Matzah and sushi - my Jewish life in Japan

It’s hard to get a minyan together in Tokyo. At least that’s what one ex-pat mother of two expected when she settled in the city. How wrong she was.

By Gaby Wine, May 27, 2010
Gaby Wine and her family are an anomoly — most Jews in Japan are travelling businessmen

Gaby Wine and her family are an anomoly — most Jews in Japan are travelling businessmen

At our Seder this year we had 35 people. Not unusual, you are probably thinking. A little mad, but not unheard of. Well, not if you are living in north-west London, Manchester, Manhattan or Jerusalem. But we are living in Tokyo, a city populated by 13 million people, where the chances of coming across a Jewish person are as likely as meeting someone who has not heard of sushi. Or, so I thought.

We have been in Tokyo for four Passovers and have hosted a Seder in our home for the past three. Every year, when the Time to Invite approaches, I think that the guest-list will be shorter than the year before, since, as is characteristic in the expat world, almost everyone who was at the previous Seder has moved on. But, every year, it seems that the list just gets longer.

I joked to a friend recently that I was a "compulsive inviter", since whenever I came across a Jewish person, or even a Jew-ish person, I felt compelled to ask them to break matzah with us. In my head were the words: "I have to invite them. Where else will they have a Seder?" In fact, the answer to that question is that they would have plenty of choice.

There are around 500 identifying Jewish families in Tokyo, but like the joke about the man who lives alone on a desert island where he has built two synagogues, including "the one he doesn't go to", such is the case in Tokyo. We have the Jewish Community of Japan, otherwise known as the JCJ. This is a traditional, egalitarian community, modelled on American JCCs, but is also comparable to a British Masorti congregation. This is where we go.

Then there is a "breakaway" group, who set up a cheder several months ago with a desire for a greater focus on Israel. In addition, we have Chabad - not one, but two. Don't ask me which one is the "official" Chabad, since both claim that they are.

The previous rabbi converted over 70 Japanese people to Judaism during his six-year stint in Tokyo

When we first moved to Tokyo in March 2007, for my husband's work we would go for Friday-night dinners at the JCC. After saying kiddush, the rabbi would go around the table asking everyone to introduce themselves. As a born-and-bred Jewish family, we were a bit of an anomaly, since most of the guests were either single Jewish businessmen, passing through Tokyo, or Japanese people who had converted or who were going through the process. Indeed, the previous rabbi converted over 70 Japanese people to Judaism during his six-year stint with the community.

I remember a conversation I once had with him about why Japanese people would want to convert to Judaism. He claimed that while the Japanese predominantly practise Buddhism and Shintoism, "they don't really know where they come from. The fascination is because Jews have a pedigree. We know where we come from."

Yet some researchers have suggested that the Japanese are descendants of the lost 10 tribes of Israel. Once, in shul, a Japanese man who had converted to Judaism years before insisted I took home a DVD he had made on the subject. I am not sure I was convinced.

So, while we discovered a Jewish community within days of stepping off the plane at Narita Airport, if I am completely honest, it has only been lately that I feel we belong to a community.

My Jewish sensors, finely tuned from my years living in north-west London, are switched on most of the time. However, sometimes they let me down. For months, I thought a former neighbour was Jewish, and would throw in words like "Shabbat" and "kosher" to see how she responded. It was only when they invited us for Friday night (yes!), along with their Catholic priest (no!), that I realised my mistake.

Fortunately, by the time this year's Seder had come around, we had befriended enough Jews to form a minyan three times over.

Yet it has been the gestures made by Japanese non-Jews, borne out of a reverence to Judaism, which have moved me the most. Two years ago, we visited the Holocaust Education Centre in Fukuyama, not far from Hiroshima. The museum, built in memory of the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust, was founded by Reverend Makoto Otsuka, following a chance meeting with Otto Frank in Israel over 30 years ago. It aims to educate Japanese children on the Holocaust and is one of the most sensitive and poignant Holocaust memorials I have ever seen. With its large windows which draw in the sunlight and look out onto lush green fields, it inspires a feeling of hope rather than despair in its visitors. Other countries would do well to emulate it.

I have often been asked: "What is it like to be Jewish in Japan?" The answer depends on my mood. My negative response is that it is rather difficult (especially if you are kosher), since pork is the staple of the Japanese diet, and they also rather like their shellfish. Despite Tokyo boasting four Jewish communal groups, there is nothing like the range of synagogues, not to mention schools and activities for Jewish children that one would find in most western cities.

But if I am feeling positive, the answer is that being Jewish in Japan is really not that different to being Jewish in any other place in the world. We have always been a nomadic people - where we go, our Jewish identity follows. At Seder this year, our three-year-old son stood up for the first time and sang the Manishtanah as his parents kvelled from opposite ends of the vast table. Of course, these are moments when we could be wishing our family and closest friends were not half-way across the world. But, instead, we count our blessings, thank the Lord for delivering us from slavery, guiding us to the Land of Milk and Honey - and for creating Skype.

East meets West

The first Jewish settlers in Japan landed in the port of Yokohama in 1861 after the country opened its doors to foreign traders. The community consisted of around 50 families and was also the first to build a synagogue. Another early Jewish community was established in Nagasaki in the 1880s. From 1900 to around 1950, Japan’s largest community was in the city of Kobe — mainly immigrants from Russia and the Middle East. During the Second World War, despite its alliance with Nazi Germany, Japan was considered a haven for Jews, the government continually rejecting request from the Germans to adopt antisemitic policies. Now, the largest community is in Tokyo, consisting of several hundred families. Overall, the Jewish population of Japan numbers around 2,000, mostly ex-pat workers.

Last updated: 3:41pm, May 28 2010