In many ways, Yogendra Puranik is an immigrant success story.
Mr. Puranik, 45, joined the first wave of Indian tech workers who went to Japan in the early 2000s. He became a Japanese citizen and in 2019 won elected office in Tokyo, a first for anyone from India. This year, he was appointed as the principal of a public school.
Now, though Japanese companies are scrambling to attract more highly educated Indians like Mr. Puranik to fill a huge shortage of IT engineers, he is under no illusions about the challenges Japan will face and the ones it will attract.
Recruiters describe it as a critical test of Japan’s ability to compete with the United States and Europe for increasingly sought-after global talent. But low wages and steep language and cultural barriers make Japan less attractive to many. Rigid corporate structures can discourage newcomers. And Japan, which has long been ambivalent about the presence of foreigners, lacks a well-established system for integrating them into Japanese life.
“These foreigners are coming, and there is no contact between the Japanese and foreigners,” Puranik said at his home in an Indian neighborhood in eastern Tokyo. “There is no universality going on.”
Aging rapidly, Japan desperately needs more workers to fuel the world’s third-largest economy and fill gaps in everything from agriculture and factory work to elderly care and nursing. In keeping with this reality, the country has eased its strict immigration restrictions in the hope of attracting hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, in particular through historical expansion For work visa rules approved in 2018.
The need for international talent is perhaps never greater than in the technology sector, where the government estimates the worker shortage will reach nearly 800,000 in the coming years as the country pursues its long-awaited national digitization effort.
The pandemic, by pushing work, education and many aspects of daily life onto online platforms, has exaggerated the technological shortcomings of a country once seen as a pioneer in high technology.
Japanese companies, particularly small ones, have struggled to wean themselves off physical paperwork and adopt digital tools. Government reports and independent analyzes show that Japanese companies’ adoption of cloud technologies lags nearly a decade behind their US counterparts.
India produces a raft of 1.5 million engineering graduates each year who can help Japan catch up with the digital landscape. When the Indian workers answer the call, many speak with admiration of the cleanliness and safety of the Japanese cities, and say that their pay allows them to live comfortably, if not lavishly. Those who have studied Japanese language and culture can be lavish in their praise.
“As with anyone who comes to Japan, you fall in love,” said Shaish Date, 50, who first went to the country in 1996 and is now chief technology officer at US financial services firm Franklin Templeton Japan in Tokyo. “It is the most beautiful country to live in.”
However, the Indian newcomers mostly admire Japan across the divide. Many of the 36,000 Japanese 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 curriculum standards.
Nirmal Jain, an Indian teacher, said she founded the International Indian School in Japan in 2004 for children who would not thrive in Japan’s one-size-fits-all public education system. The school now has 1,400 students on two campuses and is building a new, larger facility in Tokyo.
Ms. Jin said that separate schools are appropriate in a place like Japan, where people tend to stay away from strangers.
“I mean, they’re good people, everything’s perfect, but when it comes to personal relationships, it’s kind of lacking,” she said.
Puranik said fellow Indians often called him for help with emergencies or conflicts — a wandering father with dementia who ends up in police custody, his daughter being mistakenly stopped by border officers at the airport. He even got a call once from a worker who wanted to sue his Japanese boss for kicking him.
He said his son was bullied in a Japanese school – by the teacher. Mr. Puranik said he spoke to the teacher over and over again, but to no avail. “She was always trying to make him a criminal,” he said, adding that some teachers “feel challenged if a child does anything differently.”
A similar dynamic can be found in the workplace sometimes.
Many Indian tech workers in Japan say they face rigid corporate hierarchies and resistance to change, an irony in an industry that thrives on innovation and risk-taking.
“They want things in a certain order; they want case studies and past experiences,” Mr. Puranik said of some Japanese managers. “IT doesn’t work that way. No previous experience. We have to reinvent ourselves every day.”
The majority of Indian IT workers arrive in Japan without much knowledge of the language or culture, said Megha Wadhwa, a migration researcher and expert on Japanese and South Asian studies at the Free University of Berlin and author of the 2021 book “Indian Migrants in Tokyo.” “
This can hinder their careers while their peers are making strides back home or in the United States or Europe. They soon begin to explore their options and often end up moving elsewhere. In the United States, median salaries for tech workers are, by some estimates, more than double those in Japan.
“After removing the rose-colored glasses, they will know the real situation and feel the stagnation in Japan,” said Dr. Wadwa, who has lived and worked in Japan for 15 years.
However, Japanese companies have taken decisive steps in recent years to tap into the pool of Indian engineering graduates, either by bringing them to Japan or hiring them in India.
Japanese companies such as Rakuten and Mercari, both e-commerce companies, have set up operations in India. The Japanese government diverted aid to India to support the expansion of technology education.
Kotaro Kataoka, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Hyderabad, acts as an intermediary between Indian students and technology companies. He said Japanese recruits are getting off to a slow start in India by focusing instead on East Asian countries such as Vietnam and China which are more culturally similar to Japan.
But Indian recruits, he said, offer unfamiliar freelancers the reasoning that Japanese companies need to launch their own innovation efforts. “They do what they want, but sometimes that random and out of control aspect of Indian talent works well,” said Professor Kataoka.
Many Japanese argue that it is difficult for a country with historically low levels of immigration to match the resilience and diversity of countries in North America or Western Europe.
Big-name US tech companies have recruited aggressively in India, offering immigrant-friendly work environments, increased compensation packages, and very limited career advancement opportunities. Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and Adobe have all had Indian-born CEOs.
There are still efforts to fill the gaps in Edogawa. Mr. Puranik runs an Indian cultural center in his home where Japanese students take yoga lessons, and Indian and Japanese students gather for Indian drum percussion lessons from a Japanese teacher. Mr. Puranik often hosts Japanese college students for talks about Indian culture or immigration.
Japanese officials also provide venues and assistance for Indian cultural festivals attended by the wider community. Such symbolic gestures were nice, Mr. Puranik said, but more important was the provision of extensive Japanese language and cultural education training.
“There has to be more interaction,” he said. “Summer festival and Diwali festival, yes, once a year you can have that, that’s a reward. But you can’t say that the reward is your salary.”
At the same time, many Indians in Edogawa say the newcomers can do more to fit in with Japanese life.
Mr. Det, Franklin Templeton’s chief technology officer, said he and a few friends wanted to counter the growing reputation of Indians as noisy — a pet in a crowded city with thin-walled apartments — and a widespread belief that they were reluctant to conform to Japanese ways.
So their running group, Desi Runners of Tokyo, decided that the members would donate 10 yen for every kilometer they run. Last year, he said, they donated 400,000 yen, about $3,000, to a charity in Edogawa.
“We all agreed that we live here, we make money,” said Mr. Det. “Maybe it’s time to give back to Japan.”
“Amateur organizer. Wannabe beer evangelist. General web fan. Certified internet ninja. Avid reader.”