Sayonara Japan, shalom Israel

Koji Sasaki, 42 From Oita Prefecture, Japan, to Haifa, 2003.

Koji Sasaki 520 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Koji Sasaki 520
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 months.”
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.
Adi chose the Hebrew names. “I told her she could call them whatever she wanted,” said Sasaki, who was more concerned with their Japanese names.
The oldest 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,” he says.
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 Israel.”
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 dangerous.”
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.
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 would arrive.
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 slip.”
Although he hasn’t made a conscious effort to make his children “Japanese,” he says that he can see his nature has affected them.
“When 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 contact.”
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 practice.
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.
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.