The Gujarati Diaspora of Japan | A Returning to Uprooted Roots

The Indian diaspora is older and far more widespread than most people realise. I come from a family of textile traders. Back in the day, we were scattered all over major port cities around the world.

If there was a deal to be made and a viable business opportunity, you could have counted on my ancestors to seize it. And this applies to both my paternal and maternal ancestors. From the shores of East Africa to the shores of Southeast Asia, we have, indeed, travelled through both time and space.

I’m a fifth generation Singaporean of Gujarati descent. My forefathers come from Surat: a port city on the western coast of India in the state of Gujarat. Prior to self-proclaimed British rule, Indian textiles were regarded the best in the world. But then the British came along and decided to put an embargo on Indian textile trade with other countries. My ancestors left India – determined to survive and not perish. They had that grit. That ability to survive and adapt.

A Story of Nagoya

I arrive in Nagoya after a seven-hour Singapore Airlines flight. It’s one of those red-eye overnight flights that everyone hates. I desperately need a shower and a change of clothes to be presentable. It’s been 15 years since I last came to Japan and I’m thrilled to be back. I was finally fulfilling a forgotten dream I once had as a child and was happy about it.

Despite the fact that I’ve arrived at an international airport, everyone speaks to me in Japanese. I don’t understand a word. The only other non-English speaking country I’d lived in was Israel – but I’d picked up enough Hebrew to get by and most Israelis speak some English. But learning a new language takes time.

After I clear customs at Chubu Airport, I head straight for the arrivals hall. The Human Resources Manager is there waiting for me holding a sign with my name on it. Not that he needed to. He’s the only redhead with freckles in a sea of Japanese people. I walk over and introduce myself. His name is Jason and he’s Canadian. He’s polite, yet curt. He offers to take my suitcase and nearly loses his balance whilst picking it up.

“How much did you pay in excess?” he asks.

I smile. As if I would ever pay excess. He asks to see my passport and residence card. He checks that I am who I say I am and then runs off to the convenience store to make copies.

On the drive to my temporary abode, I get a long lecture about life in Japan. Jason does it with the practised perfection of someone who’s done the same thing many times over. But like anyone that’s fresh off the boat, I’m more interested in looking out the window than listening to what he has to say.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…

Karatsu Kunchi’s Shachihoko (鯱) float — constructed in 1876

“You must be very careful about how you dispose the garbage,” he says very sternly. “If you don’t, it’ll grow legs and find its way back to you.”

I get a mental image a lonely strawberry milk carton asking me to take him back because I didn’t dump it carefully the first time around.

“You have to sort it according to the label and dispose it in the right type of colour-coded bag,” Jason says. “Also, you must know that Japan has the cleanest garbage in the world. You must clean everything that goes into recycling.”

The long and boring speech-cum-lecture continues all the way to the apartment. He talks to me like a kid who’s leaving home for the first time, but at this point I’d already lived away from home for 7 years. I stare out the window while Jason does his blah blah blah. I nod, smile and say umm hmm now and then to give him the impression that I’m listening. I’m not listening at all.

Nagoya’s streets are wide, clean and modern. As a city of business, Nagoya has all of the amenities of city life. The people of Nagoya are notoriously renowned for being stingy. This doesn’t surprise me. Most rich people are generous with themselves and stingy with others.

When I arrive at the apartment, the first thing I notice is that there is no bed. There are two futons in the tatami room. One for me, and one for a roommate that has yet to arrive. I had completely forgotten about this bedtime custom. I remove my shoes at the genkan – the small entrance area that’s inside the apartment.

The toilet is separate to the bathing area. The bathtub is tiny. Jason tells me that you’re meant to sit – not lie in it. Well, then… I’m little confused by the stool and bowl that’s in the showering area. Jason tells me that I’m supposed to shower before getting in the bathtub. I’m a bit perturbed by this custom till I learn that in Japan, a whole household soaks in the same bathwater. Unlike Singapore where we take a quick shower in the morning, the Japanese have a long-complicated ritual for the act of bathing.

Before Jason leaves, he hands me a thick manual on life in Japan. He’s too young to act like such a grandfather. He must have met quite a few yahoos over the years. I’m relieved when Jason finally walks out the door.

I walk into the tatami room. I love the way the ridges of the mat feel under my feet. The tasteful embroidery on the borders gives it a certain elegant touch. I put out my futon. It’s heavier than I expected. I was expecting it to feel like a sleeping bag, but it’s surprisingly comfortable and thick. The pillow, on the other hand, is like hell on earth. It’s about the size of a small shoebox and is full of beads that feel like itchy bugs. I don’t mind the futon, but I hate the pillow.

I was still red-eyed from my overnight flight. I shut my eyes and fall asleep.

“I hope I find my bliss,” I mumble.

“I hope your bliss finds you,” a voice responds. “May all that you seek always find you.”

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