About Me · Community · Culture clashes

Why I’m Glad I Grew Up in Japan

Growing up in a bit of a Jewish desert has its advantages (although there actually are far more Jews than people seem to think):  I never had to deal with the “But you don’t look Jewish” comments and stares either in or outside of the Jewish community. 


You look mixed in the Tokyo JCC (my home shul), you probably have a Japanese parent and an Ashkenazi Jewish American parent.  And although the gender combination that people assumed was wrong in my case, that was not so important.  What was important was that they got me.  They understood where I was coming from—which was more or less where the community stood too.  The community and a lot of people in it were an interesting mix of Japanese and American Jewishness regardless of their roots.  (The place was originally Russian but by the time I came along it was mostly American.  Now, it’s a lot more mixed than that—a lot more Israelis and Europeans too.)  I didn’t grow up with a fundamental insecurity about being Jewish like I have about being Japanese. 


After meeting a few fellow racially-mixed Jewish people and non-Ashkenazi Jews, I realized how lucky I was to have grown up until the end of my adolescence not having been questioned about my Jewishness.  I heard many people—my traditional Mizrachi roommate who grew up on the East Coast, an Ashkenazi Jewish-Asian woman who grew up Conservative on the East Coast, and a Ashkenazi Jewish-African-American guy who grew up Reform—say that they didn’t feel accepted in the community because they didn’t fit the “typical Jewish” look. 


In Japan, I was Jewish if I said so (no one knew what that meant in Japan anyway).  In the one place where there was the danger that people would have commented on my “unusual look” for a Jew, they got me and so of course they didn’t even bother questioning.  How lucky I was.


On the other hand, based on my relationship to my fellow Japanese, I imagine why many non-Ashkenazi looking bunch of people tend to drift away from Jewish communities and Judaism.  For those who have a mixed ancestry, many say that the culprit is intermarriage.  I don’t think so.  I think that intermarriage is a symptom and not the cause.  I also don’t think that children of intermarried couples are far from lost from the Jewish community if only the community learned to treat those children a little better.  The problem is “not looking Jewish” or having “different” traditions than the mainstream American Jew.  That’s why there are also many non-Ashkenazi Jews who don’t feel at ease in an American shul nor with “the average” American Jew.


I don’t have much to do with the Japanese communities around here.  I am not interested in befriending the general Japanese community because I feel ambivalent about Japanese people:  I don’t want to have to go through explaining myself over and over again; I don’t want to have to prove or justify my Japaneseness; I also don’t want to be scrutinized for my “Japanese” or “un-Japanese” moments.  I imagine that maybe some non-Ashkenazi (looking) Jews might feel similarly and that’s why they don’t associate with Jewish communities—even with the primarily cultural ones.  I can’t be sure, but that’s one of my guesses.




3 thoughts on “Why I’m Glad I Grew Up in Japan

  1. Hi Saren,

    You are no stranger to me. I am quite involved in Japan and America’s mixed-ethnic communities. Thank you for the heads-up for those who might come here and might want to know about your site. I’m kind of curious as to how you found this place though. :)

    My personal experience is that I can’t really relate well with the mixed-ethnic American (or English-based) communities. I’m really not American in a lot of ways. I am Jewish and my version of Jewishness happens to be an American one–that’s how I happen to be American. My Japaneseness, on the other hand, is pretty strong. And that seems quite different from being Japanese-American too.

    I find the almost defiantly secular attitude of the mixed-ethnic communities really estranging. Being Japanese or Jewish is not only a heritage to me. I live it everyday because I am an observant Jew and because I make studying and talking about Japan my profession–for many of the mixed-ethnic American communities, I don’t feel like that’s true.

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