When Koji Sasaki travelled from his hometown of Oita Prefecture on the southern
island of Kyushu (90 minutes from Tokyo by plane, and thankfully far from the
area damaged by the recent earthquake and tsunami) to work with a friend living
in New York, he could have hardly imagined that just a year or so later he would
be living here and married to a Jewish woman. At the time, says Sasaki, he
hadn’t even heard of Israel, let alone ever met a Jew.
That visit took
him to Brooklyn where he had his first encounter with Jews. “I had no concept or
understanding of Jews or Israel,” he says. “I sometimes saw the name Jerusalem
in the newspaper when a bombing happened, but I didn’t pay it any attention
because it didn’t mean anything to me.”
He met his wife, Adi, 38,
through mutual friends. She was visiting a cousin in New York during her studies
in Chinese medicine. “We met in 2002 and kept in contact via mail. In 2003, I
came on my first trip to Israel and stayed with her for several
The couple decided to marry. The ceremony took place in Cyprus
that year and the two then set up home in the Kababir neighborhood of Haifa
before moving to Ramot Sapir in the city in June 2010.
The couple has
four young children, all of whom have both Hebrew and Japanese names.
chose the Hebrew names. “I told her she could call them whatever she wanted,”
said Sasaki, who was more concerned with their Japanese names.
is Maya, seven, also known as Aishin, which means “heart of love.” Sasaki
continued the heart theme with his other daughters, Lia, five, who is called
Teishin in Japanese, which translates as the “blessed heart,” and Bat-El, three,
who also has the name Oshin, which approximately translates to “phoenix heart.”
The boy of the family, Orel, one, was born on Hanukka, which is reflected in his
Japanese name, Fudo, which means “light from above.”
In explaining the
choice of names, Sasaki has some trouble translating them into English. “I
looked at the pictures that make up the name, rather than their meaning. I know
how the symbol was formed; each part has meaning, which is the important thing,”
There was no problem from her family when Adi
announced that she was marrying Sasaki.
Even though he says they have no
concept of the Orient – “They don’t eat sushi or even Chinese food,” Sasaki
jokes – they welcomed him with open arms. “I am very appreciative of my wife’s
parents; they take care of us very well,” he says.
His family also had no
problem with the match. “Maybe they expected me to marry someone from Japan but
we never talk about it,” says Sasaki. His mother is the only member of the
family to have visited him here so far (his father died in 1995 and he has an
older brother). “She stayed with us for a couple of weeks and we took her around
As a result of the visit, he says his mother was able to
understand that what she read about in the newspapers was not necessarily true
and that the country was much safer than in her imagination. “We Japanese are
very influenced by the mass media, which promotes the view that Israel is
Sasaki took two ulpan courses (“I think I finished
kita gimmel”) and is now functional in Hebrew, so much so that he speaks to his
children in Hebrew rather than in Japanese. “They understand a few basic words
in Japanese.” He and Adi communicate in English and Hebrew.CULTURAL
It’s hard to think of two countries more unlike each other than
orderly, efficient Japan and Middle Eastern Israel. The differences have taken
Sasaki some time to get used to. “Here if you don’t scream and you don’t shout,
people will not pay attention to you. Here you have to really push them. I
sometimes struggle with this,” he says.
One of the practical things that
bothers him the most is the relaxed attitude to time. “In Japan, when we make an
appointment, we will arrive early and we will start exactly on schedule,” he
says. “Once, when my friend was late for a meeting, I called him to ask when he
He answered ‘in five minutes,’ so I expected him to show up
within 300 seconds. He only showed up 10 or 15 minutes later. I understood that
the number does not mean anything. Two minutes is not 120 seconds, but rather
‘soon.’” “I lived in Japan until I was 33 years old,” he explains, slightly
apologetically. “I can’t give up my Japanese nature – being polite and on time.
Sometimes it appears rude to me, but Israelis are very straight. They want to
get to the point immediately. Sometimes it works well, but sometimes it works
badly. We never ask how much people earn or ask to see your pay
Although he hasn’t made a conscious effort to make his children
“Japanese,” he says that he can see his nature has affected them.
we go to events in school, I see my children’s behavior is a little different
from the other children. I didn’t teach them to be Japanese, but I can see that
they inherited it anyway.”
Despite struggling with some aspects of life
here, Sasaki admires how important family is.
“The relationship is very
strong with the family here, much stronger than in Japan. Many families are
collapsing in Japan. People have become more individualistic; some people are
isolated, selfish, they care less about family,” he says. “When they have good
jobs they don’t come back home. Here, parents and children are always in
Sasaki, who is Buddhist, has never felt a need to
convert to Judaism, “Practically, I don’t need to,” he says. “My wife is Jewish
and so are my children.” The family celebrates all the Jewish festivals.
Buddhism, he explains, is more a way of life than a religious
The major tradition he follows, Obon, takes place in August
which celebrates the reunion of family ancestors with the living. “We do a
ceremony to welcome the ancestor’s spirits to stay with us for a few days before
sending them back,” he says.WORK
Sasaki, who studied accounting at
Doshisha University in Kyoto, is working for a foreign exchange company
translating English documents into Japanese. He is also involved with a company
called Caliber International that buys personal protective equipment from Israel
and sells it to Japan. One such product is bulletproof jackets used by the
Japanese police. They were developed in collaboration between Caliber and an
Israeli company and are manufactured here.
Sasaki is also enrolled in a
course to become a tour guide, a golden opportunity since there are so few
Japanese-speaking guides here. “I worked as a freelance interpreter translating
from English into Japanese [on tours]. I found myself really liking it and
wanted to know more about the place I live in. This unique country has really
stimulated my curiosity,” he says.