Sunday, January 11, 2015


It's very hard to dissect and examine what you never encounter. I recently came across a Japanese book whose cover art depicted a Japanese fellow and a Caucasian bloke, amiably chatting above the black title font, but it's the name of the book that made my eyes pop. 'Hello, I'm a Jew!', which, in Japanese, doesn't sound quite so strange as its English translation (I'm hoping), but it's still quite the sight.

The population of Japanese Christians steadily hovers around one percent, so it's not as if the country as a whole is overtly familiar with Western religions; add Judaism to the cultural conversation, and you'll soon find that your spiritual chat will probably end pretty fast. The Japanese simply don't know all that much about the topic. Having said that, I'll contradict myself, because there are a lot of books published about Judaism in Japan, often explaining the historical and contemporary ins-and-outs of the Middle East (lack of) peace-process. Those are often pretty high-brow, intellectual-type stuff. This particular book is in the form of a 'taidan', a conversation between two prominent people about a particular topic or theme. The result is personal history mixed with historical detours, one that's much more accesible to the average Taro on the train.

(Why the West doesn't have this kind of two-dudes-chatting non-fiction book mystifies me. Maybe it's simply tradition. We narcisstic Westerners, as raging individualists, traditionally think of a 'book' as one smarty-pants author telling us what's the real deal; in the East, in a group-consensus environment, it's natural that a subject is only comprehended if it's part of a dialogue of some sort. Here in Japan, you'll often find two notable folks from different fields -- a writer and a composer, or a Buddhist monk and a philosopher -- commenting on various aspects of national and international events, arts, sports, whatever. Published in an interview-style format, it allows you, as a reader, the chance to compare different views and see where you fit in.)

Roger Pulvers is an American Jew who received his Australian citizenship before eventually settling in Japan as a writer and teacher over forty years ago. His colleague here is Inuhiko Yomoto, a Japanese author and professor who has studied extensively about (and within) the Middle East. Together, they chat about Pulvers childhood, his first-hand experience of Judasim, what being a 'secular Jew' is all about, why peace with Israel and Palestine is such a head-scratcher, in addition to many entertaining detours about the role of Jews in American comedy and film, and why so many twentieth-century screen actors scrapped their ethnic-sounding names. The result is a free-flowing, back-and forth investigation of one man's life as a Jew, in Japan and abroad, mingled with a scholar's investigation into his ground-level experiences in a faith that is foreign.

The Japanese reading public annually ingests thousands of titles relating to foreign affairs, but this kind of intimate talk has a more delicate slant to what's an extremely loaded topic. 'Loaded' for the West, anyways, but in Japan, there's not much historical baggage attached to the role of the Jews or their place in the world. This kind of 'blank slate' effect certainly has its downsides, namely, that there remains a notion of the 'Jew' (with a capital 'J') that often seems cobbled together from outdated stereotypes -- that of the rich, moneygrubbing, financially successful insider, resulting in niche-books being published proclaiming to tell you how to quickly get rich 'like a Jew'. When you've never been around something -- whether its a person or culture -- you tend to either degrade or glorify its composition or effects. Stripped of its ethnic, historical and spiritual roots, Judaism as a concept in Japan still remains pretty vague, so the monetary aspect of the culture has been rather crudely shoved to the forefront of discussion. Japanese love to classify things, and perhaps this obsession with the finanical wherewithal of the Jewish people is a small result of that fetish.

There are, of course, Japanese academics who specialize in the Jewish experience, but for the average salaryman and his wife, the topic is not one that readily comes up over miso soup in the morning. Why would it? I can't imagine that there are a lot of Jews in Japan, and a lack of exposure to anything inevitably results in broad strokes. I barely even understood anything about Judaism until my  university days (and I still don't know all that much), and I grew up in a country and culture that was much more multi-cultural than Japan. If you're not surrounded by the actual stuff of a culture, you don't know where to begin, or even possess the inclination.

(Related to that point, I have to go back and re-read Canada's literary legend, Mordecai Richler, because while I've read most of his books, I devoured them at a time when I didn't think all that much about his Jewishness, or even understood what his ethnicity might mean to his work as a whole. Same goes for Woody Allen and Philip Roth -- loving their work, but not connecting the cultural dots, or even knew the dots were waiting to be linked.)

Mainstream books like this one, that you can find in an ordinary bookstore, at least allow the Japanese people to be introduced to a vastly different experience of life, via two people shooting the shit. I first saw a copy of this book in the university bookstore, then accidentally spotted another one on the shelf in the school's library. Some twenty-year old Japanese kid might encounter this in a similar way. buy it or borrow it, and learn something new, thereby erasing a few stereotypes in the process. Globally-speaking, that ain't half-bad. (And I wish I had come across something like this when I was that age. The world would have shrunk a bit sooner for me.)  

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