In an eastern downtown area of Tokyo, known for its Thai community, classes are being held in a six-story building promoting Thai language and culture.
Kinshicho, in Sumida Ward, has the trappings of a "Little Bangkok," with Thai import stores, massage shops and restaurants that are blending into the city scenery.
(Building of ThaiTEC in Kinshicho.)
In a small classroom at the Thai Education and Culture Center, also known as ThaiTEC, teacher Sucharat Mana asks the students, who had just returned from holiday, "Where did you go?" in Thai, as she points to ethnic foods that some had brought back as souvenirs. A woman manages to translate the phrase into Japanese.
The introductory class consists of five adults, each of whom has an objective for learning the language at the culture center.
(Sucharat Mana, teaches students in class in ThaiTEC.)
ThaiTEC was established by Pimjai Matsumoto, 69, in 2007, the same year Japan and Thailand celebrated their 120th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties.
Originally coming from Thailand to Tokyo in 1976 to study Japanese and fashion, Matsumoto's interests soon shifted, and she ended up becoming a pioneer in helping spread Thai restaurants across Japan.
In 1988, and now married to a Japanese national, she started a trading company called P.K. Siam Co. to import Thai ingredients.
"After I came to Japan, I realized that I couldn't find anything from Thailand. I started to think that spreading Thai food was necessary," said Matsumoto, who wisely established a trade route before opening a Thai restaurant, Keawjai, near the company in Kinshicho in 1990.
"It was originally my aim to open a restaurant, but if there were no good Thai ingredients, no Thai food could be made. I had to open the company first," she said.
(Pimjai Matsumoto in an interview in ThaiTEC, on Dec. 6, 2019.)
"After Mrs. Matsumoto established the trading company, it helped Thai food restaurants increase in Japan. For example, it was hard to get the indispensable Thai fish sauce before," said a spokesman for the Japan Thai Food Association.
Matsumoto said she opened the company and restaurant in Kinshicho because of lower land prices in the downtown location. Accessibility from Narita airport near Tokyo was another factor she took into consideration.
Her restaurants offer "real Thai stuff." All the employees are from Thailand, where chefs receive qualification to cook abroad, and the ingredients and spices are imported directly from the country.
"Our chefs have to train in Thailand for a certain amount of time to be certified by the government," Matsumoto said.
As of Oct. 1, around 400 Thai nationals were residing in Sumida Ward, which incorporates Kinshicho, according to the Statistics Division of the Tokyo metropolitan government's Bureau of General Affairs. A couple of dozen Thais who work for Matsumoto live in the area, she said.
After founding the company, Matsumoto said she saw an increase in the number of Thai restaurants in Tokyo. "I think people started to open Thai restaurants because they were able to get Thai ingredients such as herbs and spices from my company."
Her ultimate goal has been to make ThaiTEC a cultural hub. Other than language, the center offers classes on cooking Thai food, as well as Thai fruit carving, a traditional art in which fruits are carved into decorative flowers -- a technique originally taught to women in the Thai royal palace.
When Matsumoto considered opening the facility, the Thai government and Suan Dusit Rajabhat University in Thailand reached out to her to find a location for the culture center. She decided to just renovate her original restaurant into what is now ThaiTEC, and soon after reopened the restaurant in a nearby location.
(Pimjai Matsumoto's restaurant in Kinshicho.)
For the first five to six years, the university granted her financial support, she said. "This is volunteer work for me now. If you die, you cannot bring anything with you, but I can leave this as a legacy. That is why I opened it and continue it," Matsumoto said.
Mana, the head teacher at ThaiTEC, came to Japan from Thailand in 2008. She was a Japanese language teacher on weekends and worked for several Japanese companies while in Thailand before being offered the job by Matsumoto after arriving in Japan.
The 48-year-old has lived in Kinshicho since then, and she welcomes the convenience of the area where she can see and hear Thai people right outside her door. "It is also a relief that I can purchase many Thai foods around here," Mana said.
"I have always wanted to come to Japan, as I have studied Japanese at a Thai university," she said. Mana went to a Japanese language school for a year before working for ThaiTEC.
She has been a teacher for more than two decades, teaching language students in Thailand and Japan.
Mana teaches mainly Japanese people now, including those who work at Japanese companies and do business in Thailand, as well as those who are simply fond of the country.
"In my life, I had a lot of chances to go to Thailand, including business trips and holidays. I was enthralled by Thai culture," said Ryoichi Sekiya, 37, a student at ThaiTEC, who works for a trading company. "I think the Thai language is difficult with unique writing, but it's meaningful for me," he added.
"I think this area has a lot of Thai restaurants. I know places that Thai people gather and hear many people talking in the Thai language while walking in the streets," said a woman who did not want to be named. She is also one of the students and has been living in Kinshicho for around 10 years.
(Sucharat Mana in an interview in ThaiTEC.)
"If you were to buy Thai food, Kinshicho comes to mind first. I thought this even before I moved here," she said.
The language class is for adults and Thai children. "It is important for them to build their identity as Thai people," said Mana, adding, "I feel that there is an increasing number of Japanese-born Thai, too."
Thai people also tend to gravitate to the area because their children do not get bullied for not being Japanese, Matsumoto said.
The number of Thai nationals has increased by around 140 in Sumida Ward since the year 2000, according to the data.
There were close to 54,000 Thai nationals living in Japan as of June 2019, the fourth largest contingent from Southeast Asia, and the 10th largest of all foreign nationals.
Kinshi Elementary School hosts classes aimed at preventing bullying by teaching about diversity and the different cultures and lifestyles of non-Japanese, according to the school.
Since 2007, the ward has run a program at the Sumida International Learning Center, teaching conversational Japanese to foreign junior high school students, including those from Thailand, who are lacking in language ability.
But there are language barriers for adults and children alike. Mana sometimes has trouble communicating with other people in Japanese. "For example, when I go to see a doctor, I do some homework first so I can explain my symptoms," she said.
"But overall, I think it is a good environment for Thai people," and there is a potential for more students because "in the area, there are quite a few Thai children who do not come here," Mana said.
Mana said she is satisfied with her life in Japan and will continue to work at ThaiTEC.
"As my hometown does not have snow, I love the different seasons here. I love it when it's cold," she said.
Mana often travels to places with natural surroundings and says that her favorite place is Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, a seaside city south of Tokyo. She likes to visit Buddhist temples and hike mountains on her days off.
"For Thai people, Japan is an alluring destination," she said.