year of Chandru G. Advani’s living in Japan. Now nearly 83 years of age, Advani is one of the few old-time Indian residents still in Yokohama. He is the third generation of his family that began putting down roots here when his grandfather arrived in 1910.
“My father followed my grandfather to Yokohama in 1917,” Advani said. “He managed a branch of his father’s business. At that time there were about 100 Indian firms represented in Yokohama. Japan was exporting silk to India, and Indian traders had been active here for many years. My father returned to the family home in Sindh that was then still in India. After partition, that region became part of Pakistan.”
Advani was born in Sindh, and grew up there. After regular schooling, Advani joined the business in Sindh led by his father and uncle. “The great earthquake of 1923 greatly damaged Yokohama. Many Indians died, and there is a memorial to them in Yamashita Park.
“Many surviving Indians left, some moving to Kobe. Later, as Indians returned to Yokohama, they helped make India an important trading partner of Japan. Then at the outbreak of World War II, again many Indians left Japan. They were still British subjects who didn’t want interment in Japanese camps.”
After the war, Advani’s parents and his brothers and sisters moved to south India. Advani remembers that time as a period of such suffering he doesn’t like to speak of it. “That was the saddest time of my life,” he said.
As a religious man during an era of changing attitudes and high tension, he felt targeted. As soon as he could, he followed his family. “All our property in Sindh was taken over. We lost everything.”
In south India, Advani hunted for employment. A friend gave him a job in the district of Pondicherry. “That was then a French-dominated seaside district, where Indo-French traders were prominent. I could earn money, and feed my parents,” he said. “Then came a chance to come to Japan. I applied, and got the job to be manager of an Indian trading company in Yokohama.”
In the early 1950s, Yokohama was already looking up. “I thought I could work hard, and have my hard work rewarded,” Advani said. “After a few years I opened my own company. I called it Nephews International in a tribute to my uncle who used this name years earlier in India.”
Advani had proved his reliability as an employee and demonstrated he was a true Sindhi known for business skills. Now, as president of a young company in a rapidly-changing world, he had to show his flexibility.
Silk and cotton fabrics faced a new challenge from rayon and nylon and other synthetic materials.
Japanese industry stabilized, producing and marketing electronic goods. Indian businesses felt the pinch.
“Many Indians sold or converted their Yamashita-cho properties, and moved away,” Advani said. “Silk was sold at cost, money being made on the wooden cases that carried it.
“By the 1980s, even Yokohama silk scarves were no longer wanted. Only a few old-time Indian residents still stay in Yokohama.”
Advani and his company moved with the times, basing their policies on friendship and trust. He set up liaison between Yokohama and Bombay clubs and hotels and promoted the visit to Bombay of the Yokohama mayor.
He initiated a sister-city relationship between the two cities, which resulted in the donation of a Japanese garden to Bombay and the gift of two elephants to Yokohama. He supported setting up the Yokohama-Mumbai Friendship Committee. Among the rewards for this public spirit, he received the key to Yokohama.
Advani’s son and daughter are now the family’s fourth generation here. He said, “I was the second son in a family of four sisters and seven brothers. The surviving ones live in the USA, India, and me in Japan. Indian families are very close, and we are planning a big party soon in (Bombay). My family will come back to our home in Yokohama where we are surrounded by nice people. We very much appreciate this country.”