February 11, 2019
By Lila S. Chertman M.D.
As 2019 began, I found myself flying across the globe to partake in an adventure I had never thought possible. I was travelling to Japan as part of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) delegation to the Kakehashi Project, an innovative program sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs designed to foster understanding and cooperation between Japan and the United States. Our delegation was especially unique, as it consisted of young Jewish leaders with backgrounds in law, finance, education, and medicine. As such, we were also eager to learn about Japan’s relationship with Israel.
Highlights were plentiful. The morning we spent engaging in straight-forward conversation with Israeli Ambassador Yaffa Ben-Ari (who welcomed us with bourekas and coffee) felt a lot like being with family. At the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we discussed burgeoning economic relation between Japan and Israel, which have grown significantly over the last few years. From start-ups to medical pharmaceuticals, agriculture to cyber security; economic ties were deeply strengthened through the reciprocal visits of Prime Ministers Abe and Netanyahu. Our high-level diplomatic meetings also included a visit to the U.S. Embassy and to the Prime Minister’s Office, where we spoke with Special Advisor Kentaro Sonoura. We engaged with Mr. Sonoura in dialogue that deepened our understanding and appreciation of the Japanese-U.S. alliance.
Yet our adventure stretched far beyond conference rooms and embassies. I was most struck by the concept of omotenashi: the selfless hospitality and beautiful kindness of strangers. Whether it was locals helping us navigate public transportation, or a young couple in Yoyogi Park who ran after me to return my cellphone that I hadn’t even realized had been lost, omotenashi was everywhere. Respect permeates every aspect of Japanese society, by being early for everything (on time is late!), ceremoniously presenting and receiving business cards, removing one’s shoes when entering a dwelling, lining up in an orderly fashion on the subway, covering one’s face with a mask to prevent others from getting ill, and even muting our voices when in public so as not to disturb those around us. I was particularly moved by something I observed as the Kyoto-bound shinkansen (bullet train) arrived at the station. Meticulously uniformed men and women waited by each car to efficiently clean it before its next journey. No matter how rushed they were, each of them took a moment to bow their heads towards the exiting passengers, who also returned the bow. It was obvious that they both took great pride in their work. The cleanliness of bustling Tokyo and historic Kyoto, from meticulously engineered complex subway systems to the exquisitely manicured gardens of Happoen, also reflected the deep respect the Japanese have for their land.
January was a particularly special time to be in Japan. We learned about the annual Coming of Age Day festival occurring that month as a celebration of reaching adulthood and partaking of its rights and responsibilities. It reminded me of our Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s, and the blessing recited by parents declaring their children morally responsible for their deeds from that moment onward. I found other connections between our religions, even at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines where I hadn’t expected it. As we visited the Sensoji Temple and Meiji Shrine, we encountered worshippers writing their wishes and prayers on wooden plaques called Ema, which are left to hang near the holy sites before being ritually burned or buried, something that brought me back to Jerusalem and the thousands of noted slipped reverently in between the stones of our Western Wall.
Yet in the end, it all came down to the people themselves. Meeting Judaic studies students and professors at Doshisha University in Kyoto was something I will never forget. Was I just imagining it, or was the Japanese gentleman doing his PhD on Zev Jabotinsky actually speaking to us in fluent Hebrew? Suddenly my conversational Hebrew, essentially unpracticed since graduating Jewish Day School years ago, felt sorely inadequate. How had it happened that in a land so far from the Middle East, the Judaic studies program was not only alive but thriving? It was astonishing. Though most of the Japanese population at large did not have much knowledge of or interaction with Jews whatsoever, there I was, having a lovely conversation about Israeli music with a young lady who sings in the Shinonome Chorus (also known as Makhelat Hashachar). They travel the world performing in Hebrew as part of the pro-Israel Evangelical movement Beit Shalom, Japan’s Christian Friends of Israel. Father Otsuki, the founder, had a vision in 1938 that he was meant to help the Jews re-establish their homeland and decades later the movement is more than 10,000 people strong and runs a Holocaust education center.
And no trip by a Jew to Japan could ever be complete without paying tribute to Mr. Chiune Sugihara, the extraordinary, heroic man who saved 6,000 Jews from the Holocaust while defying his government’s orders as Japanese Consul in Lithuania. Meeting his granddaughter as she showed us the pictures and recounted the personal story of this humble man’s dedication to humanity, we were moved to tears, especially when one of the 40,000 descendants he saved turned out to be a member of our delegation.
As I watched a particularly striking sunset that evening in the land of the rising sun, my soul was still stirring with wonder at the ways the universe intersects in such marvelous ways. In this place called Japan, more than 7,000 miles away from my home in Miami, and 5,000 miles away from Israel, we had found common ground, shared values, and new relationships. Though Japanese cuisine, particularly its sushi, has ubiquitously woven its way into our everyday life in America, I left Japan hoping that one day in the near future we would be able to incorporate kindness, cleanliness, etiquette, and so many other values from Japanese culture into our own. That mission of sharing the best of our respective worlds with each other is just beginning as we continue building bridges across three continents, with utmost thanks to the American Jewish Committee for allowing me to participate in the once in a lifetime Kakehashi Project.
Dr. Lila S. Chertman is an AJC ACCESS Miami leader and a recent alumna of the annual ACCESS Kakehashi Mission to Japan