Living in Japan
Jagmohan S. Chandrani
Written by Takahashi Hidemine
Photos by Akagi Koichi
"Little India" in the Nishi Kasai district of Edogawa-ku, Tokyo gets its name from the fact that many Indians live there. Almost all of them are software programmers. They are attached to information technology (IT) companies in India but have been invited by Japanese corporations to work in Japan for up to three years. The ones who are married generally live in Japan without their spouses.
India has recently made a name for itself with IT, and keeps producing plenty of top-grade engineers in the computer field. They are in great demand worldwide, including of course in the Silicon Valley in the United States. Japan relaxed visa requirements for Indian IT specialists in 2001, and since then their numbers have been increasing gradually in Japan, as well.
Jagmohan Chandrani, now 54, runs an Indian lunch counter and a specialty tea store, and heads the Edogawa Indian Association, looking after people coming from India much as a father would. When asked about differences between Indian and Japanese cultures he replies, "It's hard for me to say. I've been here so long I'm practically Japanese — or at least it's easy for me to feel like that."
Chandrani was born in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, studied economics at the University of Delhi, and then took over a trading firm run by his father. He arrived in Japan for the first time at the age of 26. Before then his company's trade relations with Japan had involved mainly electronic parts, but in 1972 the Japanese market opened its doors wide to black tea imports. When Chandrani arrived in Japan, it was to develop business connections for Indian tea.
"At the time I knew almost nothing about Japan, except that the doors were made of paper," he grins, referring to fusuma sliding doors. "My impressions after I arrived? Low crime rate, friendly people, a really nice place to live. My original plan was to stay a year, but I ended up making my life here."
He got his wife to join him from India, established his office and home in Nishi Kasai, and found success in the tea business. Since 2001, many Indians have come to live in the same Tokyo district because they know they can rely on him.
"Their first problem here is finding a place to live. In the early days I partitioned off 20 rooms in my office building, but before long even that wasn't enough. So I asked some real estate agents to find apartments for Indians to rent. Another problem for them is food. Many of them are vegetarians, so they don't eat meat or fish, not even the broth. There's almost nothing they can eat in a Japanese restaurant."
So Chandrani opened a meal room near his office, had food shipped in from India and started providing meals with a home-cooked taste. He was practically working as a volunteer — he had no intention of making a profit, and the kitchen was so informal anyone was free to just walk in. "But then some of our Japanese neighbors began saying they wanted to try our cooking, too. So I changed it into a restaurant, for lunches only."
That is how his Indian restaurant, called Calcutta, was born. The local Japanese were quickly attracted by the cheap prices and great taste, and today they form more than half the clientele. Chandrani's staff includes Japanese people from the neighborhood. He is sure to be at all of Nishi Kasai's festivals, serving Indian food. He also rents the local civic center every spring and fall to hold an Indian festival, inviting everyone who wants to come.
"I really like it when Japanese kids ask me for nan bread ('Nan kudasai'). They don't look on Indian culture as something entirely different from their own. People everywhere can meet on common ground, and children know that. Everyone is basically the same, and that makes me really happy," he says in fluent Japanese.
It could be that the name "Little India" is not the best one for Nishi Kasai. After all, it is a place where Japan and India blend into one.