During the spring of our third year in Japan, mysterious billboards began sprouting alongside the blossoms all over Tokyo. They featured rows of numbered square boxes, arranged sequentially from 1 to about 40. My boys and I walked past one on our way to the local supermarket. There was another billboard in front of the park, and still another near the dentist’s office.
We drove each other crazy hazarding guesses about what these were. A community lucky draw? A neighbourhood game of bingo? An effort to teach toddlers their numbers?
Then one morning, the numerals had been replaced by faces – mostly photographs of clean-cut men in near-identical dark suits and inoffensive ties. Occasionally, there was a picture of a woman, also impeccably tidy and wholesome. It transpired that this was Japanese democracy in operation. The photos were of the candidates for the 900-plus local assembly seats among Tokyo’s twenty-three wards.
If I’m honest, the guessing games about the numbers I’d played with my kids were more exciting than local politics in Japan, and I would have paid no more attention had it not been for a news item in the Japan Times.
One Yogendra Puranik had been elected as Edogawa ward councillor, becoming the first-ever Indian-born Japanese politician. This was a story I needed to follow up.
On the morning of our appointment, the boys and I took the metro to the Nishikasai neighbourhood in Edogawa, where Puranik lived. As we neared the eastern suburb, Indian faces began to pop up like flotsam amongst the sea of Japanese. I’d lived in Tokyo for a while by now, but this was my first time venturing into what had been dubbed by the Japanese media as Tokyo’s Little India.
We alighted and began to navigate along quiet residential streets. With one eye on Google maps and one on our surroundings, I was slightly disappointed at how little there was to distinguish this neighbourhood from any other. This was no Brick Lane. It was 1960s-modern, clean, leafy, functional – unmistakably Tokyo.
But from what I’d read, I knew that Nishikasai boasted several Indian food restaurants, three spice stores and a 600-student-strong Indian school. Almost 4,000 Indians, or about 30 per cent of the 11,153 Indians that were resident in Tokyo in 2018, lived here. They were primarily IT engineers and software programmers.
By Japan’s standards these were not insignificant figures. As a point of comparison, there were only 440 Indians who’d lived in Tokyo four decades ago. A sharp increase in their numbers began around the turn of the millennium, when worries about the “Y2K problem” had several Japanese companies scrambling to invite Indian engineers to work on upgrading their IT systems. In 2000, the duration of the working visa for software engineers from India was expanded from one year to three years.
Nishikasai emerged as a residential hub for these engineers because UR, a public housing group located there, began to rent to Indians without the need for a local guarantor, and more importantly, without prejudice. It was not easy at the time for foreigners to lease apartments from Japanese landlords, many of whom felt that gaijin could not be trusted.
In the years since, Japan’s demographic woes had increased and the country faced a shortfall of about 200,000 IT engineers, a gap that was predicted to swell to 600,000 by 2030. In 2018, the Japanese government announced a new visa scheme for the “highly skilled”, who would not only be allowed to renew their visas indefinitely but also to bring their families along. The response had been underwhelming, with many foreign professionals finding Japan to be less than welcoming to outsiders in terms of both language and work culture.
All of this made me curious to find out what light Yogendra Puranik’s life trajectory could throw on the possibility for foreigners to integrate into Japanese institutional and social structures.
Puranik’s home was a narrow, multi-storeyed affair, large by Japanese standards. An Indian restaurant, run by his mother, was located on the ground floor, and we entered through here, the aroma of biryani wafting about temptingly.
Puranik was slim, with a receding hairline. Dressed in a turtleneck and jacket, he ushered us up to the floor above the restaurant and into a room draped in colourful Indian fabrics. Yogi, as Puranik insisted on being called, pulled up a couple of chairs for us to sit on. The boys sprawled out on the floor next to us.
Throughout our chat he stressed that it wasn’t Indians who’d voted for him. Foreign nationals, even those who have been resident in Japan for years, were not permitted to vote, so Yogi’s electoral success had little to do with them. He’d garnered a total of 6,477 votes in the elections, of which, he said, perhaps four or five had been from Indians who had obtained Japanese nationality.
Yogi had been born in Ambarnath, a suburb of Mumbai in western India. His father was a machinist in an ordnance factory and his mother a seamstress. Eventually, they’d moved to the nearby city of Pune, where he’d enrolled for a degree in physics at university, while studying Japanese and German in the evenings.
In 1999, Yogi 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. “It was like, unbelievable,” he said, shaking his head as though still amazed.
In 2001, Yogi was back in Japan, having found a job as a data analyst with IBM, and he had since stayed put in the country. In 2012, following three interviews and a mountain of paperwork, he was eventually successful in getting Japanese citizenship. The process included a police inspection of his home and checks on his reputation in the locality. “They asked my neighbours if I followed the garbage recycling rules,” he laughed.
Garbage sorting in Japan was so complicated and mistakes so frowned upon by neighbours that Yogi believed recycling training was among the most urgent needs of the foreign community in Tokyo. After all, in India most people didn’t even bother to make the most basic dry and wet waste segregation before disposing their garbage, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to jettison their trash in the open at roadside dumps.
But, just as the assemblyman was about to expand on this, my until-now-somewhat-decently-behaved children began squabbling. Yogi laughed indulgently. “Lovely boys,” he murmured, revealing the soul of a true politician.
So, how did this erstwhile data analyst become involved in politics?
Once I’d sorted out the boys’ dispute, I put the question to him. Yogi traced his current avatar to 2005, the year he first volunteered for the Edogawa ward summer festival, helping to erect tents, run games stalls for children and clean up afterwards. He went on to become a regular volunteer at community events, but did not consider standing for elections of any kind until he was approached, in 2016, by a local assemblyman, about a plan that the ward was developing to formalise the Nishikasai neighbourhood as a Little India in Tokyo (LIT).
The plan was focused on opening more Indian restaurants in the area, building a temple and establishing a special hospital for Indians. But Yogi 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.”
Yogi made a counter proposal with an emphasis on Japanese language classes as well as “integration training”. This brought us back to the labyrinthine garbage sorting rules that Yogi was convinced should be the centrepiece of such training, along with earthquake emergency drills. But his suggestions were brushed aside.
It was then that he decided, “If they will not change the plan, then I will have to change it.”
Three years later he was spending his days standing in front of train stations and shopping malls canvassing for votes.
Yogi was aware that winning an election was going to be a tough ask in what was a notoriously foreigner-averse, arguably racist, society. The assemblyman had himself suffered so many race-related slights that he could no longer remember them all. Most commonly, he said, Japanese were reluctant to sit next to Indians on the metro. Sometimes they refused to make way for foreigners in crowded compartments, even when there was space.
“Once someone yelled at me: ‘You’ve taken our jobs’.” Many landlords refuse to rent to non-Japanese, even today. At work, Yogi said that even as he climbed up the hierarchy he was kept out of crucial decision-making. His ideas were usually dismissed. “I am forever an outsider there.”
When a Japanese friend proposed Yogi as a member of the Edogawa ward summer festival executive committee, he was initially rejected purely on the grounds of being foreign. “It’s not good for foreigners to hear about any problems with the festival, I was told,” Yogi said. But his friend countered, “If a foreigner can help us with the festival in every way, he can also be on the committee.” Nonetheless, it took Yogi two years before he was allowed to join.
But it was many of the people he met through this voluntary community work who ultimately stepped up and campaigned for him during the ward elections. They would ride around in a specially appointed mini-van handing out flyers. Yogi himself began his campaigning day outside the local metro station, where he introduced himself to any commuter who would stop. “Many people came up to me and told me to go home, that this election was not for foreigners,” he said. “One guy told me that I should go and clean the public toilet before standing for elections.”
The assemblyman remained sanguine. ‘There will be unpleasant incidents everywhere. At least things are getting better in Japan.’ And the fact was that he had been elected to the ward assembly and was confident enough of the future to be eyeing the post of ward mayor in the next election.
Excerpted with permission from Orienting: An Indian in Japan, Pallavi Aiyar, HarperCollins India.
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