Japan & I

I originally wrote this in Hebrew as a blog post in 2011, several days after the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, and then translated it into English for my friends to read. Today marks the 4th anniversary of the disaster.

When I was 15 or 16 I stumbled upon a copy of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, and was immediately captivated. At the time I wanted to read every book I loved in the original language (and I still do), so the desire to learn Japanese awakened. But unlike Hindi or Gaelic, this desire lasted longer than a month, maybe because this book opened a window to other Japanese books and authors, and so I ended up studying in the East Asian Studies department in Tel Aviv University.

Norwegian Wood in Hebrew

I can’t do justice to the ways my studies there enriched me. In addition to the language requirement (6 weekly hours for two years, and 4 additional hours I chose to take in my third and last year), I learned quite a lot about China and India, but mainly about Japan. I got out of almost every class feeling I learned something new and fascinating I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else. I learned about Japan’s history, literature, culture, politics, religion and society. I find Japan a fascinating country, full of contradictions, which seems like the exact opposite of Israel, although there are more than a few similarities between the countries.

“Modern Japan” by Ben Ami Shiloni, a book every East Asian Studies student in Israel reads, along with “Traditional Japan”.

After my graduation I spent six wonderful weeks in Japan, the first month studying Japanese at Waseda University, and then two weeks sight-seeing in Kyoto, Nara and Nikko, among others. Our curriculum at Waseda included a whole day at the Ikebukuro Bosaikan, a disaster prevention center where we learned how to use fire extinguishers, saw a movie about earthquakes and went through earthquake and smoke simulators. I have learned, for instance, that after an earthquake you shouldn’t walk around barefoot because you might step on debris and shards, and that smoke advances faster than people, so as you run away from it you should close doors behind you. As homework I wrote an essay about the experience, and that night there was an earthquake. About 4-5 Richter scale, which in Israel is headline material, but isn’t worth mentioning in Japan.

Waseda University incorporates local students in its Japanese programs, who help the foreign students practice their Japanese and hang out with them, and so for the first time I met Japanese people in person (except for my teachers). My close group of friends was formed very quickly, with local and foreign students (US, Taiwan, China, Denmark, Hong Kong and Israel, of course), and we would go out together to karaoke or clubs, walk around the city and speak in Japanese and in English, sometimes both. On our last night we went out to an izakaya and bid each other farewell with hugs and tears. We still keep in touch and get updates through Facebook and other wonders of technology, and though I didn’t get to yet, some of my friends have met during their travels.

Some of the girls in my Japanese program at Waseda, on an evening we all wore yukatas.


During the month I spent in Tokyo and and my two weeks of travels in Japan the beautiful places I’ve seen were countless: Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, The temple complex in Nikko, Horyuji Temple in Nara and Kiyomizu and Ryoanji temples and Nijo Castle in Kyoto are just a few names that pop into my head at the moment. There are many more places in Japan I’d like to visit, and after visiting it during the hot summer, I’d love to see it in its magnificent autumn colors.

Huryuji Temple, Nara

I started learning translation because of a new Japanese translation class in the translation studies program in Tel Aviv University (and I stayed because I saw that it was good). During that class I “completed a full circle”, as goes the Hebrew expression I really dislike, and translated the first pages of Murakami’s first novel (Hear the Wind Sing, which Murakami doesn’t want to be translated, as well as his second novel, so you probably won’t find them in bookstores). More importantly, I met some people who I became good friends with, and through them I got acquainted with the Japanese community in Israel. Many of my friends and acquaintances have returned to Japan, and some Israelis have went there for their studies. A couple who went back to Japan after two years in Israel sent me a photo of their new baby girl about and month ago. She is 2.5 months old now.

When I heard of the earthquake almost two weeks ago I immediately made sure all my friends in Japan are fine, in a procedure that we Israelis know all too well. Since then I’ve been talking to some of them online and following their Facebook status lines. I hear of aftershocks, of the fear of radiation, of existential insights and conspiracy theories which tend to raise their heads after such events. I receive links to stories about survivors, accounts of people who live in the disaster area. For work I translate news stories of outlooks for Japan, estimates of the costs of the disaster and possible implications for world markets. I hope the nuclear crisis will be solved soon and that Japan will start rebuilding itself.

Help Japan