Ethnic enclaves within Japan feel like stepping into another world
Compared to the diversity of most Western countries, Japan has had relatively low levels of immigration and has been famously described by many Japanese politicians as racially “homogenous”. Be that as it may, immigrants tend to discover their home away from home in certain areas where their countrymen and women congregate.
In my case, I found a cultural home mostly at the bottom of a glass in Hub, the British pub, or at T.G.I. Friday’s, the American restaurant chain, in Tokyo. Well-known ethnic neighborhoods include the Chinatowns of Yokohama and Kobe, and Little Korea in Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo, but lately some new areas have sprung up.
Nishi-Kasai, AKA “Little India”
Known as “Little India”, the neighborhood of Nishi-Kasai in Edogawa Ward (one of the 23 wards of Tokyo) is home to over 2,000 Indian residents. Living in Nishi-Kasai is just a convenient hop and skip away from the city, so apartment buildings flourish. In 2010, the number of Indian nationals living in Japan was 22,000, and more than 10% of that figure live in Edogawa Ward. There are at least three big apartment buildings rented out by foreigner-friendly Urban Renaissance Agency, not far from the Nishi-Kasai subway station.
So, why Nishi-Kasai? Well, the location is convenient not just for commuting to Tokyo City but also to many workplaces. Around 90% of Indian nationals living in Nishi-Kasai are working in IT, and there are a great number of IT businesses in the area. And as a possible additional bonus, the Arakawa River is said to somewhat resemble the Ganges. Well, they are both rivers!
The “father” of Nishi-Kasai is said to be long-term resident, Jagmohan Chandrani, who has lived in Nishi-Kasai for over 30 years. Chandrani began by importing Indian black tea to Japan, and continued supporting various community centers, including international schools, in many ways as it grew. There is also a Hare Krishna temple, Iskcon New Gaya Japan, and some of the best Indian food you’ll find in Tokyo.
“The City of Samba”, Oizumi-machi in Gunma Prefecture
Brazilians and Latin Americans exceed 15% of the population of the town of Oizumi-machi, the highest proportion in Japan. In the 1990s, Nikkei Brazilian workers began to be recruited to deal with labour shortages suffered by car manufacturers and other factories in the area. Today, there are signs here and there in Portuguese, and the main shopping street boasts Brazilian restaurants, a supermarket for foodstuffs and other goods, and boutiques selling samba costumes. At Super Mercado Takara, the staff are Brazilian and the pasta and wine are mostly Brazilian-made. Also, the prices are very reasonable. You can easily and cheaply eat your fill of excellent Brazilian cuisine.
There is even an annual Oizumi-machi Carnival which was started in 2007, if you fancy a spot of samba. In 2013, it will be held on Sept 21 and 22 at the Sanyo Electric Baseball Stadium.
Chinatown in Ikebukuro
Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district is generally buzzing day and night. At the east exit of Ikebukuro Station there are massive department stores, Seibu and Sunshine 60, and from the west exit there’s the Tobu department store and Rikkyo University a few minutes walk away, and then there’s the large concentration of titillating “love hotels”. From the north exit is the area which has come to be known as Chinatown. You might spot the odd sign written in creative Japanese spelling which might give Japanese speakers a quiet chuckle.
From the late ‘80s, new Chinatowns have been springing up in the form of increased numbers of Chinese restaurants and shops in particular areas. Diplomatic relations between Japan and China were normalized in 1972, and thanks to the Treaty of Peace and Friendship from 1978 a fair number of Chinese immigrated to Japan.
Since this Chinatown’s focus is not tourism, it has quite a different feel to Yokohama. The cuisine of north-eastern China is most common, and restaurants tend to use a lot of oil and spices in their dishes.
At Wen Sheng Tang you can buy books from mainland China (at probably three times the price), but there is a good range of books including novels, non-fiction writing and magazines. For language learners, there are Chinese language textbooks made in China.
You can get traditional ingredients at Sunshine Shop, where customers are mostly served in Chinese. And in the winter months, you’ll see Shanghai crabs elegantly tied up with string outside restaurants and food stores.
Little Yangon in Takadanobaba
Takadanobaba (now there’s a mouthful) is the hangout for some of the most privileged university students in Japan who attend nearby Waseda University, and home to more than 500 immigrants from Myanmar (or Burma, depending on which country name you prefer). Most came to Japan as refugees, fleeing persecution by the former military regime. There are about 20 shops run by immigrants — restaurants, food and general stores and beauty salons. One of the oldest restaurants is Mingaraba, featuring traditional Myanmar dishes such as lahpet (fermented tea leaf salad). Then there’s the Japan Myanmar Culture Centre (JMCC) founded in 2002 by inspiring expat, Ma Haymar, where you can learn the language, cooking, or even how to play the saung (harp).
Petit Paris, Kagurazaka
Kagurazaka — full of fashionable restaurants and close to both the Tokyo University of Science and Hosei University. Kagurazaka has long had an active French community. Pourquoi? Possibly because it has a French academy or maybe because the area resembles Montmartre de Paris with its stone paving and small shops.
Heading from Kagurazaka Station toward Iidabashi Station on Kagurazaka Street, in about the first kilometer or so there are more than 20 French restaurants and bistros. The number and quality are so high, it’s known as the mecca of French gourmets in Tokyo. For example, one restaurant specializes in the famed food of Bretagne — the real buckwheat Galette.
The French academy is run by the French government, and features a language school and cultural center with a well-groomed garden and cute shop, Rive Gauche.
Little Korea in Akasaka
Think Akasaka and you’ll probably think nightlife with high-class Japanese restaurants and clubs lining the streets. But one little area of Akasaka is now turning into a mini Korea. Signs written in Hangul are popping up all over the place, there are Korean beauty salons (perhaps aimed at women working in local snack bars), and you can get Korean newspapers too.
However, compared to the Koreantowns in Shinjuku and Shin-okubo, these things don’t come cheaply. The restaurants, snack bars and clubs in Akasaka tend to be much more pricey.
In a corner of Okubo, a little Nepal can be found…
Until recently, it was more common to find Nepalese running Indian restaurants, but these days Nepali cuisine has become the norm for this area. If you head north from Shin-Okubo Station, you’ll soon find a store selling South Asian foodstuffs, mainly from Nepal, and on the second floor of the building is Nepalese pub, Momo.
Source: Matome Naver
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