Kobe Indians: Four Generations as ‘Gaijins’ in Japan

I spent the weekend in bed with Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan. I read books all the time. Most books are somewhat educational with something to offer. But once in a blue moon you come across a book where someone narrates their life story as if it were your own. Leslie Helm is that man. The parallels were startling. 


I come from an old Indian trading family that has its roots in Surat, a port city in Gujarat. Currently, Surat is the economic capital of the Indian state that’s famous for food, textile and diamonds. My family left Surat a long time ago. 

In 1904, my great-grandfather moved to Kobe. He had three kids. My paternal grandmother was one of them. She grew up in Hyogo Prefecture. She wasn’t Japanese – but the Kansai dialect of Japan was her first language. It’s rare to find born-and-bred ‘gaijins’ in Japan now. It was even rarer then. Since coming to Japan, I’ve been curious about grandma’s life here. 

I’ve asked around time and time again. I’ve looked for answers. But since I come from a business family – people aren’t particularly chatty about their personal lives. I don’t agree with it – but I get it. Until I read Helm’s book, it was hard to piece together a vaguely coherent history. Most people don’t come from international trading families – so they don’t understand what it’s actually like to grow up in one. Everyone in my family speaks at least three or more languages. There are very few people in my family who share the same first language, were born in the same country or are married to people who grew up in the same city as them. My international genealogy has always fascinated me.

Kobe Port in 1880

Japan is just one of the long list of places where I have family history. I’m a curious person. Always have been. I always have so many questions – much to the irritation of my parents and teachers. Why did my ancestors move to Japan? Why did they leave? And on a personal note: why have I returned? How do I fit into this obscure incomprehensible world of being a ‘gaijin’ in Japan? 

The first time I came to Japan, I was 12 years old. I was utterly smitten by the land of the rising sun. I told my father I wanted to come back here to live. 15 years later, I would fulfil that dream. But a part of me envies Helm – for being able to piece together his history and figure out how he’s a part of this very complicated culture that’s moulded him; but that he’ll never truly be a part of. 

As for me – I realised last night that I was tired of asking around. Tired of trying to piece together a puzzle where I can’t find the pieces. I don’t know why but it was Helm’s book that finally gave me that sense of peace. It made me realise that the past is as unknowable as the future. That I need to focus my energy on the present and creating the life I want. 

Growing up in a business family wasn’t easy. Despite the privileges, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. If there’s a song that encapsulates my family history perfectly, it’s Bruce Dickinson’s Navigate the Seas of the Sun. I don’t know where I will go next or what the future holds – but I know, like the gentleman in the Two of Wands that I hold the world in my hand. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The world has and will always be my oyster. I have my ancestors to thank for that. Some things are just in the genes.