What is common between 'tycoon', 'honcho, 'rickshaw' and 'sudoku'? Well, they are Japanese words that have pussyfooted into our vocabulary without us realising it. Similarly, several Japanese companies have been quietly setting up shop, mostly after a 'tsumani' barged into our shore and lingo with a bang in 2004. Now we have around 700 Japanese people living in Chennai.
So, in this 60th year of Indo-Japan diplomatic relations, there are 344 Japanese companies in and around Chennai with more waiting in the wings. Some are in the process of starting major operations soon. According to the Acting Consul General of Japan in Chennai, Takayuki Kitagawa, these companies together offer employment for half a million local people.
Kitagawa, who has been here for the last three years and loving his stay, says that though the Consulate General was set up in Chennai only in 1966, Japanese ties with Tamil Nadu dates back to the Sangam period. Quoting a Japanese scholar, he says that when ancient Tamil Nadu was trading with Rome on natural pearls, merchants had outsourced the pearls from Japan.
Japanese language too has about 500 Tamil words like 'Appa', 'Amma', 'Zalli', says Kitagawa, who has not managed to pick up Tamil. But his colleague, Kayoko Furukawa, the consul for Culture, Information and Development Affairs, can speak a smattering of Tamil despite living here for just one and half years.
They say that like the Tamil tradition of keeping sugarcane with fronts upright to decorate the doorway, Japanese too keep pine trees for their New Year. Both feel that no other culture has a similar custom. But more than such similarities in traditions and customs, more Japanese are now seen in Chennai – 700 of them live here and about 100 to 200 visit the city daily on various trips.
Even if the Japanese have not set up any formal clubs for themselves, they meet up at the three restaurants that serve authentic Japanese cuisine. Two of them, Dhalia in Nugambakkam and Akasaka in Tiruvanmiyur, are owned by Japanese people while the third one, Momoyama in Teynampet is run by a Korean and has a Thai chef.
Above all, more people from Tamil Nadu are now in Japan, says Furukawa, adding that Japanese language classes conducted in five schools are drawing huge crowds. When ABK — AOTS Dosokai, the Japanese languge school started teaching Japanese in 1976 there were hardly four students but now there are 800 people on the rolls. Besides, 2000 candidates appeared this year for the Japanese language proficiency test in Chennai, pointing to the fact that thousands of people are learning the language.
On their part, back in Japan, moves have been made to make the people proficient in English, now that more and more Japanese are moving out of the country. About three years ago, Japanese schools started teaching English in elementary schools for six-year-old students while English classes began for students only when they were 13-year-old earlier. Also, schools are employing native English speaking teachers, who mainly come from the US.
Here in Chennai too, Japanese businessmen are being taught English and other skills. A six-week residential managerial training programme for employees of IHI Corporation was held at the SRM University campus in October and November. Conducted for the third consecutive year, the programme focused on developing soft skills like business communication in English, cross cultural management, negotiation and presentation skill, says Furukawa. Also companies like Nissan, having manufacturing units here, have started teaching Japanese to the local employees, which are indications that Chennai has become a favoured destination for Japanese investors and professionals.
However, many Japanese were exposed to the beauty of the city through the eyes of Tamil actress Meena, way back in 1998, when the Rajinikanth-starrer Muthu (literally Pearl) was released with Japanese sub-titles and the title 'Dancing Maharaja'.
Furukawa, who was then a teenager, recalls the rage the film created in Japan with fans going gaga over the mesmerising eyes of Meena. 'It was Meena who was the hit then', Furukawa says, adding that more Rajinikant films like Chandramukhi and Shahrukh Khan movies did follow the Dancing Maharaja to Japanese theatres subsequently.