Kobe Indians: Four Generations as ‘Gaijins’ in Japan

I spent the weekend in bed with Yokohama Yankee: My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan. I read books all the time. Most books are somewhat educational with something to offer. But once in a blue moon you come across a book where someone narrates their life story as if it were your own. Leslie Helm is that man. The parallels were startling. 

yokohamayankee

I come from an old Indian trading family that has its roots in Surat, a port city in Gujarat. Currently, Surat is the economic capital of the Indian state that’s famous for food, textile and diamonds. My family left Surat a long time ago. 

In 1904, my great-grandfather moved to Kobe. He had three kids. My paternal grandmother was one of them. She grew up in Hyogo Prefecture. She wasn’t Japanese – but the Kansai dialect of Japan was her first language. It’s rare to find born-and-bred ‘gaijins’ in Japan now. It was even rarer then. Since coming to Japan, I’ve been curious about grandma’s life here. 

I’ve asked around time and time again. I’ve looked for answers. But since I come from a business family – people aren’t particularly chatty about their personal lives. I don’t agree with it – but I get it. Until I read Helm’s book, it was hard to piece together a vaguely coherent history. Most people don’t come from international trading families – so they don’t understand what it’s actually like to grow up in one. Everyone in my family speaks at least three or more languages. There are very few people in my family who share the same first language, were born in the same country or are married to people who grew up in the same city as them. My international genealogy has always fascinated me.

kobe-port
Kobe Port in 1880

Japan is just one of the long list of places where I have family history. I’m a curious person. Always have been. I always have so many questions – much to the irritation of my parents and teachers. Why did my ancestors move to Japan? Why did they leave? And on a personal note: why have I returned? How do I fit into this obscure incomprehensible world of being a ‘gaijin’ in Japan? 

The first time I came to Japan, I was 12 years old. I was utterly smitten by the land of the rising sun. I told my father I wanted to come back here to live. 15 years later, I would fulfil that dream. But a part of me envies Helm – for being able to piece together his history and figure out how he’s a part of this very complicated culture that’s moulded him; but that he’ll never truly be a part of. 

As for me – I realised last night that I was tired of asking around. Tired of trying to piece together a puzzle where I can’t find the pieces. I don’t know why but it was Helm’s book that finally gave me that sense of peace. It made me realise that the past is as unknowable as the future. That I need to focus my energy on the present and creating the life I want. 

Growing up in a business family wasn’t easy. Despite the privileges, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. If there’s a song that encapsulates my family history perfectly, it’s Bruce Dickinson’s Navigate the Seas of the Sun. I don’t know where I will go next or what the future holds – but I know, like the gentleman in the Two of Wands that I hold the world in my hand. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The world has and will always be my oyster. I have my ancestors to thank for that. Some things are just in the genes. 


Author: Dipa

Tarot Tales from Japan

13 thoughts

  1. You’re also me! Same thing with the family history and not getting answers. My mom told me enough about her side, so I’m familiar with it. My father’s side is a huge mystery. Apparently some obscure cousin in Australia. Found out via Genealogy.com. Lost touch with them. Then got told by my mother my father had mentioned relatives in Oz.

    All I know of my dad is he was born and raised in Transylvania as part of the Hungarian minority. Never identified as Romanian, didn’t hate the country either. I know the place he lived in, Cluj. And even though I live really close (well, in the next country), still haven’t gone there to explore. One day. Soon.

    Here’s the irony. In Germany my then best friend was close with a family from the same region, same family name as my dad (he changed it later, before I was born). There’s a huge possibility we were related. We pretty much hated each other. In Finland there’s another family, possibly from the same region. Possibly relatives, too. On the few occasions we ran into each other, you could cut the tension with a knife. Decided to play nice and not hate, so nicknamed them after the Adams family. 😂

    I’m not sure if I’d wish it on anyone, that lifestyle. I’m glad I had it. But if I ever have kids, I couldn’t honestly say if I’d expose them to it, too. Right now I’d say yes, but I’d make sure they had a country they could always come back to. To feel more connected.

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    1. Yea I know what you mean – in a way it’s nice – being part of something so much bigger than yourself. But it can be confusing/take a long time to figure things out. Growing up it was hard….

      But now that I live in Japan: a homogeneous country, I also think they miss out. As a culture they’re also not particularly adaptable, either.

      I think either extreme is not a good idea.

      Really fascinating about your family. We have lots in common! The tarot and now the international family saga haha!

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      1. I think my Japanese friend agreed when I told her that the Japanese are to Asia as Germans are to Europe. I really do believe that every nation has its twin on one of the other continents. To me it was that rigidity, the reluctance to bend the rules, and when you break out, it’s extreme. I’m not into the culture like some of my friends who can name any and every trend, tradition, holiday, etc. I’m interested in the country and the culture, I think based on my friends from there (the way you tend to get interested in their cities, countries, because they are your friends).

        The loneliness, yes. I hated where we lived in Germany, and generously extended that hatred to the entire country and its people. So my tactic was to wear that difference like a mantle. I was so happy not to be one of them. But I hated being associated with the country.

        When I started this blog, that was one of the ideas, to meet others like me. So that seems to have worked. 😃 Didn’t want it to be in a cliched way though. This, “ooh, you moved, so did I.” Just something natural, where you bond over mutual interests and then discover all these similarities.

        And Hungary is the same, very homogenous. Even though everyone is mixed with something. People’s names give that away, all the neighboring nationalities are present in the family names. And their ancestors came out of Mongolia. But white supremacy it is. 🙄 Agree though, neither extreme works.

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      2. Yes – Japan and Germany have a lot of cultural similarities. In a way it’s nice – I kind of always know what to expect out of people. The efficiency is great, too. But that sense of distance – that you never truly know anybody – is really creepy. I don’t know about Germany – but here in Japan, they avoid conflict at all costs. It’s why they don’t like difference.

        I understand the need to connect with likeminded people. Ultimately, we humans are social creatures.

        I also don’t think that everyone who travels necessarily has an open mind. Some of the most close-minded people I’ve met have been expats. Especially since many of them choose to live in an ivory tower and never have to integrate with society.

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      3. Yes! So true! I’ve said this somewhere, that they’ve usually only lived in one other country. And definitely the ivory tower. I avoid expats at all cost, even hate the term. You can call me a lot of things, and they’ll just bounce right off me, but if you really want to insult me, just call me an expat. Expats are just biding their time until they can go back to the Glorified Motherland. There was

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      4. all this debate about what exactly constitutes an expat. Skin color doesn’t matter, it’s the mindset. If you’re just counting the hours in your little ivory tower, you’re an expat. And they always complain about … well, everything.

        Germans love to confront and attack. I mean, look at WWI & WWII. A German will always insist on their right, loudly and clearly. No consideration for others. And there’s a lot of hidden anti-Semitism. To the outside they present a facade of, “oh it was terrible.” Because that’s what they’ve been taught to do. But I’ve had History teachers who openly claimed “the numbers of the Jews killed in the camps wasn’t as high as alleged,” German teachers who refused to cover any material to do with WWII, even though it was on the syllabus. And I could go on. They’re basically like foot soldiers, awaiting instructions. I always call them the robots of Europe. I think the sense of duty is where they’re like the Japanese. My friend said the same thing, a strong reluctance to disagree.

        The barrier is there in Finland, too. There’s an easy warmth missing from most interactions. It’s there. People are extremely kind and helpful. But you always feel like they’re not letting you in. Touching your friend, not so much. You always sense that distance no matter how close you are. In a few cases it wasn’t there, but for the most part, all interactions seem so functional.

        On the other hand, I’ve had some deep and very close friendships in Finland. And people in general aren’t mean. Just . . . I’m used to smiling at people. I like having a conversation which includes smiles without the other person thinking I’m flirting. I also appreciate the small niceties. If I’m at a party, and there are four of us at the table, I like the polite conversation. I don’t think you’re extending a marriage proposal. Not kidding. You address them, and they ignore you because they want to flirt with a certain person (flirting meaning you actually talk).

        Hungarians don’t smile that much either. If they’re in a mood, they’ll let you know. But then you get the ones that become super chatty.

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      5. Yep – it sounds like the Germans and the Japanese are very similar in a lot of respects… It’s hard to get close so when you’re here as a ‘foreigner’ you never quite manage to bond. But since I’ve been here long enough I’ve realised that they’re the same with each other, too. With the distance, it’s easier to avoid conflict cause we’re not actually friends.

        Yea – I’m the same. Hospitable, warm, friendly – a lot of people in this context consider it ‘weakness’ or ‘too nice’.

        I tell you one word I hate more than expat and that’s ‘foreigner’. I’ve really come to despise it. Also the connotation it has in Japanese is just… URGH!

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      6. Yeah. And as a non-local you’re meant to leave at any moment. To the locals you’re just in transit. I heard that in Finland.

        I feel you with the “foreigner.” With me it was the opposite though. In Germany I was very happy to be the foreigner. Where it gets weird is France. I’m a foreigner there, even though I’m French. That one’s weird to me. It always felt like an alien culture to me. One I was just pretending at. But then there are some traits I notice in myself, or some attitudes that do make me French.

        I get the logic of avoiding conflict. But it’s so sad. You wouldn’t let someone close just because there might be conflict? Is it really worth it? I mean, their mindset. I’m sure there’s a good reason, and for us it’s an unfathomable concept, but I think it takes a lot of willpower to live like that.

        The weakness part, so true. Interestingly, I was told in Finland that I couldn’t be trusted, because I was nice to everyone, I talked to everyone the same. I can understand the guy’s logic, and it was a guy, so that factors in. But it did make me think. In Hungary, when I was in college, one girl on my course told me I was too happy. I didn’t like her anyway, so I told her it was her problem, not mine. 😇🤣

        I have to ask, what is the connotation of a foreigner in Japan? In Hungary it’s all about the skin tone. The lighter the better. But you’re still expected to tan, to look pretty. 🙄🙄🙄What amuses me, or rather what I find ironic, is the wave of immigrants coming here to “escape the migration problem back home.” I’m just sitting there thinking, you do realize that makes you a migrant, too?! And you don’t even speak the language, because you as sure as anything are not going to sit down and pick it up.

        To be fair, it is a really hard language. And if you only speak one language that’s not Finno-Ugric it’ll make it really hard. But my beef is with the stupidity. Come for the culture, for nature, for the architecture. But leave the bigotry back home.

        Lastly, being hospitable, warm, and friendly is actually a sign of strength. You’re opening yourself up for a world of danger. 🙂

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      7. HAHA -‘bring hospitable, warm, and friendly is actually a sign of strength. You’re opening yourself up for a world of danger.’ HAHAHAHA. Oh man, that is so true. I’m going to put that in my book of quotes.

        Well – I know lots of Japanese people – born in Japan but and lived overseas for a while who would be considered foreigners in Japan, too. I think cultures that pride themselves on being monolingual usually have a hard time dealing with other cultures.

        Group think is also a HUGE thing in Japan. I hear the words ‘that is not Japanese’ said from one born-and-bred Japanese to another all the time. And that, too – as an insult. Although I think a lot of what constitutes Japanese culture is based around a series of myths – much like other cultures. Except the likelihood that a Japanese person interacts with a ‘foreign’ person on a daily basis is rare.

        Why do you feel like a foreigner in France? I’ve heard that sentiment from lots of other French people, too.

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      8. I think it’s the general sentiment when you’ve lived abroad. Just realized that now, as I was writing this, how true this is of Hungary, too. I didn’t grow up here, but my growing years, they were here. My inner traits, they were shaped by birth, perfected in the U.S. and in Hungary. I haven’t been back in America in ages, but coming back last year after fifteen years . . . people changed, moved on with their lives. I wanted to continue where we left off. There are so many things I’m missing, references to events, people. And everyone thinks I know. It’s really interesting for me, because I never went back, except to Chicago after 10 years. But I was nine when we left. And when I came back, I knew I’d stay in Europe.

        In France it’s mainly that my English is much better than my French. And missing out on the references. Funny, over here I consider myself Hungarian, half Hungarian. So do others around me. Then again, a lot of people left and came back after a while, for a visit, or to stay. A friend of mine reminded me that I had to build up everything here again. Whereas the others were born and raised here. Funny thing is I didn’t know her back then, even though she’s a very good friend of a close relative with whom I hung out back then.

        Yes, being monolingual doesn’t really set the rails for thinking outside the box. People also seem to discourage being multi-lingual. Interesting thing here is, even though they’re really pushing for foreign languages to be taught (English, French, German, Spanish), they’re very clearly foreign languages. Common wisdom is, necessary tools. Yet, there was a saying you have as many souls as you speak languages, another good quote for you. 😃 Well, it’s one of my favorites. Friend of mine here saw me switch between languages and said I became a different person every time.

        That’s sad about the community being stronger than this self. Same here though. Everything is about not bringing shame on you. Standards of virtue are impossible.

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      9. I think when it comes to cultural references – a lot of things get easily get lost in translation – even when two people are speaking the same language. Just look at English for instance – the Americans and the Brits can go on and on and on….

        The older I get, the more nostalgia scares me. Whenever I go home – I realise that things have changed but things are also kind of the same… so yea…

        “You have as many souls as you speak languages” – that is so true. If you only speak one language, you only live one life…

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  2. My grandfather on my dad’s side figured out the family genealogy (before the internet) by road trips and combing through old birth records. He even organized it into a very detailed and large binder going back through hundreds of years of history, all the way back to our ancestors’ tombstones in Irelands.

    It’s crazy to think what they went through.

    However, my mom’s side is almost a complete mystery. We have the family grave yard, but before their arrival to the US we have no clue where they came from.

    It’s amazing putting together the puzzle pieces of who we are and how we came to be. It’s also very frustrating. I really appreciate my grandfather going through the trouble to create that, including copies of all the birth records he came across.

    It blows the mind.

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    1. Wow. Interesting stuff. I look forward to hearing more about it when I see you.

      Generally speaking – I’ve noticed that it’s easier to find genealogy through the father’s side than the mothers for a wide variety of reasons which I won’t go into in this comment.

      Irish huh! No wonder you love the Wildwood Tarot deck 🙂

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