Japan needs Indian tech workers. But do they need Japan?

In many ways, Yogendra Puranik is an immigrant success story.

Mr Puranik, 45, joined the first wave of Indian tech workers who came to Japan in the early 2000s. He became a Japanese citizen and in 2019 was elected to Tokyo, a first for a Indian. This year, he was hired as the principal of a public school.

Now, however, as Japanese companies scramble to attract more educated Indians like Mr. Puranik to fill a gaping shortage of computer engineers, he is under no illusions about the challenges facing Japan, and those it attracts, will face.

Recruiters call it a crucial test of Japan’s ability to compete with the United States and Europe for increasingly in-demand global talent. But lower salaries and steep language and cultural barriers make Japan less appealing to many. Rigid business structures can frustrate newcomers. And Japan, which has long been ambivalent about the presence of foreigners, lacks an established system for integrating them into Japanese life.

“These foreigners are coming, and there is no communication between the Japanese and the foreigners,” Mr. Puranik said from his home in an Indian neighborhood in eastern Tokyo. “There is no inclusion happening.”

As it ages rapidly, Japan desperately needs more workers to fuel the world’s third-largest economy and fill the gaps in everything from agriculture and factory work to elderly care and nursing. Bowing to this reality, the country has relaxed tough immigration limits in hopes of attracting hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, including through a historic extension of work visa rules approved in 2018.

The need for international talent is perhaps no greater than in the technology sector, where the government estimates that the shortage of workers will reach nearly 800,000 in the coming years, as the country continues a long-awaited national digitization.

The pandemic, by pushing work, education and many other aspects of daily life onto online platforms, has amplified the technological gaps in a country once seen as a high-tech leader.

Japanese companies, especially smaller ones, are struggling to wean themselves off physical paperwork and embrace digital tools. Government reports and independent analysis show that the use of cloud technologies by Japanese companies is nearly a decade behind that of the United States.

India produces a large pool of 1.5 million engineering graduates every year who could help Japan catch up digitally. When Indian workers answer the call, many speak with admiration of the cleanliness and safety of Japanese cities, and say that their salaries allow them to live comfortably, if not lavishly. Those who have studied Japanese language and culture can be eloquent in their praise.

“As it happens to everyone who comes to Japan, you fall in love,” said Shailesh Date, 50, who first visited the country in 1996 and is now chief technology officer for the American company. financial services company Franklin Templeton Japan in Tokyo. “It’s the most beautiful country to live in.”

Yet Indian newcomers mostly admire Japan through a divide. Many of Japan’s 36,000 Indians are concentrated in the Edogawa section of eastern Tokyo, where they have their own vegetarian restaurants, places of worship and specialty grocery stores. The area has two major Indian schools where children study in English and follow Indian school standards.

Nirmal Jain, an Indian educator, said she founded the Indian International School in Japan in 2004 for children who would not succeed in Japan’s unique public education system. The school now has 1,400 students on two campuses and is building a new, larger facility in Tokyo.

Ms Jain said separate schools were appropriate in a place like Japan, where people tend to keep their distance from strangers.

“I mean, they’re nice people, everything is perfect, but when it comes to person-to-person relationships, it’s not,” she said.

Mr Puranik said his fellow Indians often call him for help in an emergency or conflict – the wandering father with dementia who ends up in police custody, the daughter mistakenly arrested by officers border at the airport. Once, he even answered a call from a worker who wanted to sue his Japanese boss for hitting him.

His own son, he said, was bullied in a Japanese school – by the teacher. Mr. Puranik said he spoke to the teacher several times, to no avail. “She would always try to make him a criminal,” he said, adding that some teachers “feel challenged if the kid does anything differently.”

A similar dynamic is sometimes found in the workplace.

Many Indian tech workers in Japan say they encounter rock-solid corporate hierarchies and resistance to change, a paradox in an industry that thrives on innovation and risk-taking.

“They want things in a particular order; they want case studies and past experiences,” Puranik said of some Japanese managers. ” It does not work like that. There is no past experience. We have to reinvent ourselves every day.

The majority of Indian IT professionals arrive in Japan without much knowledge of the language or culture, said Megha Wadhwa, migration researcher and expert in Japanese and South Asian studies at the Free University of Berlin and author of the 2021 book ” Indian Migrants in Tokyo”. ”

This can hamper their careers as their peers progress at home, in the United States or in Europe. They quickly begin to explore their options and often end up moving elsewhere. In the United States, the average salaries of technicians, by some estimates, are more than double those in Japan.

“Once the rose-colored glasses are taken off, they will know the real situation and feel stagnant in Japan,” said Dr Wadhwa, who lived and worked in Japan for about 15 years.

Yet Japanese companies have taken decisive steps in recent years to tap into the pool of Indian engineering graduates, either bringing them to Japan or employing them in India.

Japanese companies like Rakuten and Mercari, both e-commerce companies, have established operations in India. The Japanese government channeled aid to India to support the expansion of technological education.

Kotaro Kataoka, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad, acts as a matchmaker between Indian students and tech companies. He said Japanese recruiters got off to a slow start in India, focusing instead on East Asian countries like Vietnam and China, which are considered culturally more similar to Japan.

But Indian recruits, he said, offer the independent and original thinking that Japanese companies need to launch their innovation efforts. “They do whatever they want, but sometimes that random, uncontrollable aspect of Indian talent works well,” Professor Kataoka said.

Many Japanese say it is difficult for a country with historically low levels of immigration to match the flexibility and diversity of countries in North America or Western Europe.

Major US tech companies have recruited aggressively from India, offering immigrant-friendly work environments, rising pay packages and unlimited career advancement opportunities. Google, Twitter, Microsoft and Adobe have all had Indian-born CEOs.

Still, efforts are being made to fill the gaps in Edogawa. Mr. Puranik runs an Indian cultural center at his home where Japanese students take yoga classes, and Indian and Japanese students come together for Indian tabla percussion lessons given by a Japanese teacher. Mr. Puranik often hosts Japanese students for lectures on Indian culture or immigration.

Japanese authorities also provide venues and assistance for Indian cultural festivals attended by the wider community. Mr. Puranik said such symbolic gestures were nice, but it was more important to provide extensive language training and cultural instruction in Japanese.

“There needs to be more interaction,” he said. “Summer festival and Diwali festival, yes once a year you can have that, that’s a bonus. But you can’t say the bonus is your salary.

At the same time, many Edogawa Indians say newcomers could do more to integrate into Japanese life.

Mr Date, the head of technology at Franklin Templeton, said he and a few friends wanted to counter the growing reputation of Indians as loud – a pet peeve in a crowded city of thin-walled apartments – and a widespread belief that which they are reluctant to conform to Japanese customs.

Their group of runners, the Desi Runners of Tokyo, therefore decided that members would donate 10 yen for every kilometer run. Last year, they donated 400,000 yen, or about $3,000, to charity in Edogawa, he said.

“We all agreed: we live here, we make money,” Mr Date said. “Maybe it’s time to give back to Japan.”


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