Megha Wadhwa
Photo of Megha Wadhwa courtesy of Ms. Wadhwa

Ethnographer Megha Wadhwa on the Indian Diaspora in Japan

Ethnographer Megha Wadhwa talks about her book, ‘Indian Migrants in Tokyo’, which describes the contemporary interaction between two ancient cultures.

Indian Migrants in Tokyo: A Study of Socio-Cultural, Religious, and Working Worlds
Megha Wadhwa
October 2020

The Indian Diaspora in Japan is an important example of how migrant communities have adapted to the conditions of an increasingly globalized world. Ethnographic researcher Megha Wadhwa, a research associate at Freie Universität Berlin, talks with PopMatters about her recently released book, Indian Migrants in Tokyo, which describes the modern-day grassroots interaction between two ancient cultures.

Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. What initially brought you to Japan? 

My grandmother was my first introduction to Japan. She went on a world tour in the early 1990s, and when she came back, I asked her what countries she liked the most. Japan was her favorite. Eventually, that led me to study the Japanese language. I met my Japanese language mentor, Prof. Ashok Chawla, in 2001. He’s now an Advisor on Indo-Japan relations at the Ministry of External Affairs, India.

Fast-forward six years, and due to some personal issues, I decided to move out of India for a couple of years. Australia was at the top of my list, but Prof. Chawla suggested Japan because I studied Japanese and worked for a Japanese company. He considered Japan safe for me as a first-time solo traveler/stayer in a foreign country.

So, with his support, I embarked on a journey to Japan in June of 2007. I had just turned 24. My original plan was to stay for two years, learn the language, and then head back to India. But life had different plans for me. I ended up staying in Japan for 15 years until I recently moved to Berlin.

What prompted you to research the Indian community in and around Tokyo?

I write in my book that “the idea of ‘home’ is not just the place where we are born, but a place we keep re-creating – ‘home’ as a space for recollecting the memories and experiences that we treasure. It is the ‘home away from home’ that keeps us going, by giving us an opportunity to reminisce about what we left behind…” I was searching for that home too, like any other Indian migrant. That eventually led me to research the Indian community.

From the very beginning of my stay in Japan, I got involved with the Indian community. Even before I started my research, I was well acquainted with some long-term Indian residents and good friends with others. I have friends and relatives in Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia, and they had a desire to become citizens of those countries from the time they moved there, and eventually, they did. I always wondered what drew Indians to Japan.

The desire to know more about the Indian community in Japan from a deeper perspective led me to investigate further as a researcher. Inspiration to conduct research came through Prof. Takefumi Terada’s seminars I attended at Sophia University in 2011. His work on the Filipino community within the Roman Catholic Church in Japan gave me a direction for my research on the Indian community in the country. My second mentor, Professor Cyril Veliath, who has been a part of the Indian community for nearly five decades, encouraged me to go ahead with that plan. This research has helped me understand both Japanese society and the Indian community in Japan. 

What distinguishes your research from previous studies on Indian migrant communities in Japan?

At the time I started this research in 2013 there were very few scholars working on the Indian migrants in Japan. This reflected on the contemporary situation or the Indian community as a whole. There are works focusing on Indo-Japan historical, political, and economic perspectives or a group in the community, like Jains, Sikhs, Sindhis, and so on. [Indian Migrants in Tokyo] is the first book that maps the Indian migrant community in Tokyo in detail. It focuses on their Indian identity, but at the same time, that also explains things about different groups within the community. It reflects on their life as migrants in Japan, the challenges they face, and how they overcome those challenges.

[The book] goes beyond the ‘curry’ or ‘IT’ image of Indians in Japan. It’s one of the first ethnographic works that tries to shed light on a migrant community in Japan that was hardly talked about until very recently. But of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the prior amazing works of the scholars working on similar subjects and on migration studies in Japan.

Was there any difficulty in getting people to speak to you?

I like talking to people and hearing their stories, so that helped me a lot. I interviewed approximately 100 Indian migrants. That’s my official count, but I have spoken to more than that and I still continue to work on the subject from various other perspectives, so the number will keep increasing. I’m a part of the Indian community and that makes me an insider. That helped me connect with people and allowed me to break the ice easier than it would have been for an outsider.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have challenges. I had to work on balancing my position as a part of the community and as a researcher. That was one of the biggest challenges.

Several times in the beginning people refused to talk to me or ghosted me.  But then there were many others who supported me. Some people were worried and didn’t let me record the interviews, but over the years I have been able to build trust. I think that’s how ethnographic research works. One needs to work a lot on building relationships with interviewees and making them comfortable, and most importantly respect them and their stories.

There were times that interviewing became exhausting. As an interviewer, you absorb so many emotions and it can be overwhelming at times. My “rescue” was yoga and meditation. That not only helped me stay calm and relaxed but also made me more empathetic towards my interviewees.

As a member of the Indian migrant community in Japan for more than a decade, how would you describe your experience?

Japan has been a great teacher of many things in life – patience being one of them. I’ve met the most amazing people during my stay there – not only Japanese and Indians but also from other migrant communities. They are an important part of my life and will continue to be.

From working in a convenience store to being a researcher today, I have had my share of laughs, tears, and breakdowns in Japan. Like any other country, Japan has many issues. It’s just that they’re not talked about as much. Things are definitely changing now, but there’s a lot more to be done, and for that, awareness of those issues is important. [Indian Migrants in Tokyo] sheds light on that too.

I look at my relationship with Japan like that of marrying a rich husband. It could buy me convenience, freedom, peace, a sense of safety, but not love. I’m not saying it didn’t love me, but it was definitely not expressive enough and always nagged me if I did something wrong. There was always too much pressure. It often felt like I was putting in more effort. I love Japan, but the question is, does Japan love me or migrants like me?

You devoted a lot of the book to the situation of Indian women in Japan. As a female Indian professional and academic, do you think your experiences have been similar to that of the women you interviewed?

Yes, my experiences have been very similar to other Indian women in Japan. It hasn’t been an easy journey at all. Being an Indian and then being a woman doesn’t make it easy in India nor Japan. Neither of the countries treats their women right. In some ways, Japan is worse than India, especially on the professional front, because at least you see many women in top positions in India and politics. But as a woman, Japan did give me a sense of safety to walk around alone, even late at night. That’s something I can never do in India.

On the professional front, it was very challenging. There’s so much fuss about ‘native’ English that would annoy any Indian with a good educational background. Even if it’s an Indian man and Indian woman in a Japanese working environment. I at times feel that they will choose the male over the female, and that only gets worse if it’s a choice between a Caucasian and a South Asian. 

I felt I was a failure for the longest time because of the endless rejections I went through. That was because I had an Indian passport that made me a ‘non-native’, as per the Japanese definition of English speakers. But in a way, it was those rejections that got me where I am today. So, I’ve made my peace and I hold no grudge but gratitude to all those who told me I was not good enough. But this couldn’t have been possible without the support of those who constantly kept reminding me of my worth and didn’t let me settle for less.

In your book you write, “…I did question my respondents about their religion and the region they belonged to, but I did not consider it appropriate to question them regarding their caste.” (p. 7) Why not? From my reading, it seems that caste-related attitudes play a significant social role both in India and among Indian expats.

For example, according to Rajadesingan, et al (2019), “Indian diaspora [in the US] are substantially less open to intercaste marriage” compared to Indians in India (402). There have also been assertions that caste-based discrimination among Indians in the UK is a significant problem, though opinion within the UK Indian community is reportedly divided.

I found the results of the Rajadesingan study surprising, as I would have expected less caste-consciousness among Indian expats in the US, not more. So a similar study on Indian residents in Japan would be interesting to see. So, I wonder why this aspect was not explored more in your book.

There are laws in India that protect the Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes, but that’s not to say that there are no caste issues. We still hear a lot of stories about instances where they are mistreated and often killed.

In America, as you mentioned, one can probably see caste issues amongst the Indian community because the community there is big, but that is not the case in Japan as yet. It’s a small community, and if one does anything wrong the word spreads and the culprit would have a higher chance of being criticized.

I didn’t see evidence of caste issues amongst the Indian members I interviewed in Japan, but I did see class and regional differences. I don’t think the size of the Indian community in Japan will ever match the population in the US, but maybe as it grows and people from different and mainly lower-caste backgrounds increasingly move to Japan, then maybe one could see caste issues in Japan too. I do see issues amongst some restaurant owners who don’t treat their cooks right, where caste and class both play a role. But at the same time there are some others who treat their cooks as family and look after them well.

What’s next in your research plans?

At Freie Universität Berlin I’m working on a project where I look into the aspects of migration trends amongst the professional Indians who have or are planning to move to Japan and the sustainability of that migration trend. From there, we can consider how to give migrants a better experience. I’m also interested in knowing more about the Indian community in Germany and seeing how different it is from that in Japan, and what role the host country plays in that.

Additionally, I’m still a visiting fellow at Sophia University in Tokyo and will continue to work on ongoing projects about Indian cooks and restaurants in Japan and the reproductive healthcare of Indian migrant women in Japan.

Works Cited

Amin, Satyajit. “Dear Indian Diaspora, We Need to Talk About Caste”. Varsity. 24 July 2020.

Mogul, Priyanka. “Has Caste Discrimination Followed Indians Overseas?The Diplomat. 6 December 2017.

Rajadesingan, Ashwin, Ramaswami Mahalingam and David Jurgens. “Smart, Responsible, and Upper Caste Only: Measuring Caste Attitudes through Large-Scale Analysis of Matrimonial Profiles.” Proceedings of the Thirteenth International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media. Vol. 13 (2019).

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.” Wikipedia.

Sophia University, Institute of Comparative Culture Homepage.

Wadhwa, Megha. “Cleaning toilets with a smile: The lessons you can learn from a convenience store side job.” The Japan Times. 23 June 2019.

—. Indian Migrants in Tokyo: A Study of Socio-Cultural, Religious, and Working Worlds. Routledge, October 2020.

—. “In the Age of COVID-19 – Indian restaurants and the Indian cooks in Japan.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Special Issue: Vulnerable Populations Under COVID-19 in Japan. Vol. 18, Issue 18, No. 12. Ed. David H. Slater. 15 September 2020.

—. List of publications.

—. “Megha Wadhwa: Indian cooks in Japan at the mercy of their bosses and the state? – Impacts of COVID-19.” Free University of Berlin, Graduate School of Esat Asian Studies Digital Lecture Series: East Asian Resonses to Crisis. Lecture scheduled for 29 April 2021.

—. Profile page, Free University of Berlin.