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December 1, 2000

Little India in Kobe

Why Japanese kids love Hindi theatre

Ramesh Punjabi has even accepted a Japanese name: he is now Myuku Hira. This has enabled him to become a naturalized Japanese citizen

Why are these Japanese students rehearsing a Hindi play on the terrace of a hotel with a panoramic view of Kobe, one of Japan’s most exquisite cities? Well, they have been rehearsing Upendra Nath Ashk’s Tawlia (towel) these past few weeks to be staged for a largely Indian audience. An Indian audience in Kobe?
After the unprecedented earthquake in 1923, which destroyed so much in Yokohama, the small Indian community, about a thousand businessmen, were resettled in Kobe, the city adjacent to Osaka.

The saga of Indian merchants and traders, not just in Japan, but globally, always begins in the area stretching from Surat up to the other end of Sind. In fact, it was commonly believed in pre-independence India that every language in the world was spoken in Hyderabad Sind. The point being that Sindhi traders travelled to every conceivable part of the world.

Before the Second World War, Indian traders found Japan a useful center for purchase and export of silk. Cotton and cotton textiles from India generally balanced their trade.

After the war the Indian presence in Japan, already small, dwindled further. Hiroshima and Nagasaki will always disturb not just the Japanese, but global conscience. But an equally horrible part of the war was the battle of Okinawa in which three lakh lives were lost. Americans occupied Okinawa. Some Indians left during the war, others found American occupation of a part of Japan, an opportunity. Indian traders, who had scattered themselves to other parts of South-East Asia, began to reconsider Okinawa as a business outpost.
It was now an American base, one of the largest in the Pacific. The US officers and the marines would need services. Tailoring for instance. The troops would need uniforms and the officers, much more in the formal mould in the 50s and 60s, would require custom-made suits.

It comes as a surprise to the westward looking Indians that custom made tailoring flourished in British enclaves other than Saville Row. In Hong Kong for instance. Some of these tailors moved to Okinawa. The usual Indian network came into operation. Brothers, nephews, cousins were invited. The Indian network does not stop with relatives. Friends, neighbours all contribute towards the making of the diaspora.

Not far from the Kadena US airbase, entire streets like Uechi have a row of Indian boutiques, interspersed with ‘exclusive custom tailors’. Walk inside Venus Imports, and you have Gul Bani, his wife Mala Bani wade their way through a jungle of ready-to-wear clothes to greet three marines who have just walked in. ‘‘Here we find clothes we need’’ declares one marine. ‘‘There’’ he continues pointing to the Japanese store at the end of the street, ‘‘we find stuff that they (meaning Okinawans) like’’.

The equation between the 20,000 US officers and marines and the Okinawans is a complex one. The mayor of Okinawa city, Masakazu Nakasone, runs his fingers through greying hair. ‘‘Our major problem is the occasional misbehavior of US soldiers with Okinawan girls’’. How can ‘‘occasional misbehavior’’ be a ‘‘major’’ problem, I ask. It is a tough question for the mayor to answer. There is nothing anybody can do about young marines and Okinawans interacting. A marriage between Americans and the Okinawans is also an ‘‘occasional’’ happening which does not create social tensions.

Just before the G-8 summit in July, a junior marine chased a young girl to her house and did things which, in legal language, constituted molestation. The newspapers went to town. President Clinton had to face a little bit of the music during the summit.

In the midst of all this complexity the Indians cheerfully survive. Regular congregations at the temple, Sai Baba and Radhasoami Satsangs are also attracting a handful of Okinawans. It must, however, be recorded for posterity that the number of Indians is dwindling.

‘‘Children go for higher studies to America’’ says Gul Bani. ‘‘They like to make their careers there’’. This is a pattern, but generalizations will be premature. The 3,000 strong Indian diaspora in Japan is a mixed bag.

Yes, the adventurers who came to Okinawa are all Sindhis, owning about 50 shops and businesses. Mayor Nakasone has set up a liaison cell with them, with Gul Bani as the leader.

But it is also true that the tiny Indian community came primarily for the dollar economy when Okinawa was occupied by the Americans. Indian fortunes changed when the US returned Okinawa to Japan in 1972. Indians who had come for the dollar had to adjust to the ever-strengthening Yen. The younger generation started moving towards the American mainland.

But other Indians in Japan were mesmerized by the country’s attractions. Ramesh Punjabi has even accepted a Japanese name: he is now Myuku Hira. This has enabled him to become a naturalized Japanese citizen. A change of name has not come in the way of his philanthropy, nor his selfless investments in numerous Sai Baba temples.

Today Hira is among the richest men in Japan. He owns a chain of eleven hotels, including the Rizzan Sea Park hotel in Okinawa where President Jacques Chirac and the entire American press delegation stayed during the G-8 summit, and manages another 140. He is eager to invest in infrastructure in India. And, of course, in hotels and tourism.

Much of the most powerful Indian community resides in Kobe. What with Raj Sethi, the Sikh from Punjab, controlling a large segment of the used car market and Nemchand Khazanchi from Bikaner on the top of the pearl business, it would be foolish to ignore the Indian diaspora in Japan.

Those Japanese students of Hindi, rehearsing on the terrace of one of Hira’s hotel, clearly have no intention of ignoring the Indians. In fact their message is: the great Buddha will remain a durable link if only we can take mutual interest in our cultures.


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