Shalom, Tokyo: A Jewish Culture Guide
In a city of over 13 million, there are estimated to be over 2,000 Jews… but if you ask the Jews of Japan, size doesn’t matter.
By: Anthony Marcusa- @ New York Jewish Guide.com
And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.
For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.
It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.
Common sensibility will tell you that there aren’t a lot of Jewish activities in the capital city of Japan. A relatively small Jewish community resides in Tokyo amid millions of others, with only a handful of institutions to serve religious and cultural needs. Those Jews who live and work there, however, suggest change comes in small increments, and that size is no indication of importance.
There are but a couple thousand Jews living in Tokyo, a major metropolis with a population of over 13 million. There are two Chabad houses, one official kosher restaurant, and even those numbers seem to fluctuate, with a diner coming and going here or there. Nonetheless, a sense of community is strong, and growing.
January of 2013 marked an important time for Jews living in the Japanese capital as Tokyo opened its very first mikvah. The Israel ambassador to Japan, in attendance for the occasion, called it a ‘miracle,’ a development that has been years in the making after the only other mikvah shut its doors in 2008. It was the desire of many to see the ritual bath site built, and the passion project of a few who spent years trying to make it happen.
Having moved to Tokyo from Israel in 2000, Rabbi Mendi and Chana Sudakevich, co-director sof Chabad-Lubavitch of Tokyo, had long sought to make the mikvah a reality. Without one in Tokyo, the next closest mikvah was in Kobe, the only other Japanese city with a notable Jewish population, some 300-plus miles away.
Fundraising began in 2008 to build one, but the global financial crisis halted the efforts. By the end of 2010, enough money was raised to renovate the synagogue, but not enough for mikvah, so the idea was put on hold. That was, until, a very generous donor by the name of Yair Levy, a business owner in Kobe and president of Congregation Ohel Shlomo, endowed the Sudakeviches with enough money to start the mikvah.
Curiously enough, donations came in from elsewhere in the world, including some as far away as Brazil. The mikvah was built by Tokyo-based architect Richard Bliah under the guidance of Rabbi Meir Posen, a construction process that was arduous at times. Costs were high space, was limited (only a 130-square-foot, to be exact), and Japanese codes and Jewish laws were in conflict.
The vision was eventually realized, and the emergence of this important Jewish element looks to hopefully rejuvenate the community in Tokyo, attracting residents, tourists, and new faithful. The event was celebrated in a joyous ceremony, attracting locals and notable religious leaders. Chana Sudakevich was even quoted as saying “I hope we’ll have so many people coming to use the mikvah, we’ll have to build another one!”
It’s that sort of slow, dedicated growth that has defined Jewish life in Japan. For decades since the emergence of the state of Israel, the number of Jewish settlers in Japan – residing primarily in Tokyo and Kobe – has risen negligibly. Exact figures are tough to come by, with low estimates saying the Jewish population in the year 2000 was in the few hundreds. A more generous outlook, incorporating a transient population, sees that figure reach over 1,000. Today, there are around 2,000 Jews in Toyko.
Jewish settlers, business owners, and rabbis have tried for decades to strengthen the community, and while to outsiders these efforts may seem unsuccessful, reports from those within Japan indicate otherwise. A rabbi working in Tokyo in the 2000’s had reportedly converted over 70 japanese people to Judaism, explaining that the appeal is that Jews know where they come from, as opposed to followers of Shintoism or Buddhism. Perhaps it’s because the community is smaller, as those within it are more dedicated, more fervid.
There are two Chabads, a Jewish Community Centre (the Jewish Community of Japan), and a smaller Jewish group that focuses on Israel. Chabad Lubavitch of Tokyo is the central and official Jewish institution in Japan, offering Shabbat, kosher meals, catering services, and artistic and cultural activities. Most Jewish settlers hail from Israel and the United States, while there too are families from Canada, Switzerland, Russia, and France.
Still, Judaism is relatively new to Japan. Around 50 families landed in the port of Yokohama in 1861, building the nation’s first synagogue. Kobe emerged in the early 20th century as a Jewish community, and Tokyo would follow soon after. Despite Japan’s alliance with Germany in World War II, the country was still considered a refuge for Jews.
Anti-Semitism did indeed exist, but it influenced individuals and small groups rather than a nation as a whole. While books and pamphlets promoted the cause of fascist Germany, the Japanese government and military resisted the Nazi anti-Semitic beliefs.
An influx of Jewish settlers began following the Second World War. Even then, the arrival wasn’t especially significant, and many Jewish settlers from around the world flocked to Israel in 1948.
The prevailing sentiment seems to be that being Jewish in Japan isn’t that different from being Jewish in any other part of the world. It is indeed difficult to eat kosher (the running joke is that it’s really easy, as long as you have a kitchen).
Tokyo now has its mikvah, and there’s no telling what’s next. A small, united community exists within one of the world’s biggest cities, welcoming to all and dedicated moving forward.
Mh – New York Jewish Guide.com