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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Tokyo's Indians in 'home from home'


Staff writer

Hari Hara Krishnan knew no one when he arrived in Tokyo in 1997. But thanks to him, fellow Indians have brought a flourishing flavor of home to the government housing project where he lives in the city's Edogawa Ward.

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A Full-moon Hindu prayer meeting in a Yokohama hall (top); and Hari Hara Krishnan, his wife and daughter, at the Kasai Clean Town complex in Tokyo where some 200 Indian families live. YUMI WIJERS-HASEGAWA PHOTO; PHOTO COURTESY OF HARI HARA KRISHNAN

"The objective in coming to Japan was to work and gain international experience," said Hari, 37. "Most of my friends who studied IT (information technology) with me wanted to go to the United States, but I think Japan is a much better country. There are so many good things here -- like convenience, safety and a satisfying job."

After seven years working as a computer engineer in Bombay, Hari first came to Japan to work on contract basis as an IT consultant for a U.S. bank. When the contract ended, he was asked to join the bank's joint venture with Tokyo Marine Co. -- and now he is Systems Director for its financial operations.

Hari's first home in Tokyo was an apartment he rented by the month. Later, when moving to Nishi-Kasai in Edogawa Ward, where an Indian friend he'd met lived, he discovered an area of government housing called Kasai Clean Town where the apartments were nice and also quite large. With the help of friends he was able to move to a home of his own there in 1999.

The huge 1,500-unit complex, built in the late 1980s, is surrounded by parks, a shopping center, three clinics, a post office, a bank, a nursery, a kindergarten and a primary school -- all within minutes of Nishi-Kasai Station on the Tozai subway line.

Hari has since married, and he has a 3-year-old daughter who attends the nursery. Although he was the third Indian to live in Kasai Clean Town, the others left and he is now the longest-standing resident. He has also been a bridge for at least 20 Indian families who have moved there, especially during the 2000-02 IT boom that brought many experts to Japan from India. There are now at least 200 Indian families in the complex, Hari said.

"The nice thing about having many Indians together is that it makes it easy to meet, especially as many husbands in IT come home late. They celebrate holy days like Diwali and Holi together, and they hold functions like Tamil community events, renting a hall when the group is big."

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People gather at the Indian Merchant's Association Hall in Naka Ward, Yokohama, where Hindu prayers are given on every full moon day of the month. YUMI WIJERS-HASEGAWA PHOTO

The large Indian community drew stores that cater to them. Long-term resident Jagmohan Chandrani runs two Indian restaurants, a grocery store, an Indian guesthouse and an Indian tea salon in Nishi-Kasai. He plans another eatery, near Kasai Clean Town, for this month.

Manager Manoj Kumar Dewan said the enterprises are run not just for business but to serve the more than 1,500 Indians living in the neighborhood.

"There are language problems in Japan and things are costly. Many Japanese don't know their neighbors, but we Indians help each other," for example by introducing new Indian people to take over from ones moving out, he said.

Dewan boasted that Spice Magic Bazaar, the grocery shop, sells up to 18 types of ready-made curries, 22 types of lentils and 29 types of Indian snacks. It also rents the latest Indian movies, and even sells Indian Colgate toothpaste ("which tastes different from the one here"). And they're all at low prices -- "even fresh coconuts at 650 yen."

"Every month, at least one or two Indian babies are born in the corner clinic. I hope more Indians will move to Nishi-Kasai because of us," Dewan said.

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Manager Manoj Kumar Dewan poses at Spice Magic Bazaar, near Nishi Kasai station in Edogawa Ward, Tokyo, where you can find a wide selection of Indian groceries.
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Vistors appraise the goods sold at an annual charity bazaar within the Indian Embassy complex. The popular event, held this year March 31-April 1, was organized by the Indian women's group Rachna Club, which is headed by the Indian ambassador's wife. YUMI WIJERS-HASEGAWA PHOTO

Although some Indians now also marry Japanese, for many it is still important to marry someone with similar background. In Hari's case, his family found his wife in India. She is from the same Brahmin caste, the same town in Madras, and is educated to the same level as him, with both having MBAs.

Some courtships, however, involve much longer distances. Shital, 30, who lives in the posh Aoyama district of Tokyo, was born and raised in Senegal, West Africa. Shital (not her real name) had only been to her ethnic homeland of India twice before she had an arranged marriage there at age 23 with her Indian husband -- who was born and raised in Japan, and who works in finance in Tokyo.

But she said that moving from Senegal to Tokyo wasn't a shock compared to marrying a stranger.

"If you are marrying someone you don't know, you don't care about the place. I was also mentally prepared to go anywhere," she said, explaining that her three Indian girlfriends in Senegal married Indian men living in Europe and the United States.

There are more women like her in Tokyo, she said, including an Indian woman who lived in South America and one who lived in Italy, but who both married Indians here.

Shital, who now has a 2-year-old daughter, said she enjoys her life in Tokyo, where she is actively involved in the Rachna Club, an Indian women's group that recently held a charity bazaar at the embassy for underprivileged children in India and Japan.

Asked how expatriate Indians kept their traditions, Shital said that, surprisingly, long-term foreign residents tend to stay more traditional.

In that sense, she said she is glad that neither her parents nor those of her husband are deeply traditional, although they lived many years abroad. Neither were focused on such matters as dowry payments, she said, adding that this was good as dowry "creates big, big problems in India like bride-killing."

"I also don't even know what caste me or my husband belong to, as my family don't believe in it. I have read about it, but it has not affected me."

What does affect many Indian people, though, is religion -- though tracking down a Hindu "temple" led this reporter to follow the scent of incense to a room in an apartment block in Yokohama between Chinatown and Yamashita Park. In the large room, owned by the Indian Merchants Association in Yokohama, Hindu prayers have been offered up on every full-moon day for the past 45 years, while for the last 25 years it has also been used twice a week by followers of the revered holy man Sathya Sai Baba.

Businessman Gul. T Sadhwani conducted the prayers. Though it was a weekday, and there were only seven people when he started just after noon, when the prayers ended three hours later that number had swelled to 41.

Another businessman there, V.B. Rupani, said there are about 20 locations in Japan where Indians can follow their religion, with at least three Sikh temples in Okinawa, Kobe and Tokyo, at least two Jain temples in Kobe and Tokyo and more for Hindus and Sai Baba followers.

Also in the hall, Vaishali Pai, from Bombay, sang a song in celebration of people of all religions -- Hindu, Islam, Sikh, or others -- being basically the same.

"I really like my life in Japan. But here I can feel more peace -- it would be difficult if I couldn't find this kind of place," she said.


See related stories:
Mutual benefits as East meets East
Indian schools make a mark
Japanese warm to real curries and more



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