By: Meyer Harroch
New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Rabbi Mendi Sudakevich, head of Chabad Lubavitch of Japan, Tokyo, to ask a few questions about Jewish life and Communities in Japan. The following interview was edited for clarity:
NYJTG: Rabbi, many thanks for your time. Can you tell us about yourself? How did you decide to come to Japan and how long have you been here?
Rabbi Sudakevich: My name is Mendi Sudakevich. I am originally from Israel. When I did my rabbinical study in New York, there were lots of Israelis working in Japan those days and I’m talking about 1997. One of them contacted Chabad in New York saying that many Israelis are working in Japan and that they don’t have a place to make the Passover Seder. So, Chabad sent two boys from Australia to conduct the seder in Japan. They thought that when they called them that there are… probably 20 to 30 people, but when they came here they realized there were a few hundred and they only brought enough matzah for 20, 30 people.
They called me at the Chabad office in New York at 6 o’clock in the morning. They woke me up and at that time there was no cell phone. They asked me if I am willing to go to Japan to help them with the Passover Seder. I said to them that I just woke up, but it sounds nice and why not! I knew they had planned it two weeks before Pesach. I went to the synagogue to pray as it was 9 o’clock and as I was praying for someone came to me and said, here is your ticket for Tokyo for the 5 p.m. flight…. I agreed to this as I had already a ticket and I had 15 extra pieces of luggage to take with me, with food, matzah, chicken, and wine. You name it and I had it there.
I came to Japan for the first time for the Passover Seder. We had an amazing Seder with over 500 people. There were many miracles. The next day after the Seder there was no minyan and we were wondering how it is possible that last night we had 500 people, and today nobody. I started to look around to see where the Jewish people are living in Japan. One person told me that his son will have a bar mitzvah soon. When I came back to New York, I got on the phone and started teaching Bar Mitzvah lessons to the boy.
I then came back to Japan and that’s how I started to be involved with Jewish life here. Then three years later, when I got married, Chabad called me and told me maybe we will open Chabad here. That’s how we started and Chabad in Japan opened in 2000. I refer to the five people I mentioned earlier whom we had for Passover Seder because in those days many Israelis after the army would come to Japan for three months.
NYJTG: In the beginning, was it difficult to adjust?
Rabbi Sudakevich: It’s still difficult to adjust. I think if you live in Japan, you have to like Japan and you have to appreciate Japan because if you don’t it is very difficult to live here as they do things differently than we are used to in the West. They behave differently, they think differently and they do everything differently. Every time we encounter this challenge – but, on the other hand, everything is very organized and very planned. If you agree with someone on something, you know that’s how it’s going to be exactly like you agreed with him. It will be difficult until you can agree. But once you pass that stage then you know that [the Japanese] they are going to do it better than anyone else.
I met once a CEO from a big Israeli company, one of the biggest Israeli companies, and he told me they have an office in Japan that loses money every year. So I told him so why do you keep the office? He replied that the best feedback on their machines comes from the Japanese office. If a Japanese customer buys it and says it is good then we know it’s good. If he says they have problems, he will tell me exactly what the problems are like nobody else. To sell to the Japanese is the best R&D investment in the world. It is instant feedback and the Japanese evaluation is a real and authentic one.
NYJTG: Can you describe the Jewish life and the community in Tokyo? Who makes up this community: Israelis, Americans, and French?
Rabbi Sudakevich: So, the community in Japan is a transient community. Nobody is here forever. If you are not Japanese usually you know you are going to leave one day. It is a very transient community. Most people come here because they have a job or they like Japanese culture and they want to study Japanese or they want to get to know and explore Japan a bit more. But most of them are going to leave after three to five years, as that’s usually the length of people staying in Japan. Then you have the other group that stays for 20 and 30 years, and then they leave to go back to usually where they came from. I would say probably that what we see now in our community is that we have about 30 percent Israelis, maybe another 40 percent Americans, and the rest from all over the world including France and Australia– really from all over.
We have a regular community for minyan but it’s difficult to describe a regular community because this summer, for example, we had two families that are left. Every summer we have people come and go. We don’t know the new people yet but they are going to come here and we will meet them, but that’s our life. Thank God, every Shabbat we have a minyan now. For years we didn’t have a minyan but we now have enough people living here that even if we don’t have any visitors, we can have a minyan. I don’t think it’s ever happened that we don’t have a visitor. Some weeks we have only 10 visitors. Like this week it was quiet. Other weeks we have hundreds of visitors. As I mentioned earlier, there are many Israeli companies here – I would say about 30 companies with an office in Japan.
NYJTG: What is the Jewish population in Japan and where is the largest concentration?
Rabbi Sudakevich: Like all the foreigners, the largest number is in Tokyo. Kyoto has more tourists than in Tokyo. I think Kyoto tourists tend to stay longer in Kyoto than in Tokyo. I read an article that said that most tourists stay only two nights in Tokyo and three nights in Kyoto. I think they use Kyoto like a start, as a hub, and then they go from Kyoto to Hiroshima and come back. They go from Kyoto to Nara and then from Kyoto to Osaka, and then from Kyoto to many different places and come back.
My guess’s about 1,500. Let me tell you why — the Japanese are very organized people. They have a list of every foreigner (not by name) who lives in Japan. From that list, I can see how many Israelis living in Japan and how many Americans living in Japan. I can see their age and type of visa they have and other information. By the end of 2017, there were 521 Israelis living in Japan who were over 18 years old. There are 521 Israeli citizens. I know about 1/3 of the people that I know are Israelis … so I guess if that number is 500, then that makes it 1,500 total here. For the majority, most of them are in Tokyo. I would say about 2/3 are in Kyoto and Kobe. Kyoto does have a very big international population. There are lots of tourists but not so many foreigners living in Kyoto, mostly in Kobe, Osaka, Tokyo, Yokohama areas.
(New York Jewish Travel Guide)