Making Penang's Japanese Feel at Home

Takayoshi So.

Takayoshi So arrived in Penang over a decade ago under the employment of Japanese multinational Nippon Electric Corporation, and instantly took a liking to the island. He had previously been posted to the US and prior to that was based in Japan. “Penang struck a chord with me; I was made very welcome. The locals are friendly – something that I wasn’t able to find Americans to be.”

So returned to Japan three years later, but held on to fond memories of Penang. When the position to head the Penang Japanese Association (PJA), where So was previously a member, as its secretary general opened up, he leaped at the opportunity to make a permanent move back to the island.

PJA was established in March 1978 in response to the island’s burgeoning Japanese community. Penang holds the second-largest population of Japanese nationals within Malaysia, with Japanese multinationals having production bases in the Free Industrial Zone.

“At one time, the Japanese had to make their way down to the embassy in KL for visa renewals or to submit reports of births. It became too much of a hassle. The community appealed to the Japanese government to have the Japanese Consulate-General here in Penang, to which they agreed. Its staff was initially quite limited in number, and due to their inability to reach out to each and every one of us, they requested PJA to be created as the go-between,” says So.

The library at PJA houses over 1,000 books.

The association currently has close to 1,000 members. “I think almost 99% of us living here are reluctant to go back to Japan – Penang’s tropical climate is a welcome relief from the four seasons,” he laughs. “The security, medical care and affordable cost of living are equally attractive factors. Some of the locals here can speak Japanese too, and most importantly, they make us expats feel at home.”

PJA has four main aims: to promote mutual friendship and cooperation among its members; to deepen mutual understanding and promote goodwill between Japan and Malaysia; to establish, operate and subsidise the Penang Japanese School; and to manage and maintain the Japanese Cemetery along Jalan P.Ramlee.

A tight-knit community, the association often organises a host of activities, including golf tournaments, softball competitions, and local and English-language courses throughout the year for its members.

Mochi-making workshops are also conducted for children of the members. A traditional New Year delicacy, mochi suffers declining popularity in Japan, but is paradoxically generating interest as the latest must-try food fad elsewhere around the globe. “I was told that it was quite a hit at the Penang Yosakoi Parade this year, though our workshop is primarily focused on reconnecting the children to their Japanese heritage and culture. Some of them attend international schools.”

President of the Sakura-kai Maki Horie (third from right) and vice presidents Miki Asechi (second from right) and Yoshie Ito (first from right).

Dental and paediatric health consultations by Japanese doctors are also held at the PJA. “Depending on the location, some areas in the world are unable to provide enough medical access and support due to language barriers. To address this, the Japanese government dispatches Japanese doctors to us. Medical terms are challenging to pronounce in Japanese, and even more so in English; therefore, we need that support. But these doctors are not licensed by the Malaysian government; if we need medicine, we have to go to the local clinics and hospitals. Some hospitals’ customer services have Japanese translators – this makes it easier for us to explain our maladies.”

Unique to PJA is its women’s club, the Sakura-kai. Led by President Maki Horie and vice presidents Yoshie Ito and Miki Asechi, Sakurai-kai hosts welcome tea parties for new members several times a year to furnish them with information necessary for life in Penang.

The club’s main highlight is its annual Sakura Charity Festival. Guests to this year’s fete, happening on October 28 at Hotel JEN Penang, will be treated to the art of ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement), Japanese food and desserts, as well as Japanese handicrafts. Proceeds collected will be donated to certain welfare institutions in the state. “Sakura-kai members usually conduct site visits to discuss how the donations will be used, to ensure that the organisations are well chosen.”

PJA also works alongside the state government, Consulate-General of Japan and local Japanese-related associations like the Malaysian-Japanese Society, Japan Graduates’ Association of Malaysia (JAGAM) and Penang Japanese Language Society (PJLS) to propagate Japanese culture among Penangites.

One such example is the Bon Odori Festival. The Bon Odori, or Bon dance, is performed during the annual Bon festival celebrated either in July or August during which families welcome the spirits of deceased relatives back to the realm of the living for a three-day period. “The festival performances here are very similar to the ones done back in Japan. Penangites enjoy dancing during Bon Odori, so on stage you can see them dancing in the yukata.”

From the ubiquitous Japanese restaurants to the various festivals – including the colourful Penang Anime Matsuri – Penangites seem to love everything Japanese, and PJA is more than happy to be at the centre of this cultural exchange.

The Sakura Charity Festival 2018 will be held on October 28 from 10.30am to 12.30pm at Level 3, Hotel JEN Penang. Entry fee is RM5. Free entry for children below 12.

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