That the royal Japanese couple is coming to Chennai, following its stay in Delhi, is testament to the presence of a strong expat community in the city...

In January this year, Akemi Yoshii, who has called Chennai her home since 2008 was in Netherlands watching Life of Pi. She says, “I knew the film had some Indian connection but I had no idea that Pi’s family was from Pondicherry. So when the movie began and the Tamil song came on right at the beginning, I started crying. I don’t think I would have cried even if a Japanese song had come on. That’s when I realised how much I was missing Chennai.” She still loves Japan, but thinks of India and Chennai when someone says home.

While investments in Chennai have dominated much of the discourse on the city’s relationship with Japan, there is no denying that the cultures of these two places have a lot in common too. If Chennai comes alive with kolu during navaratri, the Japanese have a very similar festival featuring ‘steps’ and dolls called Hina-matsuri. Not to mention the close relationship between the linguistic order in Japanese and Tamil. Many youngsters are now learning Japanese in the city with colleges even offering it as an elective. Akira Hatayama, a Mechanical Engineer has opted out of his field to teach Japanese, here in Chennai. “I have lived here for ten years and have been teaching at the ABK - AOTS DOSOKAI Tamil Nadu Centre,” he says, “We have our own society here and now there are close to 700 Japanese people in Chennai.” While Akira enjoys eating out, he says he prefers Tamil ‘full meals’ to Japanese food. “Sometime it can be dangerous to try some of the local dishes but I still like to experiment,” he laughs. “I cannot live without rice and that’s another similarity between me and Chennaiites!” adds Akemi who has formally studied ancient Indian food.

A handful of Japanese restaurants have cropped up across the city, catering to the palates of both expats as well as locals. M. Mahadevan who owns the Japanese restaurant, Teppan, on TTK Road says, “Teppan features Japanese plate cooking which Indians like a lot. We preferred this to a Sushi bar because we felt that Chennai was still a bit conservative when we started, with its food choices. So we avoided raw food. Now things have changed of, course. But they love the table cooking at the restaurant, where the chef rustles up dishes according to every individual’s taste, while also performing, throwing knives around, etc.” While many Japanese expats enjoy the plate cooking, Mahadevan says, “Well they like their sake (rice wine) with food and they often complain that we don’t serve it. That’s the government rule!” He adds, “I am also very proud that the Japanese Emperor is visiting our restaurant Copper Chimney as a part of a programme we are organising!”

Not just food and tradition, in pop culture too, the two spaces enjoy an organic relationship. While ‘superstar’ Rajinikanth has a massive fan following in Japan and actor Kamal Hassan acted in Japan-il Kalyanaraman way back in 1985, Japan’s literary superstar Murakami’s magical realism finds just as much patronage among the city’s book lovers; as do Japanese anime. Ranjini Manian, whose company Global Adjustments helps expats relocate to Chennai says of the community, “Like us they are family oriented. Tradition and rituals mean a lot to them and they live the 'okyajusama oseva ni naru' an 'athithi devobhava’ equivalent.” Offering them an immersive experience in Indian culture, Global Adjustments also teaches Bollywood dancing, spoken English and offers a ‘Taste of India’ session which even includes a full ‘ela saapad’ to Japanese expats.

Kyoko Fukuda, who works in Chennai is excited about the royal couple’s visit and says, “Yes our emperor is coming. They (the couple) are 80 years old and this is their first time to India. And they will visit only Delhi and Chennai.” Koyoko has lived in Chennai for two years now and says it was very tough to adjust to the city initially, which is an experience the others we spoke to shared. “But now I have really got used to the city. People here are nice and I have made a lot of expat friends from other countries as well.”

But it’s not just business that’s brings the Japanese to Chennai. In the case of K. Suresh Shanmugam who is married to a Japanese doctor, whom he first met on the Internet, it was a matter of the heart. “She shares her time between Japan and Chennai. She is here for 20 days of the month and for the other 10 days she is there,” he says of his wife Dr. Hiroko Shanmugam, who is a paediatrician. Suresh and Hiroko also run a restaurant called Madras Kitchen in Kobe, Japan. “We have three young children and while Hiroko takes the youngest one with her back to Japan when she goes, I take care of the other two,” he adds.

“They are very disciplined and tough on the one hand as well as very respectful and polite on the other. The Japanese makes a lifelong friend. We had a Fukase family as neighbours in Venus colony who are still like family. Although they left Chennai they took India back with them in their heart,” says Ranjini of her Japanese friends, as she signs off.

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