Asian Jewish Life

Funny, but being in Japan I forget I’m in Asia, and therefore connected to the thousands of other Jews who make their lives on this side of the world.

Yesterday came a rare opportunity to not only remember that, but to share from my nearly 29 years of memories of Jewish life in Japan. What prompted this was a meeting attended by my dear friend Leza Lowitz who similarly shared her perspective with Leah Ferentinos, a visiting student from University of Pennsylvania currently doing research through Tokyo University for a project investigating Jewish life in Japan.

To my surprise, I found myself sighing quite a bit during our conversation. Jews from China, especially Hong Kong, so outnumber out tiny population in Tokyo that I sighed with envy to think they have Jewish schools that go right up from kindergarten to the end of high school. I sighed to think Hong Kong Jews can board a nonstop plane to Israel and not have to change in Korea, Beijing or Istanbul.  I sighed to think that Hong Kong Jews have multiple choices where to daven and, if they choose, to pray in a Sephardic shul that is one of the beautiful architectural historic gems of Asia.

Then I stop sighing. Because of the work of Erica Lyons, a Hong Kong literary trail-blazer amongst us, who saw the need and found the means to create a beautiful magazine dedicated to celebrating all our lives, Asian Jewish Life Magazine exists. And it’s on these pages that I found my outlet to appreciate all that is good and sweet about Jewish life in Tokyo.

Yesterday’s meeting with Lean Ferentinos jogged my memory. I brought along copies of those articles to give her to read about my perspective on Jewish life in Japan. And after doing so, I thought it’s time–if you’ve been following my blog so far– to share with you the two articles featured in Asian Jewish Life 2013 editions that became the embryonic beginnings of my memoir, The Wagamama Bride.

http://asianjewishlife.org/pages/archive/AJL_issue12-June_2013.html

http://asianjewishlife.org/pages/archive/index_Issue13_November2013.html

Thanks to Erica for treating our corner of Asia–Japan–with such interest!

Asian Jewish Life has also featured two of Japan’s most beloved American female expat writers– Tracy Slater, Four Stories founder and author of The Good Shufu, a groundbreaking memoir and  loving tribute to her Japanese husband and his father who helped smooth her difficult transition to life in Japan. And Leza Lowitz, author of Here Comes the Sun, and one of Japan’s most sought-after yoga teachers, also has written for Asian Jewish Life about her deeply personal experience of adoption in Japan.

 

Brown Rice for Macrobiotic Beginners

Adrianne, my mother, Grandad Richard Dennie 94 with Grandma Betty Dennie 94.
Adrianne, my mother, Grandad Richard Dennie 94 with Grandma Betty Dennie 94.

Macrobiotics is Great for Anyone

But is it great for everyone? No, not really, especially if you don’t have interest in denying yourself the pleasures of eating whatever you feel like.

What happens when you turn macrobiotic? You give up meat, dairy, sugar, white flour, all processed foods, and even resist the temptation to eat fruits and vegetables grown in far away climates and out of season.

Expect a growling stomach the first time you pass an ice cream cart and reach into you pocket for the apple slices you packed from home. Expect rolled eyes and looks of dismay-possibly being hit with a frying pan for refusing your mother’s food that she slaved away to prepare for you–not knowing you were on a serious mission to eat healthier than she does.

It’s hard enough to get your parents to love you after you turn macrobiotic. For me in Japan, turning macrobiotic just days before I met my Tokyo in-laws for the first time could have been the beginning of the end of our relationship.

But since my in-laws-to-be were already used to their son Aki’s macrobiotic diet, they were generous in respecting me as an accomplice and not a challenger who had come to wreak havoc around the dinner table.

Excerpt from The Wagamama Bride: A Memoir in Progresa

The sweet things in life often start off as treats of the rich coveted by the rest of us, and how over time inventors find ways to make these enticements that we don’t necessarily need available to us all.

It happens over and over again, until what is coveted loses its value.

I’m trying to make sense of what happened with Aki’s grandfather’s invention, the rice polishing machine. With its development and mass marketing, Japan went from milling white rice via a water wheel to a small machine no bigger than a TV console.

So it’s not that Japanese weren’t eating white rice. They were, but this made the polishing process much faster and cheaper.

Aki was feeding his grandfather brown rice porridge about the time we met. He was brainwashed, he said, to believe that macrobiotics could cure anything, even his grandfather’s stroke.

So here’s Aki when I meet him at the clinic proposing to come over to my house not for a lesson in the history of white rice in his nation but in order to teach me how to handle a pressure cooker safely and accurately enough to make brown rice that didn’t stick or burn onto the bottom of the pressure cooker. No small feat, making brown rice, that looks appetising and tastes as good as birthday cake—Aki tells me. He says that brown rice cooked to perfection is sweet and most delicious.

Macrobiotics is a Family Affair

Macrobiotics for the Wagamama Bride was no simple matter because I wasn’t just adopting a diet against the collective common sense of a nutrition starved, post-War Japan mindset that continues to this day. But I was up against the family who prided themselves on inventing the modern day rice polishing machine that led to the near extinction in Japan of brown rice consumption–until macrobiotic founder George Ohsawa declared war on white rice over 50 years ago.

My grandfather Dick in England had a quaint expression he’d used whenever my grandmother Betty would challenge his thinking. Chaque un a sont gout — to each his own– he’d say with a little grin. He just would not let someone else’s divergent opinion bother him. And I think that unconsciously, we chose to give the people we love little uncomfortable pricks, to challenge their belief systems in order to become acquainted with what we really are ready to fight for.

We are what we eat, and we become who we eat with

Was macrobiotics worth the fight? No, my in-laws decided from the start. And around a tension-free dining table, I came to learn that it’s not just what we eat but who we share our food in peace with that nourishes us.

Rewriting the Rules of Marriage in Japan

DSCN7837Can a Jewish girl from New York ever strive to become as Japanese as the  daughter-in-law your husband’s parents always expected?

“Of course not! Hiroko strikes me as completely of my mother’s generation—looking for a modern way to define her marriage with more wiggle room for her to be her own person, but unlike my mother, who took the commuter train to Manhattan every day to her secretarial job at the Museum of Modern Art, Hiroko worked in the office appendaged to the front of her home, next door to the family business- her father-in-law’s rice polishing machine factory . While my mother was reading about women’s lib from the great provocateurs Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem — as my Rumanian father would come to see them, Hiroko discretely turned to a book of Hatha yoga for her quiet path to emancipation and peace of mind. She never saw women’s liberation as a goal or even an option. Hiroko gave me the impression she put everyone in her family’s needs before her own.”

If I were to follow Hiroko’s example, I would put Aki’s career and his needs before my own. But I can’t because it’s against my temperament to do so.  Aki in his infinite wisdom is sensitive to who I am and understands from the start that we are going to be rewriting the rules–if not the definition itself of what marriage is all about. He understands that  I love my  life as much as he loves his and I think secretly Hiroko understands that we are young. We are idealistic. And so this our agreement: 

Aki wants me to accept his training at Akahigedo into perpetuity. He sets no goal for completing his training even though he has — if we’re lucky — one Sunday off per month.

I want Aki to accept my traveling in Japan and outside of Japan for my work as a journalist for the Japan Times, JAL and ANA airline magazines.

Liane Wakabayashi

Aki wants me to accept living in Japan as a condition for marriage. I love Japan more than any other country I’ve been to and so I happily agree to what seems less a condition than a gift.

And from these naiive conditions, we begin a marriage that is based on separate lives in the same country–his country–a Japan of the early 1990s that I am fascinated with, full of admiration for, inspired to write about, and in so doing, grateful to Aki for enabling me to call Tokyo home.

A Jewish bride, a Japanese groom

Liane in wedding hall dressing room with my mother Adrianne and Aki's mother Hiroko

In 1991, the year I tied the knot with Aki in Tokyo, there were few options for a Jewish bride and a Japanese groom other than to discuss conversion. Neither one of us were interested in converting to the others’ religions. And so that raised a question to do more with our parents wishes. Of course they wanted to see their children married in a way that felt familiar and comfortable. How to placate them? How to come to peace with my own inner judge-namely God?

Aki’s parents already decided on a lavish Imperial Hotel wedding for us because that’s where they got married in 1959. I decided that lavish wasn’t enough. In fact, what I needed was very simple. A rabbi. A siddhur. A chupah…

Weeks before the wedding, I race home to New York. My mother drives me over to Brooklyn. I choose off the rack at Kleinfelds in a Hassidic section of Brooklyn and my father foots the bill. My Imperial Hotel dress is made of raw silk, a wedding gown with such a modest neckline an Orthodox Jewish woman could easily wear. And in fact they probably did since this dress was well-upholstered with a long train, studded pearls and poofy sleeves.

A Jewish Wedding in Ebisu

On the night before our Imperial Hotel wedding, a  jazz club in Ebisu rents me their basement rehearsal hall. I track down a white tube material woven with ribbons that I somehow improvise for a dress.

Ofra stands before us in a loose flowing wine-colorer mumu. We stand before her under a chupah improvised from a vintage ivory lace shawl sent me by my great aunt Pauline. The four special men in our lives—my father Carol, my stepfather to be Leon, Aki’s father Toshihiko and Aki’s younger brother Masahide hold up the lace chupah with poles fastened to the corners—like a real Jewish wedding.

Ofra’s hair is covered in a scarf. She holds in her hands a Siddhur.  Ofra’s dimples rise and fall as she reads the wedding benedictions.  She makes a fine Rabbi because she is so believable. I can’t help but notice the look of relief in my father’s eyes as he watches me slip on the ring under a traditional chupah, a Jewish wedding canopy, while my mother’s blue eyes fix on Ofra’s every word. 

Aki and I trade wine from the same glass. My father shows him how to wrap the glass in a napkin and then smash it under foot. Ofra pronounces us man and wife and macrobiotic strawberry short cake, eggless and sweetened with maple sugar ,is served. Aki drinks too much beer. Nobody complains. I hand it to Aki’s parents for joining me and my family at our rehearsal hall  Jewish wedding, hours ahead of the  lavish Shinto wedding to take place the next day. 

So what actually happened in the Ebisu basement jazz club?

Did I think I fooled God into congratulating me for  actually becoming a Jewish bride in the basement of an Ebisu jazz club? No. But the sweet way my father handed me a wad of bills after we dismantled the chupah made me realize how much this meant to him. My intuitive Dad perhaps knew more than I did about the significance of staging even what appears to be a mock wedding. He knew what I knew in my heart to be true: that the Jew within was accompanying me into this Japanese wedding from the start.

 

 

Art of Conversation with the In-Laws

In Mrs. Shima's house in Midorigaoka, circa 1990

My inlaws and I found the connection instantly, something to talk about that we were both passionate about. This was about the way we feel about art–a topic Aki couldn’t give a hoot about.

Could this be almost the formula for endearing oneself to future in-laws? To unlock their hearts through a genuine common interest that all could easily talk about for hours on end? Art proved to be the way into my in-laws hearts.  And even though their English was only marginally better than my Japanese it didn’t matter. We simply pointed to the walls of their home. The art spoke what our hearts wanted to communicate.

The journey from Aki’s 5th floor studio apartment to his parents residence on the 6th floor is one flight of stairs away, but a mind-blowing study in  contrasts.

As he turns the key in his parents’ door, Aki shouts Tada IMA, “I’m home!” I’m expecting an unadorned flat like Aki’s. I assume that his spartan values must have come from his family background. Well, in fact, the opposite is true.

I’m standing in the genkan, a foyer paved with black stones, lit by recessed pinhole lights that illuminate details on a fine blue and white porcelain vase . Across on the facing wall, a brightly painted oil of Mount Fuji, done with an impasto knife gives me the impression the artist may have been channeling Vincent van Gogh,  or at least under the Dutchman’s influence.

I hear slippers padding down the corridor before I see Aki’s parents appear in the genkan to greet us. Two compact parents, elegantly attired in crisp neutral colours— harmonising with their formal surroundings, bow respectfully. Nothing touchy-feely, just the lowering of heads and warm smiles upon the rebound. I get the instant impression that I’m welcome and I’m feeling such relief I want to hug them. But I don’t, because I don’t want to shock them, or worse, give them the impression that I have no couth. They invite me into the kyakuma, the formal guest room, a sunny room facing tall buildings and sky and cocooned  by sliding grids of paper doors. 

Aki translates for us. 

“We heard from Aki you like Japan, and especially Japanese art,” says Aki’s mother Hiroko.

“Yes,” I nod enthusiastically.

Toshihiko, points to two women in kimono above our heads  and asks me what I think of the painting. “I love the way they’re looking at each other as if they’re mirrors, admiring themselves in each others beauty.”

When my father-in-law tells me his art collection comes almost entirely from  Matsuzakaya department store, my mouth drops open as if this had to be one more sign.

“Oh my God! I wrote my master’s thesis on art exhibitions in Japanese department stores–but I’ve never actually met someone who buys art from a depaato,” I say. Until now the only other person who would talk to me on the subject was my thesis advisor.

To discover common ground with inlaws felt like a sign that we could talk, really talk, about the things we were passionate about. So even though Aki didn’t show much interest in art in general, or his parent’s collection in particular, it didn’t matter. Because the point was, the art smoothed the way for communication.  The museums were minutes away from the family home in Okachimachi so it didn’t take long for us to make it a routine to share outings to Ueno to oggle at major exhibitions. And eventually Aki too, warmed to joining me, though I never suspected that he would have such a huge influence on me becoming an artist.

It just goes to show like parents, like son. Early disinterest can be just a facade to distinguish one generation from the next. We sure do change over time. ..

What do Taoists Believe

Thanks for your interest in reading about my 25 year Jewish-Taoist marriage here in Tokyo. I thought since we’re still at the beginning of my story, you might wonder–as I did–precisely what is a Taoist? What do they believe in? And aren’t Taoists supposed to meditate on Chinese mountaintops rather than inner city rooftops of Tokyo?

In sum, this is what I found out: that Japanese Taoists–the very few that seem to form their own constellation at the Akahigedo Clinic in Tokyo–believe in the superiority of Chinese masters for their learning. It’s not that they don’t graduate from Japanese acupuncture schools, but the overall outlook is that school teaches “brain knowledge.” Since TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is as much an art as a science, the view at Akahigedo is that intuition must be simultaneously cultivated, and that this intuition is not something woo-woo, but earthed in study and being in nature itself.

Dr. Nobuyuki Takeuchi,
Dr. Nobuyuki Takeuchi (Incho) practicing chi gong

 

Excerpt from The Wagamama Bride, a memoir in progress:

Wakabayashi Sensei tugs on his wisp of a beard as he searches for the words in English to explain complex Taoist ideas very simply, “You know the Tao Tse Ching? Very famous book. In Asia, famous as the Bible.”

“Well, Lao Tsu, who wrote the Tao Tse Ching, taught that everything in life is made from a direct observation of nature and that within the whole there are complementary opposites.”

“That’s admirable,” I say. “But aren’t all human beings programmed to learn from nature?”

Wakabayashi strokes his beard. “Yes! Of course. But in modern society we are told to rely on brain knowledge. You ask me a question about the Tao and you want an explanation, is that right?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, what if you could get an answer  on any topic you desire, through intuition?”

“I’d say great. It would save me a lot of expense buying books.”

Was Akihiko Wakabayashi’s way of thinking “normal” among acupuncturists in  Japan? 

Most acupuncture clinics in Tokyo don’t bother with discussing ancient Chinese medical philosophy with their patients, but it was and remains the approach of  Akahigedo to invite students to study chi gong along with the clinic doctors and therapists, especially when visiting Chinese Taoist masters came to visit or reside in Tokyo.

How Akahigedo Changed My Life

Akihiko Wakabayashi
Akihiko Wakabayashi

What made me ever consider staying in Japan more than a year? Does it sound crazy to imagine I would stay because I found a good doctor? And to give up the “search” for a Jewish husband in Japan so quickly after meeting Wakabayashi Sensei at Akahigedo?

What made this clinic so profoundly life changing for me–besides the fact that I fell madly in love with and married one of its therapists–were the incredibly high demands the clinic placed on its patients to do the healing work themselves. It all seemed familiar. So Jewish in a way. 

My First Impression of Being Treated at Akahigedo, excerpted from The Wagamama Bride, a memoir in progress:

Incho looks like someone who’d just shot a scene for an NHK television Sunday night history drama, set in a feudal samurai household overlooking rice fields. His costume makes a curious contrast to this clinic, which instead of time-varnished wood beams and sliding paper doors,  offers 20th century functionality– glazed windows,  black cots,  cocooned inside reinforced, earthquake-proofed, concrete walls.

I lie down on one in a row of identical massage tables, separated from the other patients by pink hospital style curtains. Incho, the clinic chief, appears. He bows. he smiles He places his right hand in the air, high over the green hospital gown and oversized basketball shorts that I’m instructed to wear for this treatment session. We are both in costumes. He knows what his role is, and I’m about to find out what is mine.

His hand responds to the heat within me. His fingers move marionette-like over my belly. His interpreter, Wakabayashi Sensei, explains that Incho is picking up energetic data, which strikes me as hocus-pocus ludicrous nonsense  – until he begins talking. Through Wakabayashi Sensei, Incho  tells me about my tired intestine, my overindulgence in sugar, and how daily stress can effect the liver as much as a bottle of wine. I don’t even drink! Well, hardly. It’s all a bit overwhelming—like being a contestant on the game show, “This is Your Life!” Except its done by a man with black pantaloon pants and a white sashed shirt who seems to know me inside out.”

The Stronger the Skeptic the Stronger the Motivation to Learn

Akahigedo presented me with a golden opportunity to examine my own fears and prejudices. And to open up to change.  I was ripe for change: the stronger the skeptic, the stronger the motivation to reach for the truth. From my skepticism about my own Jewish roots, my doubts fanned out to Akahigedo, to Eastern medicine, and anything that smacked of spirituality. 

Sometimes this process of allowing the unknown into our lives can alter the foundation of our world view, as it did mine.  Akahigedo clinic’s approach is based on Taoist principles, a master-disciple system, and places inconveniences and hardships on both healer and patient. Clinic chief, Incho, offered and still does tend toward radical healing ideas way ahead of his times.  And yet, many of Akahigedo’s ideas which were pretty radical 30 years ago, have become mainstream, particularly the principal  that one must be a committed partner in order to  “Heal Thyself.” Today  I have to pinch myself as a reminder how much more accepted acupuncture, shiatsu, herbal medicine and dietary adjustments have become in root healing for all diseases. 

How do you feel when you are in a situation where you have an opportunity to go outside your comfort zone and try a new modality of healing? Or a new depth of spiritual practice in Judaism? 

I’m very interested in hearing about your own life changing experiences with Eastern medicine, and with Akahigedo Clinic in particular. How did becoming a patient change your life? I welcome your comments below!

Israeli vendor in Japan

I spot my first guy outside Ebisu station.

Rows of silver rings catch my eye on his collapsible table.

He has soft blue-grey eyes set close together. His brown wavy hair and pale skin with a few freckles are offset by a nose that rises like Mount Fuji. For a split second I think I’m looking at myself in the mirror. 

He smiles at me. Nice teeth.

I  smile back. “Sterling silver. I guarantee you the best quality. You like brown stones–here’s Tiger’s Eye. Or blue stones–how about Lapis Lazuli? Every ring 50 percent off, for you. 

For me?  So he wants to talk business. Okay–it’s a start. 

Under his black t-shirt his biceps bulge.  I’m ready to slip Lapis Lazuli on my finger when his eyes narrow. His smile disappears. A police car pulls up to the curb. The vendor slams shut his folding table, grabs his box of jewels and runs away with his shop under his arm. He disappears into the bobbing heads, one brown wavy haired fish swimming against the stream. 

He bolts through the turnstiles and as he disappears I can’t help wondering: Have I just saved myself a couple of thousand yen or lost the chance to explore what else we might have in common?

Stop being ridiculous, I tell myself. Just because he’s Jewish? Am I a racist? Was I not born in the later half of the century precisely so I could shake off the shackles by falling in love and marrying whomever I want? 


Tokyo in the 1980s had a very different street life vibe than you find here now. You would see outside the main hub train stations along the Yamanote line, stations that forms a giant compass at the center of Tokyo,  one after one of these young Israelis who didn’t seem to care one iota that what they were doing was potentially illegal and could run them into trouble with the police, or worse Japan’s homegrown yakuza who prowled the streets looking to take “rent” from anyone who happened to decide to perch a table and stool on their branch of the tree of Tokyo life.

These Israelis had chutzpah, for sure, but they also possessed bravado. Here they were, traveling to Japan with hardly any yen in their pocket but confident that work was waiting because of “the Book.” Or was it their faith in God?

Israeli travelers the world over have for years followed a tradition of writing reviews in notebooks that they leave behind wherever they travel and these books are filled with insider tips about where to stay, what to do, who to meet, and where to make some money while traveling.

Americans have no such “Book.” We’re on our own, to say the least, and I think this is also a matter of pride. Wanting to figure things out for myself, to show off our independent nature, that we don’t need anybody’s help, this too comes inside the “unchecked” emotional suitcase some of us  carry to Japan.

 

 

 

How Jewish is Japan, really?

From Chapter One: The Wagamama Bride 

“My Queens accent is getting in the way. I say talk as if it rhymes with pork. My Hebrew is limited to a few blessings and prayers. Even though the chances of winning the New York State lottery are about the same as finding a nice Jewish boy in Japan, I’m about to give it a try. I trade my Jewish hometown of New York City for Tokyo. “

Nobody has taken a head count of the number of Jewish American women married to Japanese because — to my knowledge, ten fingers and toes is more than enough for a Tokyo city-wide census of those of us who swapped our Jewish communities back in the USA for a 35 million soul metropolis where we met, fell in love with, and married “Tadashi San”–Japanese for Mr. Right.

With one conservative synagogue, Tokyo in the 1980s attracted a motley congregation from all corners of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds, led by a conservative rabbi from the US. Here I was among a couple of hundred Jewish families and single people like myself. Some were working in Tokyo as expat business people, others as lawyers, teachers, or as graduate students or tourists. There were even a few like me – journalists who had landed in Japan in search of the big scoop.

But that was then, more than 20 years ago. Since the year 2000, the Jewish landscape of Tokyo has been transformed, enriched, and enlivened owing to the presence of two charismatic Lubavitch rabbis and their very contrasting, but complementary approaches to Chabad Houses they run in Tokyo.

Rabbi Binyomin and Rebbetzin – Efrat Edery http://www.chabadjapan.org/http://www.chabad.jp/

Rabbi Mendi and Rebbetzin Chana Sudakevich —http://www.chabad.jp/

 

 

Shalom from Tokyo!

The Wabayashi FamilyWelcome to a new website dedicated to my writing activities, published articles and works in progress–including The Wagamama Bride. Pardon our appearance while we work on getting this site up and running. I look forward to connecting with you real soon!

Who is the Wagamama Bride?  Or how does a nice Jewish girl from Great Neck end up marrying a Japanese Taoist.