Japan Teaches One Jew the True Meaning of Diaspora

By Tobias Harris

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

TOKYO — From my seat at the Seder table on the first night of Passover, I could see the lights of Roppongi, a fashionable entertainment district near the heart of Tokyo, where the streets were lined with club-goers and illuminated by ubiquitous neon signs. We were a small group huddled together, wandering Jews in a city whose people were mostly oblivious to our presence in their midst. At that moment, in this vast, impersonal city, I finally understood the meaning of Diaspora. It is not merely exile from Israel: Diaspora is separation from the tightknit Jewish communities that for millennia have eased the pain of exile, the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, ignored by and isolated from the rest of society.

According to the World Jewish Congress, Japan hosts a Jewish community of roughly 2,000, with about half living in Tokyo. The capital’s population as of October 2003 was 12.37 million, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Comparatively, Chicago, where I lived my entire life until now, boasts a Jewish community of about 260,000 people out of a total population of nearly 2.9 million. The Jewish Community Centers of Chicago encompasses seven locations, including three in the north suburbs, and the greater metropolitan area has more than 100 synagogues. I was raised with Judaism as a major part of my life, with synagogues and community centers serving as focal points for athletics, education and, of course, faith. I have experienced a similar environment as a student at Brandeis University, where Judaism permeates nearly every aspect of campus life.

By comparison, Tokyo, where I have come to study for the semester, is a backwater of Jewish life, where isolation is the defining characteristic. I was not prepared for how difficult it would be to practice my faith here and Passover, celebrated a mere two weeks after my arrival in Japan, was a rude awakening.

There is not another Jew for miles, and the JCC is more than an hour away by train. I am living with a Japanese family that has only the vaguest idea of Judaism, and the language barrier is too great for me to adequately explain Passover, so I simply described it as a “harunomatsuri” (festival of spring) and left it at that. This did little to explain why I could not eat leavened bread, and thus when I told my host mother that I would not be eating toast for breakfast or drinking beer with dinner for a week, she was taken slightly aback and called me “difficult.”

Well, I thought, I too find this situation difficult: Here, I am just another “gaijin” (Japanese for foreigner) and my Jewish practices are simply a variety of befuddling “gaijin” customs — not the product of thousands of years of tradition. This is not reflective of bigotry or hostility, but indifference. Without a highly visible Jewish community, most Japanese simply have no reason to think about or interact with Judaism. It is precisely this disregard, however, that produces feelings of alienation and makes one aware of the hardships of Diaspora.

In the face of this isolation, however, Jews in Japan have responded in the same manner that Jews have responded to social estrangement for thousands of years: They have bonded together. Community is the Jew’s defense against Diaspora. Separated from the Jewish nation, Jews seek out one another in order to recreate the Jewish life they know from the heartland of the Jewish world. As such, the Tokyo Jewish community is vibrant and receptive to the transient community of students, teachers and employees on temporary assignment in Japan.

I was able to attend Seders on both nights, the first at a private residence and the second at the JCC. Most of the attendees both nights were American, with a sprinkling of Commonwealth subjects at the JCC Seder.

The experience taught me the most important rule about being a Diaspora Jew: One must always be flexible. Being a Jew in a foreign land entails respect for the customs of the host country, meaning that practices are invariably going to differ from those to which one is accustomed. For example, the first Seder I attended substituted wasabi for maror and included chopsticks alongside silverware. The JCC Seder used what the rabbi said was the world’s only Hebrew-English-Japanese Haggadah, and he regularly invited Japanese guests to read passages.

Flexibility also allows one to teach Judaism to others, whether foreigners or simply non-Jews. Both Seders I attended had Japanese participants; the JCC Seder included Japanese enrolled in an “Introduction to Judaism” course offered by the community center. I myself helped explain Judaism to non-Jews by assisting at a “Seder” on Saturday night that was organized by Jews teaching in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching program. Hardly any of the dishes served were kosher, but I was glad to be able to introduce an important Jewish holiday to a group that included Japanese, Australians and Canadians.

By the end of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Seder, I had a clearer sense of what it means to be a Jew in Japan — and a Jew of the world.






Find us on Facebook!
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.