Shin-Ōkubo: Tokyo’s Thriving Ethnic TownSociety
Japan’s “Asia Town”
Returning to Japan after 10 years living and traveling in mainland Asia, the country no longer looked the same. During my time away from home, the foreign population had exploded, the outcome of government measures to offset demographically driven labor shortages with workers from overseas. Nearly every place I went—convenience stores, restaurants, supermarkets—had foreigners on staff.
This development, although somewhat surprising at first, piqued my interest as a former expat. Living in Thailand, I had been part of a thriving Japanese community of some 70,000 residents, a population sufficiently large enough to support me in eking out a living as an editor and writer for a local Japanese-language information magazine. Back on my native soil, I was curious to see how the diverse foreign residents, particularly from countries around mainland Asia, were building their own ethnic enclaves in Japan.
I started walking around the different multicultural neighborhoods that dot the Tokyo metropolitan landscape, places like Takadanobaba, where there is a Myanmarese enclave, and Nishikasai with its community of Indian expats, many of whom work in the IT industry. I also visited little Thailand in Hachiōji in western Tokyo, which boasts its own Thai Buddhist temple, and the new Chinatown around Nishi-Kawaguchi Station in Saitama Prefecture. I spoke with people about where they found ingredients for dishes from home, the restaurants and cafés they hung out with friends at, and the Japanese schools they attended. As I did, one name continued to pop up: Shin-Ōkubo. Intrigued, I decided to take a look.
The Shinjuku neighborhood is best known for its booming Koreatown. But this, I discovered, is only part of the story. There, setting alongside the numerous Korean eateries and gift shops, I found a tantalizing array of stores and restaurants catering to inhabitants from all across Asia. The Shin-Ōkubo I had known from my younger days had transformed into a bustling international enclave.
Touring the neighborhood, I was entranced by the kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, and smells. On one street a middle-aged man sporting a white skullcap worn by Muslims hummed a tune as he sailed by on his bicycle; on another lane I was assailed by the fragrant odor of spices and distinctive sounds of an Indian pop song. Here and there I spotted groups of young Vietnamese, presumably students, chatting cheerfully. Seemingly at every turn I heard the unmistakable sounds of people conversing in Chinese, Thai, and any number of other tongues. When I stopped to observe the signs on the side of a multi-tenant building, it seemed only natural to find scripts ranging from English to Korean to Nepali.
Amid such an array of languages, I was surprised to find that Japanese, by necessity perhaps, serves as the lingua franca of Shin-Ōkubo. I heard international students use it to communicate with classmates from other countries. At a spice shop, a Chinese customer haggled in Japanese with the Nepalese clerk, while outside a greengrocer an African woman in richly colored traditional garb conversed fluently with the Japanese attendant. This struck me as odd at first, but I came to understand the central role Japanese plays in the workings of the neighborhood. In all its accented permutations, the language is the backbone of Shin-Ōkubo’s diversity.
Navigating the district evinced nostalgia for the sights and sounds I had known while living in mainland Asia. Enchanted by the familiarity in the easygoing attitudes and warm friendliness of its foreign residents, in 2018 I decided to make Shin-Ōkubo my home. Walking the streets as a resident and observer, I compiled my encounters and thoughts in the book Rupo Shin-Ōkubo: Imin zensen toshi o aruku (Exploring Shin-Ōkubo: A Look at a Neighborhood on the Frontline of Immigration).
The overhead railroad tracks of the Yamanote Line divide Shin-Ōkubo’s international quarter into two parts. To the east is Koreatown, the neighborhood’s best-known landmark, characterized by its numerous specialty shops lined with faces of K-pop stars and restaurants offering all manner of Korean cuisine. Looking at the area today, it is hard to imagine that its reputation as a Korean enclave dates back only about two decades. In the early 2000s the FIFA World Cup, which was cohosted by Japan and South Korea, and massive popularity of the South Korean television drama Winter Sonata attracted a slew of investors who developed Koreatown as a tourist attraction.
The west side of the tracks has a very different, and to me more alluring, character. Here, residents from Central, South, and Southeast Asia make up a sizable portion of the population, and the streets are lined with all variety of businesses serving their needs. There are grocers selling exotic spices and vegetables along with imported household items, companies offering international money transfer services, and any number of ethnic restaurants serving up a tantalizing variety of authentic dishes. The wide variety of free newspapers printed in different languages attests to the diversity of the area, as does the profusion of places of worship, including mosques, churches, and Taiwanese and Hindu temples. Wandering the neighborhood, I am sometimes struck by the uncanny sense that I am no longer in Japan, but visiting some distant Asian destination.
It is hard to ignore the area’s distinctively youthful feel, though, a quality I attribute to the numerous Southeast Asians, particularly Vietnamese, students residing here.
Dreams of Japan
Shinjuku is home to some 40,000 foreign residents, around half of whom are in Japan to study. Not surprisingly, the area stretching from Shin-Ōkubo to nearby Takadanobaba supports a host of Japanese language schools and vocational colleges catering to international students. One group that is conspicuously absent from the inflow of foreigners settling in Tokyo are participants of Japan’s technical intern training scheme, who typically are placed at regional factories and farms.
In the early evenings, around the time classes finish, foot traffic along the main road from the station begins to pick up. Stalls selling street foods like kebabs and Korean-style cheese hot dogs start to do a brisk business and people chat as they head to their next destination, which for international students typically means a part-time job. Most foreigners enrolled in schools have to hold down one or more part-time jobs to cover tuition and cost of living. These are largely low-paying service industry positions like convenience store clerk, restaurant server, and hotel cleaning staff. For those who qualify, the kitchens in Koreatown’s eateries also provide a ready source of employment.
Japanese law caps the amount international students can work in a week at 28 hours and it can be a struggle to make ends meet. I frequently hear people say they would like to work more, but those who do risk having their visa revoked as punishment. In addition, students often face harsh work conditions, which combined with financial worries can weigh heavily on their studies.
Hanging out with friends at a favorite café offers a respite from these real-world concerns. And Shin-Ōkubo is filled with choices. Two establishments offering a taste of home for young Vietnamese expats are Egg Coffee and Heo-chan, where on any given evening there is bound to be a group crooning along to the latest Vietnamese pop tunes and snapping photos on their smartphones. Speaking from experience, living abroad can bring bouts of melancholy, and it is the chance to chase away the blues with a visit to a welcoming place with familiar faces that draws many to the neighborhood.
This is not to say that the foreign youths who frequent these shops are itching to head home. Quite the opposite is true. Japan offers a diligent person the chance to earn good money to help support family back home while also building a career. A considerable portion of students enrolled at a Japanese language school plan to continue their studies at a technical college or university in the hopes of eventually working for a Japanese company. Although the pandemic has put a damper on gatherings and travel restrictions have reduced the number of international students entering Japan, the heart of Shin-Ōkubo continues to beat to the rhythm of the dreams of its young inhabitants.
The district’s crowd of determined business owners are another group shaping the local atmosphere. Having so many nationalities congregated in one spot creates unique opportunities for entrepreneurs like Duong Anh Duc, who runs Egg Coffee. Duong hails from Vietnam, but he has not limited his enterprises to cuisine from his homeland. Noticing the rising popularity of Korean food, he opened the restaurant Gogi-chan, which quickly earned a reputation for serving authentic dishes like samgyeopsal, a type of grilled pork belly, that were on par with other shops in Koreatown. He also jumped on Japan’s tapioca bandwagon early on, renting a small stand to dole out bubble tea and other delights.
Now in his early thirties, Duong first came to Japan to study the language and eventually earned a degree from a Japanese university. Rather than job hunting, though, he set to work building his own company, something he says he first started thinking about during his student days. “A lot of people who come here to study have the same idea,” he explains. “They might work in an office for a while, but before too long they quit and go into business for themselves.”
Shin-Ōkubo has proved to be fertile ground for savvy entrepreneurs like Duong. The uptick in halal grocery stores run by Nepalese and Bangladeshi proprietors is one obvious example of the flourishing business landscape. Fields like imports and exports, IT, and translating also offer rich prospects for success, with solo endeavors and small operations making up a sizable portion of commercial activity in the foreign community.
Judging from the number of new stores opening, COVID-19 is having a negligible impact on business sentiment. In fact, many entrepreneurs even see it as an opportunity. In the words of a halal market owner I met: “With the coronavirus bringing rents down, it’s a buyer’s market.” He says the prevailing view around town is that the pandemic will eventually subside and the inflow of foreign students will return to normal. He advises other foreign proprietors to be ready, insisting that now is a good time to invest.
Since moving to Shin-Ōkubo, I have become acquainted with several of the foreign shop owners in the area. Consummate merchants, upon spotting me they are quick to ask my thoughts about a product or implore me to plug a new service on offer. Their manner of bantering with passersby reminds me of Japan’s shōtengai, the shopping streets that once served as community hubs in neighborhoods around the country. Here, though, the vendor beseeching customers to step inside with cries of “rasshai, rasshai!” is likely to be a foreign shopkeeper.
Misconceptions and Stereotypes
Admittedly, Shin-Ōkubo’s emergence as an ethnic enclave has produced its own set of issues. Problems like noise and improper disposal of garbage are perennial trouble spots. Landlords hold orientation meetings to explain building rules and manners to new foreign residents, but compliance is not guaranteed. A degree of friction is inevitable with such an array of nationalities living in close proximity. However, the onus is firmly on the expat community to respect and observe Japanese practices and customs.
Fights are another headache for authorities. I have witnessed alcohol-fueled altercations involving Japanese, but far more frequently heated disputes are between foreigners from the same country. For instance, the Metropolitan Police Department arrested two Nepalese nationals for assault in October 2020. The media reported that the pair were members of a Nepalese gang called the Tokyo Brothers. When word got out that the group was based in Shin-Ōkubo, the neighborhood’s reputation suffered as a result.
Little is known about the gang, but one Nepalese acquaintance speculated that its membership consisted of young dependents of foreigners working in the country. The government has expanded its visa program for students, professionals, and technical interns in a bid to alleviate Japan’s labor shortage. Authorities also allow foreign workers to bring over family members like spouses and children, which helps provide a stable, supportive environment during the duration of their stay.
As the number of young dependents has increased, though, not all have been able to adjust to their adopted home. There are numerous reasons why some individuals end up feeling socially detached, including difficulty adjusting to cultural norms and poor Japanese language skills. With few outlets for their frustrations, these foreign youths band together in groups like the Tokyo Brothers.
Although the emergence of gangs is a worrying trend, groups are not present on the streets of Shin-Ōkubo, which are as safe as they ever were. Aside from “rumbles” with rivals, I have never heard of gangs targeting people in the community, and I would venture that most residents are unaware of their existence. Now that the groups have made the news, though, there is little sympathy among the foreign populace of the neighborhood for their plight, particularly among my Nepalese acquaintances, who staunchly insist that the youths clean up their act or face the consequences.
Shin-Ōkubo has flourished as an ethnic enclave because the foreigners who live and work here have embraced native ways and show great respect for the norms, rules, and customs of their adopted home. The Japanese culture and the language remain core to the neighborhood’s identity, serving as the glue that bonds the disparate identities into a unique whole. Increasing effort is being made to support language learning, including local elementary schools providing special Japanese classes for foreign pupils and a growing variety of courses being offered at public facilities like libraries and community centers.
The rapid growth of the foreign population is forcing Japanese society to diversify as never before. Shin-Ōkubo, with its mixed populace, is on the frontline of this transformation. Immigration remains a fraught topic in Japan, but in covering the neighborhood, I aim to show how residents, both Japanese and from overseas, are coming together to forge a new and vibrant community that works for everyone.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Duong Anh Duc, left, stands with employees of Vietnamese café Egg Coffee, one of several establishments he runs in Shin-Ōkubo. All photos by the author.)