Skip to Content

Indians in Japan: Work, Life, and Racism

On January 29, three foreign-born Japanese residents filed a lawsuit against the Japanese, Tokyo, and Aichi governments, alleging racial profiling. They sought 3.3 million yen (around $22,000) in compensation and government measures to combat racism.

The plaintiffs, Maurice, Syed Zain, and Matthew, who are permanent residents of Japan, hail from African-American, Pakistani, and Indian backgrounds, respectively.

This is the lawsuit against racism in Japan. It comes at a time when the country is challenging its idea of being a pure or “” nation amid an aging workforce and climbing immigration rates.

While Indians in Japan deny outright racism, many have experienced racism in one way or another. Yet they remain hopeful and also highlight the warmth of Japanese people.

According to the Japanese Ministry of Justice, in 2023, there were 46,262 Indian nationals living in Japan, primarily centered in Tokyo. They are mostly involved in the information technology (IT) and creative sectors.

Indians in Japan have a long history. The first recorded Indian in Japan was Bodhisena, who traveled to the island nation in 736 CE during the Nara Era. He is credited with spreading Buddhism in Japan, something many Japanese remember even today.

In contemporary times, the business and services sectors house many Indians in Japan. According to Srabani Roy Choudhury, professor in Japanese Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, “Apart from education, the primary driver for Indian immigration to Japan today is the IT sector. In fact, there are so many Indians in Japan, that Nishi-Kasai, a Tokyo neighborhood, is now known as Japan’s Little India.” Many Indian men, she said, have married Japanese women and have started settling in Japan.

Anshul Chauhan, 30, an award-winning Tokyo-based Indian filmmaker and animator, who has a Japanese spouse, said, “I have been in Japan for more than 12 years now. My wife is Japanese and so are most of my friends. Yes, not everyone is or can be kind, but Indians are respected a lot due to our hard-working ethic, business sense, and culture.”

These biracial families have created a new Japanese community, colloquially known as hāfu, a Japanese rendition of the English to denote biracial Japanese.

Priyanka Yoshikawa, born to a Japanese mother and Indian father, was crowned Miss World Japan in 2016, only the second-ever hāfu to win the title. Yet her win was followed by , where she was called out for not being “pure” and Japanese enough to represent Japan.

Ninety-eight percent of Japan’s population today is ethnically Yamato. The concept of purity and homogeneity or Junketsu (Pureblood), crystalized through the Nihonjinron literature originating in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), looms large in Japanese society. Throughout history, other ethnic groups such as the Burakumin, Ryukyuans, and Ainu have faced discrimination. Even today, the Japanese government regards these groups not as distinct ethnicities but rather as sub-groups of the majority Yamato.

“Japan has been a highly homogenous society for a very long time. For the Japanese, a foreigner will always be a foreigner,” Choudhury said, adding that “there are certain characteristics, like white skin, that are preferred and deemed to be more Japanese.”

There is a famous proverb in Japan dating back to the Nara Era (the one in which Bodhisena visited the island nation): “White skin covers the seven flaws” (Iro no shiroi wa shichinan kakusu). During that period, women would regularly apply oshoroi, a powder to whiten the skin. This obsession with white skin stands strong even today.

As per Divij Bodhiraja, a 23-year-old software engineer in Tokyo, “I have a Nepali friend who has been randomly stopped by the police multiple times and asked to show his ID and even get his bag checked. His complexion is a bit darker than all of us, and we figured that to be the reason behind these random checks. Similar things have happened with people I know from Bangladesh.”

Chowdhury said that she “denied teaching an English class” on behalf of her American friend “because the school authorities believed that English can only be taught by a fair-skinned teacher.”

Another racist practice that has been experienced by many is the Gaijin Seat phenomenon. Gaijin Seat, which literally means “seat for a foreigner,” is a practice wherein Japanese people tend to distance themselves from a foreigner as soon as they sit nearby.

“When I once went to sit inside a packed metro, the guy next to me immediately stood up and kept standing for nearly 30 minutes until he finally got off,” Divij said.

According to Chauhan, “It [Gaijin Seat] does happen occasionally. But it isn’t limited to just Indians, it’s the same for all foreigners.”

However, many admit that amid an aging workforce and labor shortages, acceptance of immigrants is growing in Japan. In this regard, the younger generation is more accepting of immigrants, Chauhan said.

Pointing out that the Japanese follow their customs religiously, Shivansh Bajar, a 23-year-old computer engineer in Aichi, argued that if an immigrant follows these traditions, they do not have problems. “Tattoos on visible body parts are frowned upon in Japan. So many Americans have problems here, but for us Indians, it is pretty much the way it is back home.”

A 2022 survey by the revealed that nearly 63 percent of the surveyed foreigners were racially profiled and stopped by the police multiple times. Similar findings of blatant racism were also reiterated by the in their survey. In December of 2021, the U.S. Embassy in Japan even put out a for U.S. citizens to carry their documents as Japanese police were stopping and detaining foreigners.

While Article 14 of the Japanese Constitution does guarantee equality before the law, the country does not criminalize racism and discrimination.

The lawsuit by the three gaikokujin (foreigners) as of now has a long way to go. None of the Indians interviewed for this story had any idea about the lawsuit. Yet a campaign for the lawsuit launched by the three plaintiffs has garnered close to 2.2 million yen ($14,500).

While Japan grapples with an aging population, the inflow of immigrants is only expected to soar, meaning addressing issues like racism is the need of the hour.