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Tea Leaves

Foreign-born candidate shows Tokyo, all politics are local

Mumbai native's integration agenda draws support in Tokyo local election

Yogendra Puranik, right, speaks with a supporter. (Courtesy of Yogendra Puranik)

Japan's famous spring cherry blossoms and azaleas were not the only sights blooming across Tokyo in April -- the capital's streets also sprouted giant billboards sporting the faces of hundreds of candidates for elections to the city's 23 wards.

Most of the images were as predictable as bullet train timetables -- clean-shaven men in dark suits and red ties and an occasional demure woman. But close inspection revealed a handful of hopefuls even rarer than women: the foreign-born.

Among the 900 local assembly members elected, only a few were of foreign descent, including the first Indian-born Japanese politician, 41-year-old Yogendra Puranik.

Puranik garnered 6,477 votes in Edogawa Ward, finishing fifth in a race for 44 seats between 58 contestants. The leafy eastern suburb of Edogawa has in recent years become home to a concentration of Indian professionals, focused on the neighborhood of Nishikasai.

The ward, home to about 4,000 Indians, boasts a dozen Indian restaurants, three spice stores and a 600 student-strong Indian school. The bulk of the community comprises engineers and software programmers, a highly-skilled cohort that the Japanese government is keen to attract.

However, since foreign nationals cannot vote, even after years of residence, Puranik's electoral success is not due to support from the Indian community. "It was all Japanese who voted for me, in particular the young people," the newly-minted assemblyman croaked, his voice hoarse from public speaking.

Puranik was born in Ambarnath, a suburb of Mumbai in western India. His father was a machinist in an ordnance factory and his mother a seamstress. "We never bought clothes from a store. I learned to stitch all my own clothes," he said. Eventually they moved to the city of Pune, where he enrolled for a degree in physics, studying Japanese and German in the evenings.

In 1999 Puranik secured a year-long Japanese government scholarship to research educational techniques at a university in Saitama, near Tokyo. He spent the year being awed by Japanese precision, discipline and cleanliness. In 2001 he was back in Japan, having found a job as a data analyst with IBM.

Puranik shifted from the information technology industry to banking in 2010, but the key turning point in his personal narrative came in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. Indians, like other foreigners, panicked and began to flee the archipelago. But Puranik stayed and founded a voluntary group to provide information and assistance to affected families.

He said it was then that he had an epiphany. "I realized that unlike others I was not interested in running away (from Japan) and so maybe I should settle down here; put down roots. It was time to stop living in a temporary frame of mind."

It took three interviews and a mountain of paperwork, but he was eventually successful in getting Japanese citizenship in 2012. The process included a police inspection of his home and checks on his reputation in the locality. "They asked my neighbors if I followed the garbage recycling rules," he laughed.

Unlike many Indians, Puranik had long been involved in local community events. He had begun volunteering for the Edogawa Ward summer festival in 2005, helping to erect tents, running a games stall for children, and cleaning up afterwards. But he did not consider politics until 2016, when he was approached by a local assemblyman about a plan that the ward was developing to formalize the Nishikasai neighborhood as a "Little India" area.

The plan was focused on opening more Indian restaurants, building a temple, and establishing a hospital for Indians. Puranik was unimpressed. "What we needed was more integration, not this kind of ghettoization," he said. "Rather than a separate hospital we needed more English-speaking staff in existing hospitals and better Japanese language learning opportunities for foreigners in the ward."

Puranik made a counter proposal with an emphasis on Japanese language classes and "integration training," including garbage-sorting rules and emergency drills. Finally, he suggested a publicly subsidized creche for babies so that spouses could explore job opportunities. "I told them that this is what the foreign community really needs, not temples and more restaurants," he said.

But Puranik's suggestions were brushed aside. "Then I decided, if they will not change the plan, I will have to change it." His election manifesto included his original idea of subsidized creches, in addition to other goals such as internationalizing the curricula in local Japanese public schools to enable more foreigners to attend. "What I want is inclusive development for all residents in Edogawa Ward, regardless of age, gender or nationality," he said.

This is a tough ask in a notoriously foreigner-averse society. Puranik said he has suffered so many racist slights that he can no longer remember them all. Most commonly, he said, Japanese are reluctant to sit next to Indians on the metro. Sometimes, they refuse to make way for foreigners in crowded compartments even when there is space. Many landlords refuse to rent to non-Japanese. The main reason that Nishikasai has become a hub for Indians is that UR, a public housing group located there, began to rent to Indians without prejudice.

Puranik's campaigning started each day with handing out flyers outside the local metro station. "Many people came up to me and told me to go home, that this election was not for foreigners," he recalled. "One guy said that I should go and clean the public toilet before standing for elections."

The newly-elected assemblyman is sanguine in his reaction. "There will be unpleasant incidents everywhere. At least things are getting better in Japan," he said. And the racist slurs have lost some of their bite given the support and affection he has received from the broader community.

Meanwhile, Puranik faces a busy life as Japan's first Indian-born assemblyman. Following our meeting he had two further media interviews lined up, with Playboy and Metropolis magazine. His throat was hurting badly, but he had no intention of resting. His eyes were already on his next target: the ward's mayoral election in 2023.

Pallavi Aiyar is a Tokyo-based author.

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