Generally speaking, Japanese hold a positive image of Jewish people and feel that we produce great thinkers, scientists, artists and, most of all, share the Japanese reverence for education. Our comedy thing hasn’t sunk in yet, and their understanding the correct consistency of a bagel (as Lenny Bruce said about the future) lies ahead. And I’ve had other, less salutary experiences…….
I. Chunky Ham-faced Little Nazis
November 18, 1993
Mr. Suzuki, a chunky, ham-faced man with shiny eyes, started out as an alert and enthusiastic student, but a month or so after the start of classes, the 24 year-old Kawasaki Heavy Metals employee changed, began making disruptive remarks in Japanese, then seemed to lose all interest and began nodding off. Once, remarkably, he raised his hand and asked me what one should do about loneliness.
Then, one day at the start of class, he suddenly demanded to know my feelings about Israel — earlier I had told them I was Jewish; they had even heard me do my accent. The discussion didn’t get far, since topics like that were really beyond their ability. But the next day I walked in to find Suzuki on the phone. Seeing me, he smiled and handed it to me and said,
“Please speak to my friend. His name is Horii Masaya.”
Now, the Japanese make a common sound out of “r” and “l” which sounds like a soft “d.” The “ii” makes the sound “ee,” so what I heard from Suzuki was the precise Japanese phonetic equivalent of “Holy Messiah.” Cautiously, I took the phone. A friendly Japanese voice on the other side (or was it the Other Side?) invited me to a Kawasaki Company beer party, attendance at which would cost me twenty bucks, but that’s how things work here. Well, I figured, when God throws a party, you don’t turn Him down.
And it came to pass in those days that neither pillar of fire nor burning bush preceded Mr. Horii Masaya, who appeared outside the company headquarters in the form of an unassuming young salaryman. Masaya then lead an exodus across the street and up to the fourth floor of a nearby restaurant. There, each of us sat before his kaiseki-style meal: six or seven variously shaped plates containing in all more than 50 different edible elements (I counted) each of which required fine decorative cutting and delicate placement, from sashimi to scallops to a succulent cracked crab entree.
Eventually Suzuki, who was the organizer of the party, and his buddy Horii Masaya found the time to sit down and strike up a conversation. What was on his mind? Israel, of course. Suzuki had been to Lebanon and Syria. He’d heard the complaints of Palestinians and seen their circumstances. Why was Israel so merciless? I presented a politically correct, liberal criticism of Israel, placed in the context of historical U.S. “difficulties” with the aspirations of third-world countries, but it wasn’t enough. Suzuki shook his head and insisted that Israel just should not exist. I helped him with pronouncing the word “exist.” As he repeated the word correctly, a little of his spit hit my left cheek.
So there I was in a Tokyo restaurant with Suzuki’s spit on my face, three million Israelis gazing reproachfully at me as they stepped aboard ships bound for Miami, and the “Horii Masaya” looking on sympathetically over Suzuki’s shoulder. I wanted to convey the surrealism of the moment but I’ve tried that before: people, and not just the Japanese, tend to stare at me. So I just said that Israel’s nuclear capabilities would reduce Damascus and Teheran to dust long before another Diaspora could begin, and that working patiently for peace was the best approach. I also pointed out that America sold weapons to both Israel and the Arabs, and that money-for-guns was a factor in all this.
At this point the Horii Masaya introduced a third friendly looker-on, a young weapons salesman from Kawasaki.
Well, he just sold jet-engines to the Japanese Self Defense Forces. They wouldn’t hurt anyone, I suppose. Maybe not this decade anyway. And what a sweet guy he was, smiling in agreement with my calls for understanding, positiveness, patience. His smile now and then seemed to take on the appearance of a classic Japanese mask, but that was surely just my paranoia crashing a party again. Anyway, given the political passivity of the average Japanese citizen, the whole exercise was not unlike stirring oatmeal.
It was left to Horii Masaya himself to give the evening some psychic closure. Toward the end, he approached me, saying that he didn’t know much about the Middle East but wanted to talk about Asia. The Masaya spoke of his travels around the Philippines, Indonesia, and China. His division builds power plants to provide electricity to backward areas, and in his young eyes shone a sincerity and deep-seated compassion for the poor and a sense of fulfillment in actively helping other Asian peoples. I know there are difficult ecological questions about such development, but the Masaya’s motives seemed clean and from the heart. I reflected how cheap political talk is and hoped the Masaya was on the right track with his power plants. I don’t think too many of them are nuclear. I was afraid to ask.
As we left, saying goodbye to all the students, Mr. Suzuki met us at the door. I said something to him about hating bad governments, not people. He nodded in enthusiastic agreement, raised his middle finger, cried out “Fuck Rabin,” then grabbed me and gave me a big hug.
“You’re a good person,” he assured me.
I tried to remember that he was the lonely one.
II. Tall, Skinny Little Nazis
May 25, 1993
It was a regular day of classes at Reuters Tokyo Computer Central, regional nerve-center of a vast flow of news and real-time financial updates to businessmen throughout Asia. In my small English class we were talking about a sixteen year-old Japanese student, murdered “by mistake” in Baton Rouge on his way to a Halloween party by a Louisianan who yelled “freeze,” and about an American jury that had just decided the good old boy should go free so he could “get on with his life.”
We looked at the legacy of the cowboy West, the military traditions. I observed how sad it was that Americans couldn’t get along better. “You know,” I added, “the original idea of America is on the dollar bill: ‘E Pluribus Unim:’ out of many, one.”
Mr. Ippei Tsukumoto spoke up: “The Latin on the dollar bill, and the ‘pyramido,’ and the big eye – was that put there by Jewish people?”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“Don’t those things showing how Jewish people control United States, especially financial matters…?”
“No,” says I, They don’t control things — that’s a kind of lie.”
Numbly, I went to the board and began to explain the word libel, its relation to the word lie, “Someone told you a lie,” I said, then explained that in the past Jewish people were even accused of murdering Christian children on Easter, and there were even some who argue that the Holocaust never happened.
Ippei listened quietly and then spoke again. “But you know, there was actually no Anne Frank?”
I took a step back. Mr. Tsukamoto had emphasized his point holding his finger up like a professor. And he had more to add. “Yes, and actually, the Holocaust was not so bad….”
I couldn’t keep up. “Wait a minute, no Anne Frank? Well, could you explain where my grandparents went?” This shot across his bow went unheeded, though the other students were staring at me with widening eyes.
“Oh, there was a Holocaust, but it wasn’t that bad. Not six million. The figures were changed, and…..”
It was getting harder to hear him above the sound of my beating heart. I had a brief vision of my fist in his face.
“So,” I inquired, “how did we get all this misleading information?”
“Jewish advertising,” he explained.
I looked around at the clock. While my back was turned, God had somehow quickly moved its hands, and the hour was up. My words hung like icicles: “This class is over.”
The silence of it drove home. As the others got up, Tsukamoto bowed his head and said “sumi-masen.” I had no idea what that really meant. I went to the window and meditated for about ten minutes until my heart slowed to normal. At one point a familiar feeling swept over me, making things slightly worse, that there might be no God to pray to.
This void had opened up within me in college when I grasped the metaphysical irony of the Holocaust. A people whose entire theology is built on a special agreement cut several millennia back by an Egyptian prince who found out he was one of them. You will be my people and I will be your God. I will even fight the battles for you — 10,000 will fall by thy right side, 10,000 by thy left, but it will not come nigh thee. Somehow, this idea works for a long time, surviving the the Babylonian captivity, destruction of the Temple, a diaspora, endless ostracism and quite a few pogroms. This tribe is sharp, it keeps coming back. Beyond sharp — gifted!
And then some boys in brown shirts work out a state-of-the-art extinction system and six million prayers go up in smoke. It’s three million falling on your right, three million on your left, and you’re going to the showers too, buddy. Uncle Moishe’s prayers go unanswered as his wife is raped and her throat slashed by SS guys having a good time. Mrs. Levine’s go unanswered as they pull her children away from her like plucked chickens. Evil is abroad in the land. Our God is nowhere to be seen. Mr. Rubin has a breathing problem because his severed cock has been stuffed into his mouth and taped shut. But he can pray, and he does, and I would too: pray to Buddha to be released from this world and informed what horrific thing I did in another life to deserve this. I might pray to Vishnu for the demons be sent back to hell. But could I ever buy into the Chosen People dogma again?
And wear those HATS?
Maybe we didn’t read the fine print, etched on the flip side of Moses’ stone tablets: “Verily, around the end of the 43rd century, I the Lord will fry 80% of thy children on general principles, survivors getting compensatory damages in the form of the Promised Land (from which, by the way, you will have been expelled for 2000 years) which will now be surrounded by 50 million sworn enemies, with whom thine children can fight for the next fifty years. After that. . . we’ll talk. Selah. ”
Such a deal. And still they pray — both sides, for that matter — thinking they are specially chosen. Well, maybe so. Chosen as symbols of an inconceivably painful process in which male humans can’t figure out we’re all one family. In this world there’s wisdom and a little magic and some good luck. But there are no special deals with God. Ask the Armenians in 1915. Ask the Tsutsis in 1994. And watch your back.
III. Bushy-Headed, Moustachioed Little Nazis
May 29, 1993
A bushy head was leaning over my book as I stood reading on the train, going home dog-tired after a class. It kept leaning in closer, so finally I turned the book around to let the guy see the words right-side up. He looked at me and spoke.
“Is this writer a head shrink?” it asked. “Does she cram it all in?”
He was leaning into my face, smiling. A big moustache on a square face, Coke-bottle glasses, bushy black hair: a Japanese guy with near-perfect English.
“You mean like a psychiatrist?” I began, trying to ground things.
“Anyone who crams things into your head is a head-shrink,” he shot back, leaning in with a patronizing smile. He began to compose cloudy, insinuating, stream-of-consciousness word-play. It was like interviewing the young Bob Dylan. It seemed a blur of verbal fists that never landed, only grazed. At one point:
“I know your type – you’re in a foreign city, but you don’t realize it’s the same everywhere you go…East Coast, West Coast…ride the subway, sneak into a seat…I’ll give you some advice,” he almost leered. “Don’t ponder so much!”
I just about told him then to get the fuck out my face, but I was a stranger on a crowded train in Tokyo and I was also me: polite, cautious, unable to allow myself the inspirations of rage. But that was the essence of his attack. What was for me courteous was for him devious. My verbal probes only incited barrages of clever, surreal Americanisms — and Jesus, this guy had an East Coast accent! It hung behind his whirling patter like the indistinct background of a dream. Paralysis seeped into brain and body.
And then, “Let me ask you a question….are you Jewish by any chance?”
I guess that’s when you’re supposed to knock the motherfucker out, or at least threaten to. I began to snap out of it a little, looking him up and down.
“What do you do, anyway,” I asked. “You don’t just ride the subway, you’re dressed nice, you got a job?” He backed up a little. “I know,” I continued, “you lived so long in the U.S. that when you came back here, Japan made you crazy. Now you talk crazy to strangers on the subways.”
The fellow then actually alluded to a history of mental problems, but next he was off again, mumbling something about Israel losing out because the U.S. needs Arab oil, so Israel would be looking to Japan for help. I said that Japanese Air Force jets would look strange zooming around the Golan Heights, and he laughed. We were connecting now. Some of his best friends were Jewish — although, boy, that Jewish guy working at his company in Tokyo was quite a nuisance sometimes.
Well there’s Jews and then there’s Jews, I guess. Some are real pushy, some worry too much, some cram facts into other people’s heads. Some play the saxophone and never get laid. But at long last he’d reached his station. Getting off, he had one more piece of advice:
“Whatever race…..whatever religion……whatever sex!” he shouted, sounding amazingly like George Jessel, and disappeared into the throng. I sank back into a seat. What was going on in Tokyo — an anti-Semitic meteor shower?
IV. Back to the Tall, Skinny Little Nazis
Next week, riding the subway back to Reuters, I knew I had to deal with Tsukamoto, even though he had called me later that first day:
“So sorry, Mr. Arnold, I apologize… It not my opinion, I read in book.”
Education in Japan seldom involves any real clash of ideas; schools are about endurance and subservience. Logical thinking pales before the citadel of memorization, and the tradition of meticulously accumulating information beguiles many into the pet theory and the idee fixe. Some Japanese know every song John Coltrane ever recorded and who was in the studio on each date. Some read anti-Semitic trash and retain that. And I suppose if you were Japanese, raised in an emotional and intellectual straightjacket, unable even to perceive the system that constrains you, you just might be drawn to ideas about a duplicitous race controlling things from afar.
I considered showing Tsukamoto the words of British historian Thomas Macaulay, spoken to the English Parliament in 1833, just before it finally voted to give Jews full rights under British law:
“We treat them as slaves, and wonder why they do not treat us as brothers. We drive them into low occupations, then complain that they do not have honorable professions. We have always stopped them from owning land, but we complain that they have become traders. For hundreds of years we have abused them with our greater force and numbers, then we are angry because they show the cunning which the weak always use to fight the power and the violence of the strong. In the beginning of civilization, when England was as wild as a jungle, when art and philosophy were unknown in Greece, when only thatched huts were in Rome, the Jewish people had beautiful cities and cedar temples, schools of sacred learning, statesmen, soldiers, philosophers, historians and poets. If, while treated like slaves and unprotected by the law, they have acted wrongly, perhaps we should blame not them, but ourselves.”
But then defending Jewish civilization is like proving you’ve stopped beating your wife. That it’s still necessary after six million dead is beyond imagining.
Still, there on the train, I opened the morning paper and found that the Lord of the Universe, while unable to prevent the Holocaust, had at least arranged for a nicely timed article in that morning’s Yomiuri Daily News — written by a deputy Director of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, even.
“ANTI-SEMITISM DEBASING JAPAN,” it shouted, deploring another surge of Jewish conspiracy books flooding the bookstores. It covered all the historical and psychological angles. The lead sentence read: “The popularity of anti-Jewish publications clearly shows the intellectual backwardness of the Japanese.” I love it when they beat themselves up.
So, when Tsukamoto and I sat down in the park for a pre-arranged lunch on that gray, windy day in June, I came brief in hand. I made sure he knew how angry he’d made me before I accepted his excuse that the ideas were not his own. Excuses are generally disrespected in Japan, and soon I saw why. Within minutes, Tsukamoto was again tampering with the reality of Anne Frank and downplaying the size of the Holocaust. I cut him off.
“Just how many is right for you, Ippei? How about just 500 little girls screaming for their mothers as they’re ripped away to the gas chambers? How about just 50 innocent women and children thrown into the pits and shot? How about only your own daughters gassed to death, calling out ‘Daddy. I can’t breathe?’ Isn’t one person too many? Don’t talk about Anne Frank, Ippei. Let’s talk about my grandparents — they were citizens of Amsterdam too. He was just a dentist, minding his own business, but they took him and his wife away on a train and killed them. We know people who saw them in Auschwitz.”
Tsukamoto was nodding his head submissively now, mumbling something about “the sadness.” I opened the Daily Yomiuri and showed him my article. In the same issue I spotted a photo of a young woman staring wide-eyed at the camera as she raced through sniper fire on the streets of Sarajevo. Amazingly, I found another article about scuba-divers bringing up 400 year-old iron shackles from a ill-fated slave ship off Florida on which the Portuguese had literally stacked 300 African men and women to be sold in Jamaica for thirteen cents each. A certain theme was emerging. Then I asked the now silent Ippei how the Japanese, who just yesterday swept ferociously through Asia calling themselves a master race, could manage to throw stones at Jews.
“Do you know any Jews, Ippei?”
“Jews, Ippei, I’m a Jew. Have you known any other Jews?”
“Ah, so!… No!”
“So I’m your first Jew, right?”
“Hai…yes, I think so.”
“Look, Ippei, Jews don’t conspire that well — we argue too much. We argue with each other, we argue with our rabbis, we even argue with God — we’re much more disorganized than you think. People who try to conquer the world are authoritarian types like Germans or you Japanese. We don’t want to conquer the world, we have enough to worry about.”
“Ah, so desu-ka.”
I’m not sure if Ippei really got it all. I felt like the dying rabbi who intoned his final words, “Life is a river.” His students gathered at his bedside nodded appreciatively, except for Moishe, the youngest, who demanded a more detailed explanation: “‘Life is a river? What does this really mean, Rebbe?'”
The rabbi threw up his hands and said, “Okay, so life is not a river,” and then he died.
But Ippei had stopped his anti-Semitic garbage for the time being and, remembering that he lived on the same train line, I told him to come over sometime and help me drink one of those giant cans of Japanese beer. As we walked back into Reuters, he was even mumbling something about Japanese discrimination against their own citizens of Korean lineage. (Yes!!!) Entering the building, I glanced over at and nodded imperceptibly to the stern bronze statue reposing in the lobby, that of the founder of his company: Baron von Reuters – née, Israel Beer Josephat.
One morning a week later, I got up, walked to the station, rode halfway across Tokyo to Reuters, took the elevator up to the 7th floor, walked into the bathroom, and in the mirror saw with dismay that I hadn’t put on my (required) necktie. Ippei Tsukamoto was the only man we could find with a spare tie, and he was called to my rescue. As he handed it to me, was it my imagination, or did I see the thought flash across his mind: a race of men who forget their neckties could never conspire to dominate the world.