“Welcome to Israel!” It’s not a phrase you would expect to hear in Tokyo, but as we sat with Yaffa Ben-Ari, Israeli ambassador to Japan, inside her embassy, she was most accurate in her greeting.
As leaders of ACCESS, the young professionals’ division of the American Jewish Committee, we traveled with fellow ACCESS leaders from around the U.S. to Japan in early February as a part of the Kakehashi Project bridge building program.
While spending the week in Tokyo and Kyoto, we engaged with Japanese, American, and Israeli diplomats. The discussions ranged from trilateral and bilateral relations to Japanese history and the dynamic Tokyo Jewish community, a vibrant group that welcomed us for Shabbat.
The trip was not all suits and handshakes. We were able to experience sunrise sushi from tank-to-plate at the well-known Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo; we watched Mount Fuji fly past at 200 mph on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto; and we participated in a traditional tea ceremony at Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion Temple of Kyoto.
Among these experiences and more, we connected in unpredictable ways with a culture as rich and ancient as our own Jewish roots. Talmudic and rabbinic references are as common to Jews as thousand-year-old historical references to the Japanese. Typical meals are often family-style with shared dishes and casual conversation, not unlike a Shabbat dinner among friends.
One of the most poignant moments was having the opportunity to meet Madoka Sugihara, the granddaughter of Chiune-Sempo Sugihara, one of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations for his heroic acts in saving Jewish lives during World War II. He was a Japanese diplomat who, against direct orders from his government, wrote over 2,000 household transit visas allowing Jewish families to flee through Japan to safe havens. Descendants of those he saved are thought to
number over 250,000. One of our own fellow participants was able to find her relative on the wall of names of those he saved – a welcome departure from the typically tragic memorial wall.
When we arrived in Japan, we were strangers in a strange land, and when we left, we were among friends. If you’ve never explored a culture you thought was different than yours, you’ll never find out how much you truly have in common. This is one of the many lessons AJC and Kakehashi have brought us, and one we bring home to our Atlanta Jewish community. Let’s keep looking for similarities among us so we can keep building bridges.
Many thanks to AJC, ACCESS, and the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Japan for this experience.
Brandon Goldberg and Lisa Lebovitz participated in ACCESS Atlanta’s Kakehashi Project mission to Japan, a leadership exchange program exposing young professionals to Japanese society, culture and politics. It’s a partnership with AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute.