Kids Corner


Tokyo's Gurdwara





However long a migrant group has lived within a host culture, that settlement process can feel incomplete without a place to call their own -- a focal point for the community where they can come together, celebrate important occasions and preserve their traditions.

That was certainly the case for Tokyo’s Sikh community as the 300th anniversary of a seminal event approached at the end of the millennium.

The year 1699 marks the birth of the Khalsa, the Sikh fraternity created by the The Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh ji, to serve all humanity.

Among Tokyo’s Sikhs, their joy as the April 1999 third centennial drew closer was tempered by their yearning for their own gurdwara within the city.

While a gurdwara already existed in Kobe -- The Guru Nanak Darbar, a place Sikhs in Tokyo often visited to fulfill their spiritual needs -- traveling to Kobe proved costly and inconvenient for many.

For three years starting in 1998, Sikhs would gather once a month or on special occasions at one of a number of local Punjabi restaurants where they would set up a temporary gurdwara in what was usually a limited space. Here they were able to have a spiritual service, and the gurdwara  would move from one restaurant to another. Since immigrants owned these restaurants, the space was granted on a voluntary basis.

“We came early morning and arranged the restaurant space for the one-day gurdwara, cleaned the hall, prepared food for the sangat, and prepared the Karrah Parshad,” recalls Bhupender Singh Sokhi, who played a key role in setting up the temporary gurdwaras.

The most commonly used restaurant was The Great Punjab in Akasaka. Three years later, in 2001, Bhupender asked its owner if the community could rent a vacant room in the basement of an office building he owned in the Myogadani district, Bunkyo Ward, and here, finally, Tokyo’s Sikh community established its first small house of worship, known as the Guru Nanak Darbar Tokyo.

Initially, community members paid a fixed amount toward the monthly rent, but later the gurdwara committee purchased the entire basement floor.

“Even though we finally found a permanent place, along with it also came some challenges,” explains Bhupender. “Some Sikhs had given up their external articles of faith on encountering discrimination, but there are also those who stick to their faith and faithfully follow the full discipline. A person with knowledge of the Sikh religion can easily identify a Sikh by appearance, but some get intimidated on seeing a male Sikh with a turban and beard. The Japanese in the gurdwara vicinity experienced something similar on seeing large numbers of us once in a month.”

There were several complaints from neighbors in the initial years -- some locals apparently even feared them, mistaking them for Muslims and Mid-Easterners -- and the police kept a close eye on the activities of the sangat. But with time, things changed, and soon Japanese too were joining the faithful and even donating food and money regularly to the gurdwara, as well as helping with the cleaning and other preparation during high holidays.

The Japanese who visited and supported the gurdwara were mainly friends and colleagues of members of the congregation, as well as researchers who were keen to study the community. The Japanese spouses of Sikhs also attend the gurdwara, some regularly along with their partners and children, with the women dressing in the traditional salwar kameez worn in Punjab and even becoming devout followers of the faith.

Sikhism’s history in western Japan can be traced back to the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, when Sikhs abandoned the ruins of Yokohama and relocated to Kobe. Whether Kanto or Kansai today hosts more Sikhs is an open question, as the Japanese government does not record the religion of its residents. The Gadara in Tokyo attracts about 70 Sikhs, other Indian residents and locals during festivals and between 35-50 attendees for regular services.

The longer existence and relative economic stability of the community in Kobe makes it easier for Sikhs there to maintain their identity in comparison to their fellow believers in Tokyo, making them more vulnerable and often leaving them with tough choices.

Although the Tokyo Sikh community has come a long way in creating a place for itself in a foreign land, outside of the gurdwara issues remain. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is reconciling the Sikh discipline of wear the Five Ks, the most obvious being kesh, while functioning within Japanese society.

“I had to cut my kesh because the boss at my factory had no idea about our religion,” said one gurdwara attendee who requested his name not be published. “He refused to employ me, and told me bluntly that he couldn’t hire me with this appearance.”

For Mandeep Kaur, kesh is already an issue for her son, who is only 5 years old.

“Our biggest challenge is to convince our kids not to cut their kesh, but the truth is many of us fail,” she says. “My son keeps telling me to cut his hair because his classmates find him different, and he is often mistaken for a girl. He also finds his long hair a challenge during swimming lessons.

“A friend’s son decided to cut his hair because it was preventing him being selected for the soccer team, since he was told that he couldn’t join with a turban. He then decided to shave his legs as well, because of frequent remarks by Japanese friends about him being ‘hairy.’ “

While some parents are flexible and cave in to such situations, there are others who find themselves unable to. One couple reported that their son was keen on joining his school baseball club, but was told he couldn’t because of his turban. The boy took the decision to hold on to his Sikh identity and gave up on his dream of joining the baseball club.

Mandeep says that while some children are self-assured enough to brush off comments by friends, others are sensitive, and in these kinds of cases parents often feel they have no choice but to give in. She believes that the low number of Sikhs in Japan makes it difficult to imbue children here with a clear understanding and high regard for the Five Ks.

For people in business or other white-collar jobs, or those linked to international schools, the turban is often much less of an issue. In fact, one Sikh man said that his headwear attracted such a lot of attention that he was eventually interviewed on Japanese TV around the late 1990s, and this in turn brought a lot of publicity to the electronics store where he worked. Later, when he was forced to cut his hair for medical reasons, his Japanese boss was distraught -- more so, even, than the man’s family members -- because it meant less publicity for his store and therefore less custom.

A frustration that comes up repeatedly in conversations with Sikhs here is with the rigidity of Japanese rules, particularly as they relate to restrictions that prevent them fully participating in society while observing kesh. While Sikhs say they do not experience racism to the degree that exists in other parts of the world, Japan often forces them to make the choice between observing the discipline of their faith and qualifying for a job or membership of a school sports club, for example. Compromise rarely seems to be an option.

“Sikhism is in our hearts, and we will always be Sikhs, ” said one member of the congregation, but this is not a sacrifice that all are prepared to make, even if the alternative is exclusion.

[Courtesy: The Japan Times. Edited for]
August 26, 2016

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