18 September 2005

A Visit to International Ota City

Ota City (太田) in Gunma Prefecture is just two train stops southwest from Ashikaga City on the private Tobu line. Ota English School's website brags that
Ota itself is quite an international town. The neighboring town [Ôizumi] has one of the largest Brazilian populations in Japan. Ota itself has one of the largest Asian communities outside of Tokyo. This means that, as well as all the usual non-Japanese restaurants (Italian, French, Chinese) there are many Indian, Pakistani and Brazilian restaurants a short walk or drive from the school.
Purdue University's The Exponent Online is rather more modest when it compares Ota City to Lafayette, Indiana.
The populations are almost the same, both cities were changed from agricultural centers to industrial centers, both cities are on a river, and for the most part, both are flat cities.
What moved a Purdue student reporter to compare Lafayette and Ota? Well, West Lafayette, Indiana, is home to Purdue's main campus as well as to Subaru-Indiana Automotive, Inc. Fuji Heavy Industries and Subaru are among the largest employers in Ota, a commercial cluster development center dating back to the days of textiles and then military aircraft.

So, is Ota really as international a city as these websites suggest? The Far Outliers got a skewed impression when we set out to find a Brazilian restaurant to eat dinner at last Saturday evening. We headed south from Ota train station zigzagging between the two widest streets we could find, asking policemen, passers-by, shopkeepers, and even employees at the main post office (open on Saturdays) if they knew of any Brazilian restaurants in the city. No luck. Even those who took the trouble to look through the restaurant listings in the telephone book couldn't find any Brazilian restaurant. A few people recommended we go instead to neighboring Ôizumi--Japan's "Little Brazil." (Been there. Done that. More later.)

We did find a few tiny Filipino restaurants (none yet open) scattered along one of the longest strips of seedy strip joints, hostess bars, and member clubs that I've seen in a while. (I've never been to Las Vegas.) It went on for at least a full kilometer. It was still early when we walked its length, encountering no more than a few bouncers loitering outside a few doorways. When we retraced a portion of the strip on our way back to the station later that night, there were a lot more drunken males and leggy females on the sidewalks. Judging from the streetside advertising, some portion of Ota City's international Asian population would seem to be women from China and the Philippines. (A Japanese customer I was chatting with at a yakitori shop in Ashikaga last week demonstrated his few words of "French" by saying Magandang gabi! That's Tagalog for 'Good evening!')

After the trail went cold in that direction, we headed back for the station on a main drag with more vehicle traffic. It was a much more family-oriented strip mall, with a huge shopping center, and plenty of parking, car dealers, tire shops, and the most amazing site entirely dedicated to weddings that I've yet seen, the Royal Chester Ota (for "The Brilliant European Wedding"). (Again, I've never been to Las Vegas.) We saw plenty of chain restaurants, but nothing representative of Ota City's large foreign community.

We couldn't find a clue until a couple hours later when, after circling a few blocks north of the station, we asked at Rana, an "International, Halal" food store run by some Iranians. The only other customer was a Nepali who not only owned an Indian restaurant named Darjeeling, but offered to drive us there, and even to drive us back to the station if his place wasn't too busy by the time we finished eating. We readily accepted, and had a wonderful meal of chicken tandoori, mutton masala, nan bread, and salad vegetables, washed down with a couple of beers unusual for Japan: Everest and Grolsch. The proprietor came to Japan ten years ago, and his restaurant has been successful enough for his elder brother to open a branch in Tokyo.

Except for a few words of English, he and I communicated entirely in Japanese, quite informally and comfortably. Neither of us had done enough formal study to command formal registers very well anyway. After dinner, we insisted on walking back to the train station, and he came out to the street to confirm his earlier directions and we parted in typical Japanese fashion, with bows and thank yous. On the way back, we passed the Civic Center, with a range of social support facilities for both citizens and foreigners, including an office that handled passports and visas.

The 1 May 2005 issue of Pakistan's Dawn has more about unskilled foreign workers in Ota.
Kimio Matsudaira, an official at Hello Work, a public labour office in Ota city, Gumma prefecture, 60 kilometres north of Tokyo, said there is now a special programme to help and support foreigners working in the area. Ota has a population of about 200,000 people. The irony is that more than sixty per cent of its people are over 60 years of age, in a city where the economy is dependent on manufacturing. Without doubt, Ota really needs foreign workers badly. To support the city’s automobile and electronic industries, Ota is now host to more than 30,000 Japanese Latin Americans, descendants of Japanese who emigrated to South America in the early 20th century seeking a better future. In the late eighties Japan launched a policy of accepting third and fourth generation Japanese Latin Americans to support a labour shortage in its factories stemming from the bubble economy at that time. More recently, Asians, mostly from South-east Asia, have also arrived to work in factories, comprising a total of 45,000 registered workers in Ota city. Matsudaira said foreign workers are vital to the survival of Ota’s economy.

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