Jewish Cemetery, Kobe, Japan

Earlier today I joined a few members of our community to visit the local Jewish cemetery in Kobe, Japan. A long-time member of the community, Jack Yohai z”l, who passed away two years ago (on Rosh HaShana) has no family in Japan, so we went to say a memorial prayer and kaddish on his grave.

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Grave of Jack Yohai z”l

 

The Japanese do not bury their dead and the cremation rate here is more than 99%. When a Jew dies in Japan, it is always a bit of challenge to race to get the proper official documentation signed before the body is cremated.

The Jewish cemetery in Kobe is located on Futatabi mountain. In the 1950s, the Kobe City government relocated all foreign cemeteries within the city to this location, and designated it as the Kobe Municipal Foreign Cemetery. It is located in a beautiful woodland park, a hiking and camping site, and is maintained meticulously year round. There are designated plots for Jews, Christians, Muslims and other religions.

There are two Jewish plots in this cemetery. The older one probably filled up, so a new one was allocated further up the hill. The names on the tombstones clearly reflect the changing composition of the Jewish community of Kobe. While in the old plot most names are Ashkenazi (Russian or European), in the new plot most names are Mizrachi (from Arab countries). The people buried in the old plot came to Japan in the 19th century and, judging by the dates on the tombstones, most of them died in the early 20th century at a relatively young age (40s and 50s). The ones buried in the new plot arrived here in the early 1900s and most of them died at an old age.

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The new Jewish plot at Futatabi cemetery

There are three “major” Jewish cemeteries in Japan, in the three port cities where foreigners typically lived: Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. In addition, there are Jews buried in various general foreign cemeteries, especially those set up after the wars to bury the dead foreign soldiers and POWs. An acquaintance of mine recently found a few Jewish graves at a POW cemetery near his home in Osaka, dating back to the Russo-Japanese war of 1905.

May the memories of these Jews buried in Japan be a blessing to us all. Amen.

Personal Touch at Starbucks

We have a Starbucks near our home, which our daughter frequents regularly. During the summer holidays she was away from Japan for a few weeks, and on a couple of occasions when I went there for coffee, I was asked by the staff when she would be coming back.

A few days ago my wife went there and, along with her beverage, was given the following note:

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The Japanese says they are thankful for our business and urge our daughter to practice her Japanese with them.

A personal touch that is not uncommon in Japan. A few months ago I wrote about another Starbucks employee who was particularly attentive to one of his customers.

What a far cry from the apathetic, sometimes even surly, Starbucks employees I encounter during my trips to the US. But then again, I’m not as cute and friendly as our daughter…

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Post Office

This is a post office near my home. Not the one I use regularly, but close enough that I can use it as well sometimes (it’s close to the supermarket I go to). That’s point number one: there are many post offices in Japan, so you rarely need to walk far to get to one.

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My usage of the post office is mostly for sending registered mail to Tokyo. I go there 2-3 times a month for this purpose. The post office is open all day, every day. In the two years I’ve lived here, only once did I need to wait in line to get served, and the line consisted of one person. Point number two: the post office is always open, and one rarely needs to wait in line.

Why don’t I go to the post office for other purposes? Because there is no need to. All mail and parcels are delivered to my home, regardless of size (from regular envelopes to oversized boxes). Furthermore, if I’m not home, a note is left in the mailbox and I can reschedule the delivery to any time I like, including late evening. Point number three: there is no need to go to the post office to collect anything as everything gets delivered to you personally at home.

Recently, I saw the following post in Facebook:

The Story of 38 yen
Last week I went to a Post office that I rarely go to and bought some envelopes to send a package overseas but I forgot to take my change (38yen). That evening the Post office called my home to let me know that they had my change and they would keep it for me until I picked it up. How did they find me? From the return address on the package I had sent! Today (almost a week after sending the letter) I went back to that Post office and retrieved my change. The very kind woman behind the counter immediately retrieved my change from an envelope they had stored in the back office and apologized for causing me trouble and bothering me at home.
All for 38 yen.
I continue to be humbled by the service levels in Japan, and from the Post Office no less.
-Philip

By the way. The registered mail I send to Tokyo, 500km away, unfailingly gets there in 1-2 days. Israeli readers can compare that with this recent test done with Israel Postal Service.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Installing an Air Conditioner

A couple of weeks ago, one of the air conditioners in our home decided to meet its maker. The landlord came over, took a look, and decided to replace it. This being a very hot summer in Japan, the installers were fully booked, so we had to wait a couple of weeks. The landlord left a note on our door noting the date and time the installers will come, and providing an estimated work time of 4-5 hours.

On the date, at the exact time scheduled, the installers showed up. Before doing anything, they taped plastic sheets on the floor and walls to avoid getting anything dirty. Needless to say, they removed their shoes every time they entered the apartment.

To access the main electric panel they needed to remove five shelves of shoes. First they took pictures of the shelves. Why? So that they would know how to put the shoes back exactly as they were. They then proceeded to place the shoes in two neat rows outside the front door. And only then did they start working. I brought them a bottle of cold water and some cups.

During the time the installers were in the apartment, I was working in another room. I told them I would be on a couple of conference calls so I would need to shut the door. They immediately asked if I would like them to stop working during my calls, so as not to make any noise. I said “no problem”, and in fact there was very little noise.

They were done in 2.5 hours. They removed the plastic sheets, put back the shelves and the shoes, showed me how the remote control worked, bowed, and left. The bottle of water remained untouched. Not a speck of dust was left behind.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Tax Office

I had to go to the tax office today to get some document. I put this chore off for a while, as the form I needed to fill out was in Japanese only, and based on previous experiences I was afraid this wasn’t going to go smoothly. I was wrong.

First, this is the line I had to wait in to get service:

That’s right, no line. I thought maybe I was lucky, but when I asked, the lady at reception told me they have a policy of minimum wait in line, so when there is more than 1 person waiting, they call staff from the back office to help. Reception is open every day, 9 to 5, no breaks. By the way, it’s hard to see in the photos, but there were pens and reading glasses available for the public to use, neatly arranged and not attached to anything.

The receptionist did not speak much English, so she fetched a young guy who did. He helped me fill out the form, and then asked whether I’d like to get it by mail, or wait 15 minutes. I said I would wait. It took 20 minutes, but on the 15-minute mark he came out to apologize for it taking longer than expected. When he approached me I was sitting on a chair, so he knelt on one knee to be at the same eye level when addressing me.

When I got the document I was surprised to see it was translated to English. I asked why, and he said: you’re a foreigner, so we help you by translating the fields for you. This is why it took longer… I was asked to pay 400 yen (4 US dollars) and left.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Magical Art Museum, Tokyo

The Sompo Japan museum in Shinjuku, Tokyo, is running a temporary exhibition called “Magical Art Museum – Illusion of Light and Shadow”.

This is not a standard museum exhibition. It involves active participation of the visitors, who interact with the “media art” works on display, thereby changing them. The interaction produces new lights, colors, sounds and movements.

It’s not a big exhibition, and can be completed leisurely in 1 hour. Perfect for a quick break during a word day if you’re in the Shinjuku area. But it runs until August 28, so hurry up…

 

 

Public Toilets

Public toilets in Japan are available almost anywhere: inside convenience stores (one on every corner), on train/subway platforms and in public parks. If you feel the need to go, you are rarely more than a couple of minutes away from a public toilet.

More importantly, unlike almost everywhere else in the world, these public facilities are impeccably clean. They are cleaned regularly and, crucially, customers generally do a good job in keeping them clean. (Incidentally, most of the cleaning staff are women, and they clean the toilets while you’re standing there doing your thing; a little unsettling for some foreign tourists).

Here’s an example. I was visiting Kanazawa last week, and entered a public toilet in a small park. This is what the toilet looked like. Note the cleanliness, the availability of toilet paper, the facilities for disabled people, the diaper changing area… And all of this in a touristy area, i.e. with lots of customers.

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(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise

A couple of weeks ago, a friend complained on Facebook about a bad experience with a taxi driver in Osaka. One of the comments on his post read as follows (sic): “Folks, do calm down please. We’re as near as it’s possible to be to paradise. Consider most other places on Earth“.

That comment made me think how true that is. Japan is indeed as close to paradise on Earth as possible. Evidently, that is a subjective statement. It is based solely on my experiences, having lived in three countries and visited tens of countries. I’m sure there are people who will disagree.

So I’m starting a new series of blog posts entitled: Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise.

These will be short posts about daily aspects of life in Japan that will try to explain why living here is probably the closest a person can come to experiencing paradise while still being alive (assuming, of course, there is a paradise; because if there isn’t one, Japan  would be paradise itself). These are not going to be posts about the “big stuff”. They will focus on the small things that make up the mundane, everyday aspects of life. After all, we live most of our lives doing these mundane and common things, so the sum of them all largely determines the quality of our life.

(PS – My daughter pointed out that the small things in life do not necessarily determine where it is better for one to live. Things like family, friends, society, etc. are at least, if not more, important. Of course I agree. To clarify, I’m not saying that Japan is the best place to live. That is obviously an individual preference, a product of many factors. What I’m saying is that in many aspects of daily life, Japan is hard to beat. Thank you to my daughter for alerting me to this clarification).

Navel-Gazing Israelis

A very common human trait is navel-gazing, the tendency to think too much and too deeply about yourself and your circumstances and being incapable of taking a “bigger picture” look. A short and seemingly insignificant news item today demonstrates this navel-gazing trait among some religious Israelis.

Minister of Education and head of the national-religious party, Naftali Bennett, twitted something late afternoon last Friday. In his tweet he emphasized that although Shabbat has already started in Israel, he was abroad and it wasn’t Shabbat yet where he was tweeting from.

24 hours later, right after Shabbat ended, many attacked Bennett for tweeting during Shabbat in Israel. True to form, they quoted obscure halachot (Jewish laws) about making Jews read Twitter on Shabbat (as if Bennett’s tweets were the reason people were on the Internet on Shabbat) or making religious people enjoy/benefit from an action that desecrated the Shabbat (as if there aren’t dozens of such actions religious people benefit from during Shabbat in Israel).

More than anything, this over-reaction is an excellent example of how self-centered and self-absorbed many religious people have become in Israel. One of the downsides of the huge success of the Jewish State reviving Judaism to levels it have not known in history, is the almost complete unawareness of Israelis about the Jewish world outside of Israel. It is very obvious in the big issues –  the way they see (or more likely, don’t see) the non-Orthodox movements, the conversions done abroad, etc. But for me it is this small example that is so revealing about how deeply rooted this navel-gazing has become.

Who’s a Rabbi?

Hundreds of rabbis in Israel signed a letter supporting another rabbi, Yigal Levinstein, following the public outcry against him. Levinstein recently gave a speech in which he repeatedly referred to homosexuals as “deviants”.

Support from more than 300 rabbis. Sounds impressive.

Actually, not really.

A “rabbi” in Israel is someone who’s been ordained (received סמיכה). In ultra-orthodox circles this usually means that a prominent rabbi tests the knowledge of the aspiring rabbi – a matter of a few hours – and ordains him. In most cases there are no formal requirements and each community decides who to ordain. In national-religious circles (where most of the signing rabbis come from) this means undergoing a series of exams issued by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem. The exams are formally recognized by the State of Israel and are somewhat equivalent – in scope and difficulty – to a BA degree in Humanities.

In fact, I know several “rabbis” who were ordained after learning a couple of tractates in the Talmud and a few chapters in Shulchan Aruch (the leading Jewish Law textbook). Not only is their knowledge minimal; they lack the basic tools and skills to teach or guide other Jews, which is what rabbis are supposed to do. Some of them hardly open a book after their ordination.

The ease of rallying hundreds of rabbis to add their signatures to this letter is telling. It is a sign of the inflationary increase in the number of ordinations in Israel. If 300 rabbis can be asked to sign a letter in a few days, imagine how many rabbis are out there! As in all inflationary situations, the value of the goods decrease as they become more ubiquitous.

So I wouldn’t place too much importance on the title “rabbi”. Imagine a news headline about 300 people with a BA degree signing some petition. Would you be impressed? I guess not. Same here.