Fejos Postdoctoral Fellow: Dipesh Kharel

We're thrilled to share the following trailer and blogpost from Dipesh Kharel, who in 2018 was awarded a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship in Ethnographic Film to aid filming, "Japani: A Migration Story."

JAPANI_Trailer from Dipesh Kharel on Vimeo.

The Fejos postdoctoral ethnographic film project is an extension of my PhD dissertation, delving into the unique phenomenon of Nepali cooks migrating to Japan. Combining traditional anthropological methods with visual ethnography, I conducted fieldwork in Japan and Nepal, utilizing a video camera to document the lives of Nepali immigrants in Japan and their families back home. The exponential increase in the Nepali population in Japan, growing from 5,314 in 2005 to nearly 150,000 in 2023, underscores the significance of this migration trend. Nepali-owned restaurants, particularly curry establishments, have proliferated, with over 3,000 across Japan, including 600 in Tokyo alone, making Nepalis the largest group of restaurant owners in the country.

Surprisingly, a significant portion of these migrants hail from Galkot, Malma village, where migration to Japan has become synonymous with economic opportunity and upward social mobility since the 1990s. However, the journey is arduous, with each migrant typically paying 1.5 million Nepali rupees (approximately US$15,000) to secure a work visa, often accumulating substantial debts. Bishnu’s story exemplifies this struggle; migrating in 2008, he borrowed money at a high interest rate, prompting his wife Bina to join him in Japan a year later to alleviate their financial burdens.

The ethnographic film, “JAPANI – A Story of Migration,” focuses on the daily lives of Bishnu, Bina, and their daughter Bipisha, who was just three months old when her parents left Nepal. By juxtaposing their experiences in Japan with Bipisha’s life in Nepal, the film aims to bridge the gap between the migrant experience and its impact on families left behind. Through participant observation and additional fieldwork conducted during the Fejos Postdoctoral fellowship, the film captures the evolving dynamics of Nepali migration to Japan.

Unlike conventional documentary formats, the film prioritizes visual storytelling, emphasizing ‘showing’ over ‘telling,’ to convey the nuances of the immigrant experience. It explores everyday life through a lens inspired by Geertz’s concept of understanding from the “native point of view.” While previous films like “Playing with Nan” (2012) depicted predominantly male migrants, “JAPANI” delves into the evolving narrative of families reuniting in Japan, reflecting the changing landscape of Nepali migration.

Addressing the psychological and emotional toll on left-behind children like Bipisha, the film sheds light on the unintended consequences of rapid economic growth and labor market shifts. By portraying the push and pull factors driving Nepali migration to Japan, it underscores the complexity of transnational mobility and the inequalities within migrant networks. The film not only enriches migration theory but also informs immigration policies in Japan and beyond.

Beyond its academic contributions, “JAPANI” addresses a pressing global issue, with over 60 million children living apart from their parents worldwide. Through the lens of Nepali migration, it offers empirical and theoretical insights into the broader challenges facing left-behind children and the social realities of transnational migration.

Methodologically, the film demonstrates the efficacy of visual ethnography in capturing the emotional dimensions of migration, complementing traditional research methods. It showcases the intricate networks of transnational migration, illustrating the cultural and geographical boundaries traversed by Nepali migrants and their families.

Structured around interviews and observational footage, the rough cut of the film has already been prepared, grounding itself in participant observation to depict the reality of Nepali immigrants in Japan and their families in Nepal. I will further refine the rough cut to prepare the final film by April 2025. The final edit will refine the pacing and rhythm, culminating in a 90-minute film that encapsulates the experiences of Nepali immigrants in Japan and their families in Nepal.
In essence, “JAPANI – A Migration Story” stands as a testament to the resilience and sacrifice of Nepali migrants, illuminating the human stories behind the statistics and offering a poignant portrayal of the global phenomenon of transnational migration.
I think, my Fejos postdoctoral ethnographic film project not only contributes to academic knowledge but also serves as a powerful tool for advocacy and policy-making, shedding light on the challenges faced by migrants and their families. As the world continues to grapple with issues of migration and globalization, narratives like those presented in “JAPANI” are essential for fostering empathy, understanding, and meaningful change. Through this film, I hope to amplify the voices of Nepali migrants and contribute to a more inclusive and compassionate society.