Why Nepalis are flocking to Okinawa

When she is not at university, Anita Sapkota, 27, helps her husband manage and run the Shiva Mahal restaurant in Naha.

Five years ago, 27-year-old Anita Sapkota left behind friends and family in Kathmandu to seek a better life on Japan’s tropical island of Okinawa. Sapkota is now married to another Nepali who runs the Shiva Mahal restaurant in Naha, speaks fluent Japanese and is at university studying to be an English teacher.

She was working in a travel agency in Kathmandu, but decided to take the leap to pursue her studies 4,000km away. “At first I cried a lot, was homesick and did not want to leave my parents,” recalls Sapkota. “I did not know when I would be back.”

The number of Nepalis in Japan has grown 10-fold in the last ten years to at least 80,000 today, and many of them have decided to settle in Okinawa, which is warmer and more relaxed than the main islands of Japan. Nepalis make up the biggest proportion of foreign workers in Okinawa at 24.6% -- followed by Vietnam (16.4%) and the Philippines (12.5%).

Ramchandra Bhandari, 32, and Ram Pandey, 32, work at CityMart, selling Nepali food items mainly to Nepali students from nearby Japanese language schools. They also assist Nepali students with remittance.

Nepali students like to come to Okinawa because they are allowed to work part-time for up to 28 hours a week during school term, much longer than in Australia, another popular destination for Nepalis. This allows them to study and work to pay off tuition fees and living expenses.

Narayan Baral, 28, works as a part-time waiter at Pacific Hotel while attending school in the evenings. Even though it is his third year in Okinawa, he misses his family back in Nepal.

Another reason is that international students have a higher chance of getting employed in Japan now as the government is encouraging Japanese companies to employ more foreigners, under the Japan Revitalisation Strategy.

Subash Tripathi loves the laid-back culture in Okinawa compared to mainland Japan. He studied at a Japanese language school and is now working and pursuing his studies at Okinawa International University. “I love the weather in Okinawa, and the people here are very kind,” said the 27-year-old.

Many Nepali workers choose to work in convenience stores because they can practice their Japanese by interacting with customers. Last year, the number of foreign nationals working in Japan’s four major chains exceeded 55,000.

Sabina Magar, 19, usually works the night shift, from 6pm to 1am, at a supermarket across from her dormitory. The Japanese language student is happy to work during the summer vacation to earn enough to pay for her rent and tuition fees.

But Nepali migrants pay a price to pursue their dreams in Okinawa. It costs nearly 1,256,000 yen ($11,500) a year to do a two-year course at a Japanese language school. Many Nepali students have to work to pay off the loans they took to come here. Even if they work the full 28 hours, many still struggle financially given the 800 yen ($7.4) hourly wage, and risk deportation to take multiple jobs.

It has been eight years since Laxman Ojha started learning karate. “Okinawa is the birthplace of Karate, so it was natural that I picked up the sport,” said Ojha, who has a black belt.

After 6pm, instead of driving south to his home in Itoman City, Laxman Ojha heads in the opposite direction to Urasoe, where he attends a karate class in a dojo three days a week. Ojha has been living in Okinawa for eight years, and said that while he does not have any issues integrating with Okinawans, newcomers struggle because of language and cultural differences.

“If nobody teaches them, they could make mistakes, which will not be good for both communities,” said the 32-year-old.

Laxman Ojha, 32, and his karate sensei, Giyu Gibo, sign certificates to give out to students during karate class. The two have known each other for 12 years, and Ojha affectionately calls Gibo his “Japanese father” and visits him every weekend for dinner.

Laxman Ojha with his fellow Karate practitioners who congregate every Friday night for an hour-long class.

Kantipur Curry House was set up in 2015 by Kavi Kachhipati, who has been living in Okinawa for 10 years. The Nepali food chain has three outlets in Okinawa, near Japanese language schools frequented by Nepalis. “I wanted to bring authentic Nepali cuisine to Okinawa so that they can get a taste of home-cooked food far away from home,” said Kachhipati, 39, who plans to open more outlets.

Mani Pokhrel, 26, has been visiting Kantipur Curry since he was a Japanese language student. He now works for Japan Airlines, and comes to meet his friend Krishna Shahi, 43 (right) whenever he misses home cooking.

“I miss momos the most,” said Pokhrel. “It is a comfort food for me.”

Both Nepali and Japanese beers are for sale at Shiva Mahal.

Sayed Ahmed, 52, the main chef at Shiva Mahal. Anita Sapkota shows him the orders for the day.

Despite her struggles, Nepalis like Anita Sapkota are hopeful about the future: “Okinawa has taught me the meaning of hard work and the importance of family and friends. My aim is not only to work here, but to get a reputable job where I can earn respect before heading home.”

Charlene Chua is at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. She was part of the Going Overseas for Advanced Reporting program.

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