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The rare Indian face in Japan’s political space

02/11/2019by adm0

Pallavi Aiyar

The key turning point in his narrative came in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake.

Blossoms were not the only sights to sprout across Tokyo this spring. Joining the flowers were giant billboards sporting the faces of scores of candidates for elections to the Japanese capital’s 23 wards. Most of the images were as predictable as bullet train timetables: clean-shaven men in dark suits and the occasional, demure, woman. But close inspection revealed a handful of hopefuls even rarer than women: the foreign-born.

Among the 900 local assembly Councillors elected in Tokyo in April, only two were of foreign descent, including the first ever Indian-born Japanese politician: 41-year-old, Yogendra Puranik.

Mr. Puranik was elected from Edogawa, an eastern suburb of the capital that is home to a concentration of about 4,000 Indian professionals. The area boasts of a dozen Indian restaurants, three spice stores and a 600-student-strong Indian school. The bulk of the community comprises engineers and software programmers. However, since foreign nationals are not permitted to vote, Mr. Puranik’s success was not directly due to them.

“It was all Japanese who voted for me,” croaks the newly minted assemblyman, having lost his voice on account of the number of interviews he has been giving since the election results were announced.

Mr. Puranik was born in Ambernath, a suburb of Mumbai. His father was a machinist in an ordnance factory and his mother a seamstress. Eventually they moved to Pune, where he enrolled for a degree in Physics, while studying Japanese and German in the evenings. In 2001, he moved as a data analyst with IBM to Japan, where he has since stayed, becoming a naturalised citizen in 2012.

The Fukushima turning point

The key turning point in his narrative came in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake. Like other foreigners, Indians in Japan panicked and began to flee. But Mr. Puranik founded a voluntary group to provide information and assistance to the affected families. It took three interviews and a mountain of paperwork, but he was eventually successful in getting Japanese citizenship. The process included checks on his reputation. “They asked my neighbours if I followed the garbage recycling rules,” he laughs.

Mr. Puranik had already been involved in local community events, volunteering for the ward summer festival since 2005, running games stalls for children and cleaning up afterwards. But he had never considered taking a political path until 2016, when he was approached by a local assemblyman about a plan to formalise the part of Edogawa as a ‘Little India’ in Tokyo.

The plan was focussed on opening more Indian restaurants in the area, building a temple and establishing a special hospital for Indians. Mr. Puranik was unimpressed. “What we needed was more integration, not this kind of ghettoisation,” he explains. “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.”

Mr. Puranik made a counter-proposal with an emphasis on Japanese-language classes as well as ‘integration training’, including garbage-sorting rules and emergency drills. He also suggested a publicly subsidised crèche for babies. But the suggestions were brushed aside.

“Then I decided, if they will not change the plan, I will have to change it. What I want is inclusive development for all residents in Edogawa ward regardless of age, gender or nationality,” he says.

This is a tough ask in what is a notoriously foreigner-averse society. Mr. Puranik himself has suffered so many racist slights that he can no longer remember them all. Most commonly, he says, Japanese are reluctant to sit next to Indians on the metro. Sometimes, they refuse to make way for foreigners in crowded compartments even when there is space. Landlords often refuse to rent to non-Japanese.

“Many people came up to me and told me to go home, that this election was not for foreigners,” he recalls. “One guy said that I should go and clean the public toilet before standing for elections.” The assemblyman is sanguine in his reaction. “There will be unpleasant incidents everywhere.”

Mr. Puranik’s days are long, but he says he has no intention of resting. His eyes are already on his next target: the mayoral election in 2023.

(Pallavi Aiyar is an author and journalist based in Tokyo.)

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