When the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake struck a century ago, many businesspeople with roots in the Indian subcontinent lost their homes in Yokohama, resulting in roughly 70 companies fleeing to the western port of Kobe to form what became one of the largest Indian communities in Japan.
Stories abound about the active role such firms went on to play in Japan's postwar economic success, acting as intermediaries for the sale of "Made in Japan" products in Asian markets. Now 100 years later, the torch has been passed to a new, younger generation of Indians seeking to strengthen Japan's ties with their homeland, which has become an IT powerhouse.
The 7.9 magnitude Great Kanto quake occurred shortly before noon on Sept. 1, 1923. Tokyo and elsewhere in the Kanto area, including Yokohama, suffered major damage.
Fazil Toorabally, 75, a resident from a suburb of Kobe, recounted an old tale he heard from his grandfather, a native of Gujarat in what is now western India, who had relocated from Yokohama to Kobe for business reasons prior to the massive Kanto quake.
He said the grandfather, who was engaged in the silk trade and other businesses in Kobe and Yokohama, told him that Indians in Kobe -- mainly those who had fled from Yokohama due to the disaster -- were urged by the city to return. "They wanted them to come back to Yokohama," Toorabally said.
Records in the Yokohama Archives of History go as far as to call the Indians who had gone to Kobe "indispensable for the economic recovery" of Yokohama, the capital of Kanagawa Prefecture, lying along Tokyo Bay.
But over the years, many stayed in Kobe. Having Japan's oldest Islamic place of worship, the Kobe Mosque, which opened in 1935, as well as social clubs, the city became "a good place to live" for Indians who valued tradition, Toorabally said.
Sikh and Jain temples were also built, and the Indian population in Kobe reached about 1,000 in the 1980s -- at one time, the largest Indian community in Japan. After the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, Toorbally and others cooked curry for the disaster victims.
"In Japan, the only places Indians weren't rare were Roppongi and Kobe," Kiran Sethi, 57, a turban-wearing trader who lives in Kobe, said with a laugh, referring to Tokyo's popular nightclub scene filled with bars and hostess clubs.
Sethi was involved in importing Perrier, the French carbonated mineral water, and in 2003 became the first foreign national to serve as president of the Junior Chamber International Kobe, a branch of the international nongovernmental nonprofit for young people.
During the nation's period of rapid economic growth, Japanese companies such as Panasonic Holdings Corp. and Sharp Corp. spread their wings from the Kansai region to the rest of the world. "Products from Kansai were transported to Asia through the network of Indian merchants," Sethi said with pride.
In recent years, the development of manufacturing in Asia has meant challenges for Indian merchants in Kobe. India ranked fifth worldwide in gross domestic product in 2021.
As of 2022, roughly 40,000 Indians, including IT professionals, lived in Japan, mainly in Tokyo. Although their presence in Kobe has waned throughout the years, those of Indian descent in the city have been there in some cases for three or four generations.
At a regular Sunday service held at a Sikh temple in Kobe, "awaokoshi," a specialty of Osaka made of millet rice that has become a familiar treat in the community, is distributed to worshippers to give as offerings.
On a spring day at the University of Hyogo in Kobe, Anushka Shukla, 21, from Bhopal, central India, spoke of her aspirations for her future in Japan. Since she arrived in 2019, she has been studying business administration and will seek employment in the country.
Although Shukla is a strict vegetarian, which is common in India, she says "it helps" that there are restaurants in Kobe that serve Indian vegetarian cuisine.
Toorabally and others of the earlier generations of Indians in Japan call the young, talented people such as Shukla who have only come in recent years "New Indians."
As the seeds of foreign culture brought about by the Great Kanto Earthquake have grown, Japan's relationship with the Asian powerhouse has only deepened.
Toorabally's wife, Nishat, 69, who introduced Shukla to the study abroad program in Kobe, said her fervent wish is to "keep Japan's connection with India strong."