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Book review: Indian Migrants in Tokyo

Focus on Japan's small but growing Indian community is a welcome delight

"Indian Migrants in Tokyo," Megha Wadhwa's new book on Japan's small but growing Indian community, is a welcome delight. (Courtesy of Routledge, Megha Wadhwa)

More often than not, to read about life in Japan in English is to read accounts by present or former Western expatriates. While such writings may offer useful insights, they are shaped by the author's outsider perspective. This perspective may be interesting -- to other Western expatriates in particular! -- but is not representative of Japanese society, or even other expatriate communities.

This is why Megha Wadhwa's new book on Japan's small but growing Indian community is a welcome delight. It provides a fascinating, important and different perspective both on Japan and how non-Japanese fare with life there. Drawing on years of fieldwork primarily in Tokyo, "Indian Migrants in Tokyo" manages to affectionately convey a great deal of useful information in just under 200 pages.

Wadhwa spent years interviewing a broadly representative sector of the Indian diaspora in Japan, including merchants, IT workers, restaurateurs, teachers, diplomats, students and trailing spouses. These interviews provide a wealth of insightful quotes and observations that help understand the Indian version of the "life in Japan" experience.

An introductory chapter explains her research methodology and provides just the right amount of useful contextual information, including a brief historical sketch of Japan-India relations. Many readers may know of Subhash Chandra Bose and his doomed role in the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army. But it might be a revelation that is an annual memorial service for him at a temple in Tokyo. This event is attended more heavily by Japanese people than Indians, though, a reflection perhaps of Bose's relative significance to the two cultures, including his exclusion from the historical pantheon of Indian freedom fighters.

The second chapter describes how the Indian communities in Japan form, bond and expand. With just-right context again, it describes the historical caste system (which the author consciously avoided as a subject in her research), as well as the rich variety of Indian regional identities. In Japan, many Indians naturally overcome what in India would be a very powerful geographical identity. There is an India (Bengal) Cultural Association, for example, but it is open to all Indians. At least one of Wadhwa's interlocutors reports getting more social exposure to other Indian cultures in Japan than in India.

An Indian restaurant in Tokyo's Nishi-Kasai neighborhood, sometimes referred to as "Little India."   © AP

This chapter is the heart of the book, and it nicely covers all key aspects of expat life: struggling with the language, "Japanization vs. Indian identity," educating children (with useful summaries of the limited but growing range of Indian expat school options), keeping in touch with family back home, even how Bollywood films fare in Japan and Indians get their home country entertainment fixes. Food is of course an important subject ("In India, most foods smell of spices, but in Japan, Indians feel most of the food smells of fish."), as is marriage. Megwha devotes well-merited attention to "trailing spouses" who dominate the female portion of the diaspora, as well as the particularly challenging circumstances of the comparatively small number of single women.

Western accounts of Japanese marriage often emphasize the plight of Japanese wives suffering under the yoke of husbands demanding freshly made miso soup every day for breakfast, so it is refreshing to learn how some Indian wives envy their Japanese counterparts for having husbands easily fed on convenience store fare. The dietary restrictions of many Indians make the simple task of preparing daily meals a challenge, one borne primarily by wives and mothers.

The third chapter is about religion. Brief summaries of the various faiths represented (Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity) are followed by accounts of how they address various challenges: finding permanent or temporary places to worship or hold festivals, procuring doctrinal guidance and obtaining the understanding of surrounding communities. We learn about the Hindu, Jain and Sikh temples in Tokyo, how they are run, help their constituencies and hold festivals.

The final chapter is about "the business and professional world." It should be of interest to anyone involved in business and employment in Japan. Interviews with a variety of Indian workers and businesspeople reveal an understandable ambiguity toward Japan work and business culture. The long hours, language differences, seniority-based pay and other features of Japanese employment see many Indians drawn to Japan ultimately seeking brighter prospects elsewhere. The ambiguity is mutual, of course, and this final chapter reconfirms Japanese reluctance to open up to foreign workers -- including the vast talent pool presented by India -- despite its demographic decline.

Wadhwa is a cheerful but caring observer. She is respectful of all the people she writes about and the book is free of the disdain that infects some Western commentary on Japan. All in all Indian "Migrants in Tokyo" is an interesting and well-executed book anyone interested in Japan will find useful.

"Indian Migrants in Tokyo" by Megha Wadhwa was published by Routledge 2021. Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha University

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