The Indo-Japan Driver Exchange

The Indo-Japan Driver Exchange


Two lanky gentlemen are standing in a visa application line at the Japanese consulate in Delhi.

Mr Sajjan: “Mr. Sharma, remind me again why we’re exporting Indian drivers, of all things?
Mr Sharma: Sajjan Ji, it’s just another ploy by the opposition to trick the ruling government into embarrassing themselves. A conspiracy, I tell you!”
Mr. Sajjan: “Hain, aisa kya! Hmm. (Ahh, is that so!)”

At the Indian Embassy’s 3rd floor office in Japan, a soft-spoken Miss Hitomi asks Mr. Yomoda a question.

Miss Hitomi: “So you’re saying that some 100 Indians would be coming to Japan with indefinite working visas next month?”
Mr. Yomoda: “Yes. This is all part of some cross-cultural program. You know how the ministry gets just before the Olympics. You would think they were conducting some top-secret experiment, the way they hide it.”
Miss Hitomi: “Ahhh sou deskaaa… (Ahhh is that so!)”

Faced with a declining population and an economy that’s still the third highest in the world, Japan’s President has finally been successful in passing the Immigration Bill. Since the economic boom in the 1990s, Japan has been trying to overcome its labour shortage by re-employing retired workers for low-skilled jobs, encouraging part-time positions and bringing in blue-collar workers from overseas.

The latter has always been contentious, as Japanese people strongly value their society’s homogeneity. But under the Abe government, about 1.28 million foreign workers have gained entry in the last five years. The much debated immigration policy now calls for acceptance of another 340,000 into the fold by introducing two more visa types for immigration, vaguely defined as low-skilled workers and high-skilled workers.

Where countries like the USA have been toughening up their entry guard posts towards refugees and migrant workers, Japan’s upstream move makes sense only when you look at it from their socio-economic lens. What’s interesting however, is that unlike in places such as Australia, Canada and America, Abe’s bill hasn’t been met with an impossibly long line at Japanese Embassies across the world.

Scene 1: The Streets of Tokyo

Sardar Ji Autodriver: “They just won’t blow the horn, man. I saw one of those fancy-schmancy cars behind me today. The man didn’t speed up, wouldn’t try to overtake, nothing. Fellow finally changed lanes and went his way; I swear I almost sent up a prayer in relief. Strange people, these Japanese.”
Gangtok Lad: (nodding) “Exactly! I dreamt of that Shinjuku stretch last night, and it turned into a nightmare the minute those damned pedestrian lights came into view. Almost gave me a…”

Japanese people are notoriously tight-lipped. Go to any public place, even a train bursting to its seams, and it will be quiet enough for you to hear yourself breathe. There is also a deep consideration for other people and rules. Indian drivers, at best, are noticeable from afar. Their road manners are tough to defend when compared to Japanese drivers.

Being a stickler for traffic rules, among others, comes from a deep-rooted sense of family. Confused? The shadows of a feudalist regime still linger on in such simple habits (or it could be prohibitive fines that people incur, Lord knows how much the Indian Traffic Police Department has tried this one).  But, it’s more Absolutism than Feudalism according to Nitobe Inazo in Bu-Shi-Do.

When comparing the two, he said: “The difference between a despotic and a paternal government lies in this, that in the one the people obey reluctantly, while in the other they do so with ‘that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of exalted freedom.’”

So, it’s not fear that rules minds here. It’s an innate trust in the rightness of laws and the higher powers that be which brings everyone to a halt, even if it’s an orange traffic light.

Gangtok lad: “Some idiot left his suit in my taxi today.”
Swiggy dude from Bangalore: “Eh come on, people forget, it happens.”
Gangtok lad: “Yeah but he came back for it, and could not decide which black coat was his for 20 minutes! I’ve never seen someone that bothered over three identical black jackets! I had half a mind to pick one and send him on his way.”
Swiggy dude from Bangalore: “Why didn’t you, then?”
Gangtok lad: “The meter was running man. Who am I to say no to free money!”
Swiggy dude from Bangalore: “It’s weird though, for all the innovation Japan is famous for, eh not a lot of entrepreneurs around here.” *Swiggy guy brags for the next 10 about his start-up that failed*
Gangtok lad: “But wait, why are you driving then? And in Japan too…”
Swiggy guy from Bangalore: “Oh you know… Swiggy is also a food start-up you know, so I haven’t really quit the ecosystem yet. And then I saw this exchange thing and told my family I’m going for overseas expansion… But yeah, I just might start a company here in Japan. You never know… *looks into the distance vacantly*
Gangtok lad: That’s sexy man! You engineers are something else…don’t fear anything do you. Wait, you know what? If you need a racer, any car, you name it. I’m your guy!

Salaryman culture in Japan is as prominent as the sub-cultures are divergent. But in the corridors of start-up world, Japan’s name doesn’t turn up for its hospitable environment, while Japanese investors in most of these same aisles are highly coveted.

So what makes Japan willing to bet on foreign entrepreneurs more than their homegrown start-ups? Previously, commentators cited the extra cushy-ness of the regular corporate gigs as a steady deterrent stopping people from taking the start-up plunge, while some even attributed Horiemon, aka Takafumi Horie, the infamous founder of Livedoor and SNS, who went ahead and got arrested (of course, he didn’t just go and submit himself to the police authorities, but the blame still persists) after basically being the poster-boy for entrepreneurs in Japan.

But more recently, if you crawl Google with the relevant words, you begin believing the script: Japan’s views on start-ups are changing. If you attend a start-up event though, rare as they are, questions about the entry barriers into the Japanese ecosystem come up almost immediately. And stay. One such event had a speaker talk about the conservative, insider-outsider attitude of Japanese businessmen towards nouveau businessmen and her approach to these challenges.

Sardar Ji Autodriver: “I’m in love. Truest, purest, the most heart wrenching of love.” *sighs with dopey eyes*
Telangana Bus Guy: *whispers to SDB, while coming out of the Kabuki-za Theatre*He does know that this Kabuki-thing is just a drama, right? And that woman is… not a woman?”
Sardar Ji Autodriver: “Perfect as the first snow, I’m telling you men. This is it.”
Swiggy guy from Bangalore: “Fifth love interest this week, don’t sweat it.” *turns head towards Sardar Ji’s retreating figure* “No, no, no, Sardar Ji!! Waiiitt!”
Sardar Ji Autodriver: *Tw minutes later, wrenching away his hands from his friends* “I know, I know, what do you take me for, really. Of course, she’s not my Sakura. Hmph. I can differentiate an imposter from my love. Look, that one has a baby basket on her bicycle for God’s sake.” *points at a cosplayer zipping through the streets*. “Fakers, the whole lot of them. Hmph.”
Telangana Bus Guy: “Those bicycle baskets do look comfortable though, I could sleep in one, yeah… I can already imagine it. I wonder if they make them adult-sized here in Japan.”

Talking of Kabuki, the theatre art that was once also a euphemism for prostitution, was started by women, who incidentally were banned from the very art they created sometime in the 16th century. But since stories were inclusive still, young pretty men – known now as ikemen – were chosen to play the female characters instead.

Problem? The audience would still get rowdy over winning the favours and services of these beautiful creatures, so much so that the Shogunate had to be involved. The Premier, consequently, decided to exclude all forms of youth out of the equation all together. Which results in us watching, sigh, mature male artists playing the feminine roles, today.

But ikemen, often offering their company as hosts, have an even odder job opportunity today, that of handsome weeping boys. Yup, that’s exactly what you’re thinking, once again proving that if there’s an audience, Japan’s dignified capitalism ways will find a way to work it.

But, since the writer comes from India, she’ll maintain her silence on her outrage over the debate on the length of school skirts being the reason for train perverts’ (densha chikan) behavior, Japan’s age of consent (13!) and how it’s illegal today to not change your surname after marriage. Or the recent bill that dictates how people undergoing gender-change surgeries need to be sterilised.

A popular train advert comes to mind too, where the product, ski wear, finds an audience in minimum-wage workers planning to escape the mundane life with a ski trip. Both man and woman are separate entities, showing how companies have accepted the self-reliant streak in young people today and how the government’s increasing panic over the declining size of the earth’s oldest living society is unaffected by the sacrosanct bond of the salesman and his customer.

Closing Scene: 10,000 Ft. in the air, Tokyo to Mumbai

Sardar Ji Autodriver: *Practising British English from Youtube* “Beauuuu-tiful Landscape, Beauuuu…”
Gangtok Lad: “But Sardar Ji, Japanese don’t speak English like that.”
Telangana Bus Guy: “What are you saying man, they don’t speak it at all. Urghh.”
Sardar Ji Autodriver: “Arre, who’s telling my family that? I should look like a Foreign-return man now, regardless where we were.”
Swiggy fella blr: *Swiping through pictures on his phone*I’m sure they’ll be happy to just have you back.” *looks up at his countrymen*
Telangana Bus Guy: *Shaking his head in wonder*Kids these days.”
Swiggy fella blr: “Talking of coming back, who’s planning to return after the break? We’ve finished the government’s directives, so we don’t really have to turn up again, no?”
Telangana bus Guy: “True true.”
Sardar Ji Autodriver: *as an afterthought* “I almost couldn’t make this flight, my boss, that foreman wouldn’t let me leave for the holidays. This one time, I overnighted a freight lorry to some mountain, and that fool, somehow thought I would do it every night! Strange people, these Japanese. But I guess I am coming back, if only for the free houses they’re doling out.”
Telangana bus Guy: “But are we eligible? It’s for the citizens only, you know.”
Gangtok Lad: “I have some land at home too, in the mountains. But, these people are so exciting, everyone has somewhere to be. We could fit in here, maybe…”
Swiggy fella blr: “But will you ever belong?” *goes back to his phone*

As a society, Japan is quirky in that they never seem to completely adapt something; instead, they emulate aspects of religions, principles and cultures they like, and ignore the stuff they don’t. Being so isolated as an island country has its advantages in employing such selective hearing, or rather selective absorption.

History says Japanese folks were generally farmers and Ainu hunters at the start, then they opened the gates to the Chinese. In came Confucianism, Buddhism and the art and culture China is famous for. Gates close. During the last century, doors open again, in come the westerners with their technology, and Japan rises up to the challenge, learns the art of industrialising their country, but again, finds no need to adopt everything.

The problem with this behaviour comes when you’re dealing with people in the same discard-if-not-needed mentality. Which is what happened to the Nikkei Brazilians in 2009, when, as a response to the Financial Crisis, the government offered to pay the airfare for these immigrant families, who had lost their jobs, at the condition that they never return to Japan or seek jobs there. Which, if you consider that these same people had been welcomed back by the Government with special visas due to their association by ancestry to Japan and in many cases had been living here for decades, was an unceremonious way of being thrown out.

Presently, the critics as they always do, have heavily criticised Abe Administration’s roughshod job and lack of foresight while forming the Bill, on topics like citizenship, immigrant rights and cultural integration.

Maybe at this juncture, what Japan should really look into is their mentality for these outsiders, the “soto”. These temporary workers who’ll supposedly go away sometime in the future and not people who wish to make the country their home. While being a Kanri Shakai, a controlled society, has worked out well for Japan, if they’re opening the doors this time around, they should look into embracing the ones they let in.

Cover by Pepe Nero, inset illustrations by the author’s uncle

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