The face of Japan is changing. There are Tokyo neighborhoods, says Sapio (July-August), where 75 percent of the coming-and-going crowd are foreigners – Asians mostly, with Chinese and South Koreans predominating, but increasingly South Asian; African too. Japan’s days of racial, national and cultural homogeneity are numbered if not over.
You see it particularly – certainly not only – in Shinjuku Ward’s Okubo district, long known as “Korea Town.” Exiting JR Shin Okubo Station nowadays, you might almost think yourself in the Middle East. On “Islam Dori” (Islam Avenue) are halal restaurants, mosques, spices redolent of an Arab souk. Walk farther on and you’ll notice boutiques selling saris and other ethnic costumes. Signs deliver their messages in this language, that language.
New York is used to this. In Tokyo, it’s still a novelty. In 1979, Sapio says, there were roughly 93,000 foreign residents of Tokyo’s 23 wards. There are now 414,000. They are students, researchers, small business owners, chefs, waiters. They staff convenience stores – so much so that in some Tokyo conbini even a regular customer may never see a Japanese employee.
A Vietnamese entrepreneur Sapio speaks to opened his restaurant in Okubo three years ago. It’s a Vietnamese-style sandwich bar, catering primarily to Vietnamese students. “So many nationalities,” he says. “It’s very stimulating.” He could have worked, he says, for a Japanese company in Vietnam – there are many – but “the money is better in Japan.” Now that he’s here, “I plan on staying.”
A Nepalese who’s been here 20 years runs a Nepalese restaurant and publishes a “free paper” for the growing Nepalese community. He figures there are 70,000 Nepalese in Japan, 3800 in Shinjuku Ward. It’s the “Japanese dream” – Japan is a land of opportunity. “Many Nepalese dream of life abroad,” he says. Japan is not the first choice; rather, the fourth, after the U.S., U.K. and Australia. Any problems? he is asked; friction with locals and so on?
Not with locals, he says: “Between Nepalese and Japanese, or between Nepalese and people of other nationalities, there are no problems But among Nepalese – for example, if one Nepalese sets up a restaurant and it does well, another may open a competitor across the street. Then they fight over customers.”
There is much talk lately of Japan’s aging and declining population being in need of a youth boost from abroad. Some like the idea, others don’t. Fears among the latter include unassimilable foreign communities, cultural tensions and, at worst crime, if not outright terrorism. They might be reassured by a stroll through Okubo and similar neighborhoods, where vibrancy shows no sign of turning delinquent. In Tokyo’s 23 wards, 83,000 youngsters came of age on the Coming-of-Age Day holiday in January; 18,000 of them were foreign. In Shinjuku Ward, 45.8 percent of new adults were foreign. The rough figure for Japan as a whole is 1 in 20.
The “convenience store foreigners” are a remarkable phenomenon, says Sapio. Nationwide, some 40,000 foreigners work at 50,000-odd outlets. That started in 2008. The numbers dipped in 2011, the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake and ensuing meltdown at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, but soon recovered. Last year saw a particular sharp rise.
A regular United Nations is your local conbini. The staffer who greets you with a welcoming Irasshaemase! might be from China, South Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia, Myanmar, Uzbekistan – that’s not an exhaustive list. Most are studying Japanese, combining their student workload with 28 hours a week or more behind the conbini cash. It’s a tough schedule – maintained because with 28 hours a week the pay goes up to 1000 yen an hour, and tuition costs are high.© Japan Today