Japan Teaches One Jew the True Meaning of Diaspora

By Tobias Harris

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.
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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.

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