A Glimpse into Jewish Life in Japan
New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Rabbi Mendi Sudakevich, head of Chabad Lubavitch of Japan, Tokyo, to ask a few questions about Jewish life and Communities in Japan. The following interview was edited for clarity:
NYJTG: Rabbi, many thanks for your time. Can you tell us about yourself? How did you decide to come to Japan and how long have you been here?
Rabbi Sudakevich: My name is Mendi Sudakevich. I am originally from Israel. When I did my rabbinical study in New York, there were lots of Israelis working in Japan and I’m talking about 1997. One of them contacted Chabad in New York stating that many Israelis are working in Japan and they don’t have a place to go for the Passover Seder. Chabad sent two students from Australia to conduct the seder and expected 20 to 30 people but found a few hundred and had matzah for only 30, to 40 people. They called and asked me if I am willing to go to Japan to help with the Passover Seder. The next day I had a ticket to Tokyo.
This was my first Passover Seder in Japan with over 500 people. The next day there was no minyan and I was wondering how it is possible we had 500 people the night before, and no one today. I started to look around where the Jewish community living in Japan. One person told me that his son will have his bar mitzvah soon. I started teaching Bar Mitzvah lessons, and that is how I got started to be involved with the Jewish community in Japan. Three years later, when I got married, Chabad confirmed the opening of the Chabad house.
NYJTG: In the beginning, was it difficult to adjust?
Rabbi Sudakevich: It’s still difficult to adjust. If you live in Japan, you must like Japan and you have to appreciate Japan. If you don’t it is very difficult to live here as they do things differently than we are used to in the West. They behave differently, they think differently and they do everything differently. We always encounter this challenge but, on the other hand, everything is very organized and very planned. If you agree with someone on something, you know that’s how it’s going to be. It’s going to be exactly like you agreed with him. But It will be difficult until you can agree. Once you pass that stage then you know that [the Japanese] are going to do it better than anyone else. I met once a CEO from one of the biggest Israeli companies, and told me they have an office in Japan that loses money every year. I asked him why he kept the office. He replied that the best feedback on their machines comes from the Japanese office. If a Japanese customer buys it and says it is good, then we know it’s good. If he says they have problems, he will tell me exactly what the problems are like nobody else. To sell to the Japanese is the best R&D investment in the world. It is instant feedback and the Japanese evaluation is an authentic one.
NYJTG: Can you describe Jewish life and the community in Tokyo? Who makes up this community: Israelis, Americans, and French?
Rabbi Sudakevich: The community in Japan is transient. Nobody is here forever. If you are not Japanese, usually you know you are going to leave one day. Most people come here because they have a job, or they like Japanese culture and they want to study Japanese or they want to get to know and explore Japan a bit more. But most of them are going to leave after three to five years, as that’s usually the length of people staying in Japan. Then you have the other group that stays for 20 and 30 years, and they leave to go back to where they came from. I would say probably what we see now in our community is that we have about 30 percent Israelis, maybe another 40 percent Americans, and the rest from all over the world including France and Australia. They are really from all over. We have a regular community for minyan but it’s difficult to describe a regular community. This summer, for example, we had two families that left. Every summer we have people that come and go. Thank God, every Shabbat we have a minyan now. For years we didn’t have a minyan, but we now have enough people living here that even if we don’t have any visitors, we can have a minyan. I don’t think it’s ever happened that we don’t have a visitor. There are some weeks when we have only 10 visitors. In other weeks, we have hundreds of visitors. As I mentioned earlier, there are many Israeli companies here. I would say about 30 companies have an office in Japan.
NYJTG: What is the Jewish population in Japan and where is the largest concentration?
Rabbi Sudakevich: Like all foreigners, the largest number is in Tokyo. Kyoto has more tourists than Tokyo. Kyoto tourists tend to stay longer in Kyoto than in Tokyo. I read an article that said that most tourists stay only two nights in Tokyo and three nights in Kyoto. They use Kyoto as a start, as a hub, and then they go from Kyoto to Hiroshima and come back. They go from Kyoto to Nara and then from Kyoto to Osaka, and then in Kyoto to many different places and come back.
My guess is about 1,500. Let me tell you why. The Japanese are very organized people. They have a list of every foreigner (not by name) who lives in Japan. From that list, I can see how many Israelis and Americans live in Japan. I can see their age and type of visa they have and other information. By the end of 2017, 521 Israeli American citizens were living in Japan and were over 18 years old. I know about 1/3 of the people are Israelis … so I guess if that number is 500, then that makes it 1,500 total here. The majority of them are in Tokyo. I would say about 2/3 are in Kyoto and Kobe. Kyoto does have a very big international population. There are lots of tourists but not so many foreigners living in Kyoto. They are mostly in Kobe, Osaka, Tokyo, and Yokohama areas.
NYJTG: I understand that keeping a decent kosher diet in Japan is not so easy. How difficult is it to obtain permits to bring kosher food or organic material to the island? Is it like forcing some observant Jews into a vegetarian lifestyle?
Rabbi Sudakevich: Like everything in Japan, it’s not easy. Japan is an island, and they like to keep an island mentality. They like to keep their island culture and it’s not easy to import food to Japan. We do import chicken and meats for many years. We do Schechita [kosher ritual slaughter] in Japan for chicken and a few cows, but it is mainly for chicken. We have a lot of struggles with the import process because every time there is a small problem in the U.S. with something. They ban the import, and it can be that our shipment is already in transit. This year we imported about nine tons of chicken. For example, we had five tons of chicken in a few shipments at the U.S. port and someone forgot to stamp the documents. It took us two months to find the solution to let it come in. It [involved] a $500 storage fee for two months in a special freezer at the port.
We have a Shohet with the Rabbi in Kyoto, and we are doing Schechita. Last week, we went to a few cheese companies and soon we will have kosher cheese and milk that is Chalov Israel-made in Japan. We have a Chabad in Takayama located in the Japanese Alps in Gifu. We have developed very strong relationships and we were asked to open Chabad in Takayama. There are a lot of Jewish travelers visiting Takayama because of Chiune Sugihara. It became a big destination for Jewish travelers. In one of the meetings, I was asked what else was needed to improve for the Jewish travelers in Japan. I told them kosher cheese and milk. They reached out to all the cheese companies in Takayama and a few were interested to participate. We now have a Chabad Rabbi in Takayama
NYJTG: So now visitors can eat kosher in Gifu at the Chabad House?
Rabbi Sudakevich: Yes, they can eat there and have a Shabbat dinner, and also pray at the synagogue in Takayama. They have several kosher sakes in Takayama, and we have now more than 30 kosher sake companies in the country. I will tell you a secret— natural sake in its original state is kosher. The mixture of rice and water is sake so naturally, sake itself is a kosher product. What makes it not kosher is when they start mixing other things with it. If you go to a company they do it the traditional way, real sake in its natural state, then the sake is kosher and they just need someone to check, confirm, and get the stamp. You can see that it’s not difficult to make kosher sake. Sake is produced for hundreds and hundreds of years in the same way. If you do it the same way that it used to be done hundreds of years ago, then it’s not a problem.
NYJTG: Can you describe the Sukkot holidays? Is it almost impossible to get the three of the four species needed for the ritual during this weeklong festival, such as the Etrog, the Lulav, and Frond from a date palm tree? How do you manage this, and how is Simchat Torah celebrated?
Rabbi Sudakevich: It’s a very good question you are asking. It’s very difficult to import as we need lots of documents and licenses. This has been the issue since we came to Japan and it was so difficult. We decided to plant it ourselves here to make it easier for us: Lulav, Etrog, Hadass, and Aravah. We still import from Israel but if we cannot succeed with the import, at least we know that we have an alternative here. The number of tourists is increasing and because of this growth, we need more every year. We used to bring only 10 per year, now we need about 60 more sets of Lulav and Etrog. Chabad has the Sukkot mobile and we go around with our truck. This year, we have eight trucks to go to all the tourist destinations in Japan. We have two boys that travel with the trucks to Kobe, Kyoto, and Takayama, and to other Jewish destinations. Last year we did this every day and we had approximately 200 visits to the trucks. I don’t know if you are aware but Japan is becoming a big cruise ship destination with the port of Yokohama. It is a great feeling to see 20 people standing in line at the Sukkot mobile for the prayers on the Lulav and Etrog. It was an amazing feeling to see this! We go on the streets of Simchat Torah and we dance in every other community in Japan. We don’t need a permit. We need a permit on Yom Kippur because we have about 200 people coming and as you can see this place cannot fit 200 people, so we apply for a permit from the police to close down the street to accommodate everyone.
NYJTG: What about Passover , how many people attend the Passover Seders, and is it conducted in Hebrew, or English?
Rabbi Sudakevich: Very good question. Because of the nature of our community, we have locals, tourists, and Israeli travelers, so we conduct three Sedarim. We do one Seder for the locals who live here in a very beautiful venue in English with about 300 people in attendance. Another Seder is given for tourists with about 100 people. The third Seder is for the 150 young Israelis, which is free and everyone is welcome to come. We do two Seder nights but for the first one, we have three [separate] locations because renting a nice hall is very, very expensive in Japan.
NYJTG: What it’s like for your children in terms of Hebrew school and do you have a nursery school program?
Rabbi Sudakevich: Every time we have different people here because of the nature of the community. Some years we have a kindergarten, and some years we don’t. The last time we had one was about five years ago. When we see that there are enough kids to start a kindergarten program, then we start one. We do have a Sunday school program with over 30 kids. We have teachers coming from Israel and France to teach in the Hebrew school for the last three years. For my kids, I would say that’s the most difficult part. This is because my kids see life in Israel or in New York where everybody has lots of kosher foods, lots of friends, and everything they want. Here, they have to be in the house and study online on the computer. They have very few friends who are mainly those who come to Sunday school but they don’t see them very often. Their school is online. Saba and Safta are in Israel. All the uncles and cousins and everybody are abroad. I would say that is probably the most difficult part. At the same time, I think they learn a lot being here and [the experience] also gives them a lot – so it’s a mixed feeling.
NYJTG: Are there events such as Challah bakes?
Rabbi Sudakevich: My wife bakes challahs every Thursday and gives a challah class, Challah and Tea, with a few ladies that come to make the Challah for Shabbat.
NYJTG: What is the local attitude toward the Chabad and the Jewish community in Japan? Are some people interested to come and explore Judaism or potential conversion?
Rabbi Sudakevich: I don’t deal a lot with the Japanese. My work is not so much toward the Japanese. It is for the Jewish community here. Many times I have questions from the Japanese. I have meetings with them because they have an interest and want to know more about Judaism. We don’t have a Beth Din here, so it’s very difficult to convert. We did have some converts throughout the years. At the moment, I think nobody is staying in Japan. Everybody is leaving because once they convert, they want to keep a kosher house and send their kids to Jewish schools. It’s very difficult. We just had a family and the woman was a convert and made aliyah last week to Israel.
NYJTG: What are some of the aspects of the Jewish culture difficult to maintain in Japan and what would be an example?
Rabbi Sudakevich: The most difficult thing is that we don’t have Jewish life like a normal place. We don’t have normal services. We don’t have normal Jewish events and no Jewish weddings here. Nobody wants to get married in Japan. They get married in Israel, America, or in France, where they have a family even if they live in Japan. We have maybe four, or five bar mitzvahs per year in this synagogue. Most of the bar mitzvahs go abroad. Brit milah are performed because we have a mohel that lives here. He’s in Israel now and he lives most of his time in Tokyo. We do have Chevra Kadisha here. Most of the time, what we have to do is to send the body overseas. This happens to us a few times a year. Maybe once a year, we bury them in Japan as we have a Jewish cemetery. In the Yokohama cemetery, there is still space but not so much space left. Kobe has two Jewish cemeteries. There is a small cemetery in Osaka that has not been used for more than 60 years.
NYJTG: Thank you, Rabbi, for your time and all the information you shared with us. I appreciate it, as will our readers.
To plan a visit to Japan, contact Chabad Lubavitch of Japan in Tokyo. To reserve a seat at a Passover seder, email email@example.com or log on to: https://www.chabad.jp/.
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the prefectures of Fukushima, Tochigi, and Ibaraki and the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB).