Indian Migrants in Tokyo

Michiel Baas

Why migrate? And why stay (permanently)? These are questions that have been central to studies of migration for decades now. From an early preoccupation with push and pull models, which were employed to understand what might motivate people to leave home and migrate to another country, studies of migration gradually abandoned such questions, faced with the reality that in practice only very few people do pack up, board a flight, and make another country their home for good. Considering stark motivators at home (push factors) and the lure of a better future elsewhere (pull factors), the decision why-not-to-migrate is in a sense less easily understood. Megha Wadhwa’s important study of Indian migrants in Tokyo builds on such questions and ponderations and asks: “Do long-term Indian residents of Japan still see themselves as Indians? If so, what are the reasons for this and what efforts are they making to maintain that identity?” (p. 2-3).

The point of departure for the exploration that follows is Wadhwa’s own migration trajectory from India to Japan. Growing up in New Delhi, Wadhwa moved to Japan in 2007. Before that, she had studied Japanese, an unlikely choice for a student in Delhi. She was inspired by her grandmother, “who after her world tour declared Japan to be her favorite country,” and who had told her stories “that included delicious, expensive apples, extremely clean roads and kind Japanese people” (p. xiii).

Finding myself thoroughly engrossed by reading this slim volume that is packed with detail about the Indian community in Tokyo, I often observed my mind wandering to my own long-term involvement in student-migration from India to Australia and new community/diaspora formation in the city of Melbourne. Australia and Japan are obviously very different destinations, but each in their own way appeals to the ideal of an abroad that lets itself be captured by stark contrasts. While Australia offers the kind of space to breath that contrasts so markedly with daily life in Indian cities, Japan holds the promise of cleanliness, efficiency, and seamlessness that could not be more different from the challenges the Subcontinent poses to its citizens. Yet it is easy to let oneself be fooled by the idea that thus migration and local community/diaspora formation can be understood.

On the very first page of her introduction, Wadhwa asks a particularly salient question with respect to what home means for Indian migrants: “Is it the Matrabhoomi (motherland)? Or is it the Karambhoomi (land where we work)?” (p. 1). While Wadhwa’s analysis that follows offers unparalleled insight into how Indian migrants navigate such concerns in Japan, it also points at a question which migration studies increasingly grapple with. What does home mean in a rapidly shifting context of increased transnational mobility, online connectivity, and the inherent murkiness of migration rules and regulations? Japan presents a unique case study in this regard since, unlike countries like Australia, it has actually embarked on an ambitious program to make it easier to migrate to and settle permanently in Japan.

After a detailed introduction that pays special attention to the historical connections that exist between India and Japan, Wadhwa turns to the question of social life among Indian migrants in Tokyo. Any scholar who has worked on questions pertaining Indian migration patterns and related community/diaspora formation will instantly understand the need to engage with the very question of the “Indian community” itself. As is the case in Australia as well, in practice such a community turns out to be a composite of different organizations and associations, members of which may come together for religious celebrations such as Diwali and Holi but are otherwise divided along linguistic/regional, religious, and occasionally (though usually less readily admitted to) caste lines. According to Wadhwa, “The Oriental Club, established in 1904 in Kobe, was one of the earliest community organisations” (p. 39). Many would follow over time, and currently there is a wide efflorescence of clubs and associations, to which the “increase in the number of professionals and students” (ibid.) has offered further diversity.

For her inquiry into the life of Indians in Tokyo, the author divides her respondents into two categories: (1) Those who migrated to Japan before the 1990s, and (2) those did so after that. As she explains: “The majority of those in category (1) moved to Japan either as traders, merchants or some other form of worker[…] the majority in category (2) came to Japan as professionals in a range of fields, such as IT, consulting or marketing” (p. 43). The chapter then proceeds to tackle a range of related issues concerning what various migrants faced settling in Japan and integrating into Japanese culture. These include issues such as food (the Japanese diet is radically different from the Indian one, especially where it concerns the consumption of raw fish and the prevalence of beef on the menu), views considering gender (differences), trailing (female) spouses, education, and raising children (in-between cultures).

In the third chapter, these various issues culminate into a rich inquiry into religion and related shifting identities. Religious activities form a significant portion of social life of Indian migrants in Tokyo (p. 91), but as Wadhwa asserts, while their bonds and belief in Indian culture remain firm, “they seem to have developed new understandings and outgrown many old traditions, although at the same time they are reluctant to relinquish many others” (ibid.). The author sets out to unpack this in greater detail in the pages to come, and the many pictures that illustrate her analysis are particularly interesting. Photo’s 3.1-3, for instance, offer a glimpse into the existence and functioning of ISKCON (more commonly referred to as Hare Krishna movement) in Tokyo. Another photo (3.4) shows the location of the Vedic Cultural Centre above a restaurant, followed by one that includes children at the same center, while another captures them praying in front of Lord Balaji, a South Indian form of Vishnu (presiding deity of the temple at Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh). It is through these detailed explorations that the author really manages to bring Indian cultural life alive. Surprisingly, there is even a Jain temple in Tokyo, as well as a Sikh gurudwara. Finally, the chapter briefly touches upon the presence of Indian Christians in the city, after which the chapter concludes with a visually detailed exploration of the various festivities community members join in for.

The final two chapters focus on the (Indian) business and professional world (Chapter 4) and – rather briefly – on what Wadhwa terms the “journey from here onwards’ (Chapter 5). This is also how a scholar interested in migration from India (to Japan) and subsequent community/diaspora formation (in Tokyo) should approach this meticulously researched volume, which emerged out of the author’s long-term PhD fieldwork and personal experiences. It is first and foremost a volume that offers a comprehensive but detailed overview of the history of the “Indian migrant community” in Japan (with a focus on Tokyo). There have been some publications that have touched upon this before, but none that do so in such a deeply felt and informed manner. Now that Japan is rapidly opening up and rethinking itself as a migration destination – a stark deviation from the rather closed-door policy it maintained earlier – this is also a volume that provides a glimpse into the changing dynamics on the ground. While Japan might not have been the most willing receiver of migrants in the past, nevertheless there were always foreigners (and thus Indians) who managed to migrate to Japan and carve out a home for themselves. Wadhwa does not only focus on more recent migrants but also offers important ethnographic detail on earlier migrants, capturing earlier struggles and raising questions of inter-community integration.

I read Indian Migrants in Tokyo parallel to Gracia Liu-Farrer’s important new study Immigrant Japan (2020)1 Liu-Farrer, G. (2020) Immigrant Japan. Mobility and Belonging in an Ethno-nationalist Society. New York: Cornell University Press. and was struck by how well both volumes compliment each other. While the advantage of Wadhwa’s approach is that we get detailed insight into the shifting dynamics within one group of migrants, Liu-Farrer’s more wide-ranging exploration offers a more thorough grounding into the theorization and conceptualization of migration as it meets with a changing “national” agenda. It is here that both volumes are not just relevant for those scholars interested in Japan as an emerging immigrant nation but also in a comparative perspective examining how other countries in Asia are dealing with shifting attitudes toward sending and receiving migrants.