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What Is Jewish About Japan?

What Is Jewish About Japan?

The author's wife and two sons in front of a Japanese holy site

My family and I recently spent two and a half weeks backpacking through Japan. Before we left, we took time to learn some basic vocabulary we thought would be useful: “Please,” “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” and “Can I get this without pork or shellfish?”

Lucky for us, most of the people we encountered were not only wonderfully patient with us, but their English was infinitely better than our tentative grasp of Japanese. What’s more, many of the restaurants we chose offered menus in English so we were good to go on that front.

What we didn’t anticipate was what Japanese society would be like overall. During our travels, we learned to appreciate many things about the Japanese, especially these three inclinations:

  • The Japanese have tremendous respect for their elders. On trains, it was not uncommon to see young people – even those with outlandish hair and fashion sense – give their seats to older adults. Ritual bowing to the older people or those with greater status reinforced this attitude of respect.
  • They are concerned with maintaining “sacred space.” This interest extends beyond Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples to places that we in North America would consider “ordinary.” For example, before sumo wrestling competitions, and even before daily training, athletes spread handfuls of salt around the ring to purify the competition space. Likewise, when conductors leave a train carriage, they turn and bow, demonstrating reverence for the area under their charge.
  • The Japanese are a profoundly faith-filled people. Wandering along side streets in both large cities or small towns it is common to come across shrines and temples; the city of Kyoto alone has more than 2,000 distinct religious sites. Japanese citizens visit these holy sites not only for lifecycle celebrations, but prior to exams and job interviews, as well as on countless other occasions associated with daily life. There, they stand before an altar or image, proffer some money, and clap several times to gain the attention of the resident spirits before offering up the fondest wishes of their hearts.

As we witnessed the Japanese at their holy sites, my family and I were struck not by how strange and foreign their customs seemed, but rather how familiar they were to us as Jews. Although we do not revere images or idols, isn’t this what we do when we stand before God and, trying to get God’s attention, reintroduce ourselves by listing our ancestors – the avot v’imahot (the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah)? And, once we have God’s attention, don’t we typically ask for things we want or need? Likewise, when we go to pray it is customary to offer tzedakah (money dedicated to the work of world-repair or, literally, justice).

Judaism, too, is greatly concerned with the need to identify sacred space. Much of the Torah is concerned with issues of purity and holiness. When we build synagogues, for example, it is always with an eye toward setting aside specific areas for prayer and study. Similarly, when a loved one dies, we seek out hallowed ground where we hope they might find eternal rest.

As for respecting our elders, the Book of Leviticus, exhorts us in no uncertain terms: “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.” (Lev. 19:32)

My family and I returned from our travels impressed not with how different we are from the Japanese, but rather how alike. Throughout our trip, we were reminded that all humans have the same innate desires and needs. We need ways to show respect – kavod – to those who are older or in positions of authority; ways to sanctify the space around us; and way to seek divine favor and guidance. The rituals inherent in Judaism, like those in other faith traditions, give us a framework through which we can access those needs and – more important – the tools through which we can fulfill them. Perhaps most of all we learned that the similarities we experienced don’t reflect what is Jewish about Japan, but rather what is Jewish about life. And, isn’t that what the journey is about?

Rabbi Anthony Fratello is a 1994 graduate of Pomona College and was ordained at the Cincinnati Campus of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1999. Since 2000, he has been the rabbi of Temple Shaarei Shalom, a 560-family congregation in Boynton Beach, FL. He has served as a board and executive board member of numerous community agencies and is a highly sought and well-regarded speaker, teacher, and lecturer.

Rabbi Anthony Fratello
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