We spent much of June in Japan. Day here is night there, and vice versa. After getting home, I realized that the words “jet lag” are synonyms for “wrecked body,” and the best thing to do when you get back is to take a few days off to recover.
Before we left, I knew the Japanese word “sayonara” (“goodbye”) from a 1957 movie of that name starring Marlon Brando, and during the trip I picked up a couple of expressions, “ohayo gozaimas” (“good morning”) and “arigatou” (“thank you”). I learned a lot about Japanese culture but hardly anything about the language except that they apparently have three alphabets and well over a thousand characters, many of which are actually Chinese. And you need to be an artist in order to write (actually draw) most of them. I’m still not clear whether the reading direction is up or down or right to left, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ve never been good with languages anyway.
The food is another challenge. They grow and eat a lot of rice in Japan. My father spent six months in North Carolina in 1948 taking the Duke University “rice diet” to treat his high blood pressure. The diet didn’t seem to help my father, but there must be something to it. The Japanese don’t seem to have high blood pressure.
I like rice, but not for breakfast. And I could do without some of the other breakfast foods, including various kinds of fish and mysterious delicacies I didn’t recognize. At one hotel I counted thirty-seven choices, not including the juice and coffee. I’m a great believe in the idea of “when in Japan,” but there are limits, and I longed for my morning cereal and fruit.
Japanese toilets are also different. They aren’t just passive plumbing. They are electronic devices, made by Toshiba. The seats are warm, they spray water, and they produce air. It isn’t easy figuring out how to flush them.
Before we left on our trip, I looked up the “Jews of Japan” and read about the “Japanese Shindler,” a diplomat named Chiune Sugihara. While stationed in Lithuania at the beginning of World War II, he saved thousands of Jews by issuing hand-written travel visas so that they could escape. In 1995, the government of Israel designated him as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” the only Japanese person ever given that honor. When we got back I looked up the Japanese word for “visa.” It is “biza,” easy to remember.
Many of those lucky enough to receive Sugihara’s “bizas” went by way of Russia to the port of Kobe, which was a “safe haven.” And that is where we ended our trip. It is our Japanese daughter-in-law’s home town, and we met her parents, Tetsuo and Masako, for the first time. I had planned to teach them the Yiddish word for the parents of your child’s spouse – “machatunim” – but I forgot.
There aren’t many Jews left in Kobe, just a handful, but we, including our daughter-in-law, visited the synagogue. It is beautiful and in full operation. That evening at dinner I told our machatunim about the visit and asked if they know any of Kobe’s Jews. They do not, but they do know about Sugihara, and they venerate his memory.
I’ll probably forget the few Japanese words I learned during the trip, but I won’t forget Mr. Sugihara, who is now one of my heroes. And I won’t forget the Japanese word he knew so well – “biza.”