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Thursday, April 28, 2005

90 Seconds

The train disaster in western Japan this week is the deadliest in four decades. The death toll has risen to 91, with bodies still to be retrieved from the wreckage. Although the investigation of what exactly happened is not over yet, it looks increasingly likely that the driver was speeding in order to make up for lost time. He was running 90 seconds late.

Yes, 90 seconds. Anywhere else in the world, a delay of 90 seconds would not be considered such a terrible failure. But in a country that a reported average 6-second delay in the shinkansen (bullet train) schedule last year caused heads to roll and policies to be revised, 90 seconds is an eternity. The Japanese obsession with punctuality, especially when it comes to their world-leading rail system, leaves little room for mistakes.

Almost immediately after the accident, people put the blame on this obsession. The same driver, a 23-year old, was reprimanded a few months ago for missing the platform stop by 100 metres. Apparently he did so again last Monday, hence the lost 90 seconds; it is likely that he wanted to avoid further reprimanding, or worse, a fine. A colleague of mine told me that Japan Rail drivers are fined for delays and the fine is deducted from their salary.

Is this accident going to change something? I doubt it very much. The pride and joy of Japanese industry is not going to be deterred by one accident and, admittedly, such accidents are a rarity in Japan. Furthermore, the obsession with time is not particular to the rail industry; it permeates all levels of Japanese society and is too much ingrained in the mentality of "Industrial Japan" for swift and sudden changes to be possible. When I asked my colleague - after he complained that the stress of a possible fine was probably the cause of the accident - whether he would put up with less punctual trains in return for less stringent rules being imposed on the drivers, he looked at me as if I had lost my mind...

Pessach - Restraint in Praise

בנפול אויבך אל תשמח, ובכשלו אל יגל לבך

(משלי כ"ד, י"ז)

One of the unique features of prayer on Pessach is the fact that we say a full Hallel only on the first day of the holiday. On chol ha-mo'ed days and on the seventh day of Pessach we say the "half Hallel", a shortened version. This is irregular because on the other two regalim, Sukkot and Shavu'ot, as well as on Chanuka (all 8 days), we say a full Hallel. If Hallel is praise we give to God for delivering us from trouble and performing miracles for us, why only a partial praise is given on most days of Pessach? After all, on the seventh day of Pessach God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites and thus saved them from their Egyptian pursuers, prompting them to sing the Shira; surely this qualifies as an appropriate occasion for us to give full praise to God. So why only a half Hallel?

The redemption of the Israelites from Egypt was accompanied by a lot of misery. Pharaoh's stubborness brought upon his people and country ten plagues, culminating in the killing of all first-borns in the kingdom, including his own son. The parting of the Red Sea meant not only the safe passage of the Israelites but also the drowning of all of Egypt's army. Many human lives were lost during the Exodus.

The Gemarah in Megillah (10:) tells us the following story. After the drama of the Red Sea, when the danger was over and the Egyptians lay dead at the bottom of the sea, the angels up above wanted to sing out to God to praise him for the great miracle he had performed for his people. God silences them by asking a rhetorical question: "The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing?!".

God teaches the angels (and us) that one should not rejoice over the death of human beings, even if they are the enemy. True, sometimes it is necessary to fight and to win, and in the process lives are inevitably lost, but this is no reason for singing out and praising the occasion. One should regard all loss of human life as a tragedy. This idea was espoused by the "wisest of all men", king Shlomo. In Mishley he writes:

Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.

(Mishley, 24, 17)

The Meshech Chokhma, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen, explains this rule in his commentary to the Torah (Shemot 12, 15). He says many people and religions dedicate a "day of victory" to commemorate the fall of their enemies, but Jews do not. Their days of celebration are not for celebrating the fall of the enemy, but rather the salvation of the Jews. Pessach is for celebrating the redemption from slavery; Chanukah is for celebrating the miracle of the oil in the temple; and Purim is for celebrating the miracle of being saved from Haman's decree. Song and praise are therefore reserved for being saved from trouble, not for the fall of the other side. Indeed, we have an obligation to praise God, but we must frame that obligation in the right context.

Now we understand the reason for the half Hallel in Pessach. On the first day, we say a full Hallel to praise God for the redemption from Egypt. But on the seventh day, we do not say it because we wish to express restraint and repress our feelings of joy in light of the great loss of human life that accompanied the miracle at the Red Sea. We do so by saying the praise, but not in its entirety. (The reason that in chol ha-mo'ed we say a half Hallel is that we do not want to make chol ha-mo'ed seem more important than a full holiday, i.e. the seventh day of Pessach).

The idea for this Thought is from R. Avraham Rivlin of Eretz Chemda

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

My Brother the Yakuza, by Ya'akov Raz

The Japanese mafia, a.k.a the Yakuza, has drawn the attention of many writers. Few have been able to penetrate this secretive organization and remain alive to report their findings. Most of the movies made about the Yakuza paint a Hollywoodian picture that is only partly reflective of the real nature of "the people who walk in the sun". Professor Ya'akov Raz, until recently head of the East Asia studies department at Tel Aviv university, seems to have done the impossible: penetrate the Yakuza and study it from within. This book is his account of this ten-year journey.

Raz tried to make inroads into the real Yakuza for a very long time. He pursued countless leads only to be let down and warned about his efforts. Eventually, he met a member of the Kyokuto-kai, one of the leading Yakuza families in Japan, who agreed to introduce him to the Oyama Oyabun, head of the Oyama branch of the family. The Oyabun gave Raz his blessing for conducting his research of the Yakuza using his family as a case study, saying that "just like you Jews" we are wanderers and outcasts.

Raz is very modest about his success in getting so intimate with the Yakuza. He claims, over and over, that he was very lucky and has no idea why he, of all people, has managed to win their confidence and they had warmed up to him.

The book is fascinating. Contrary to what one might expect, the account is not dramatic. Raz's story is mild, almost pastoral, to the point that half way through the book I found myself warming up to the characters and had to stop and remind myself these are criminals who work for one of the world's most violent organizations. I think this is to Raz's credit, succeeding to expose the personalities behind the facade and show that deep inside these are outcasts that perhaps had little or no choice but end up as a Yakuza. Some of these people were born as outcasts, as the infamous burakumin, the "non-touchables" of Japanese society that nobody speaks about but everybody knows of. The name of the organization symbolises this outcast status: Ya means 8, Ku means 9 and Za means 3, the total being 20, the losing number in Black Jack.

I learnt a lot about Japan reading this book. Many customs and codes of behaviour are explained through the story of the Yakuza. I suspect that many Japanese would also learn some things about their society by reading this book. Hopefully it will be translated into Japanese some day.

Monday, April 25, 2005

"Frankly Speaking..."

In a discussion in an online forum I participate in, someone brought up the topic of the recent demonstrations in China against Japan. One of the questions asked was why the Japanese do not apologize for the crimes they committed against the Chinese (and other Asian nations) during WW2.

I answered by saying that from the Japanese point of view, they have apologized enough times, both officially and non-officially. They do not think that they are not responsible for these crimes, but implicitness is ingrained in Japanese culture and therefore one should not expect explicit, public outpouring of regret and mea culpa confessions. Because everybody knows the Japanese were wrong, and because an apology has been made, the thinking here is that there is no use in talking about the subject endlessly and it is time to move on.

Following this, another forum participant asked if this was an example of the famous tatemae and honne traits of Japanese culture. I posted the following reply:

Yes and no.

To the best of my understanding, tatemae ("facade") and honne ("true sound") are used to explain the restraint which one should show in public (tatemae) regardless of what his inner feelings truly are (honne). The public display of emotions and opinions is considered impolite and may lead to confrontation, therefore it is better to keep up appearances and act according to your expected role or position and not say what you really mean. I heard that this social behaviour is derived from the old Samurai code, the bushido, which considered display of emotions as
a sign of weakness.

So, in a sense, you could say that tatemae requires implicitness, in order to hide the explicit emotions and feelings one may have. However, I believe that in every culture there is a degree of tatemae-honne; we don't always say or act according to how we really feel inside. When we do, people usually view it as inappropriate social behaviour.

I think that Japanese implicitness goes further than that. Not only when hiding internal emotions do Japanese convey their feelings implicitly. It is a way of life, a way of talking and communicating. Public displays of emotion, even between family members, are still widely frowned upon (even though I find it is changing and the younger generation is much more open). To this day, if one raises his voice or bangs on the table during a business meeting, he is looked upon as weak, as someone who cannot convey his thoughts in the proper fashion.

A friend of ours, a student from Australia, told us the following story. She travelled to northern Japan with a Japanese student friend, on home leave from university. Her friend had not seen her parents in almost a year. And yet, when she met them at the train station, there was no hugging or kissing, only a curt nod and a polite exchange of "how have you been?". It is clear that in this case there is no conflict between the tatemae and the honne; surely the parents were happy to see their daughter after a long absence and vice versa. But cultural etiquette dictates that public display of affection is inappropriate, or if you like, too explicit.

So, in most cases, if you hear a Japanese using the phrase "frankly speaking...", you should make sure to treat that frankness with caution and not expect too much candor and honesty. That is probably the tatemae speaking.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Metsora - The Power of Words

No time before Shabbat comes in...

So here is a dvar Torah given by R. David Green, "The Power of Words", from the website. Shabbat Shalom.


Parshas Metzora deals with a skin condition which people at one time contracted as a result of speaking ill of others. Many people have difficulty relating to the idea that the Torah forbids negative speech about others. Often when cautioned about speaking negatively, people will react by saying "well, it's true!" Still, the Torah looks askance at such speech. The question is: why?

The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, d. 1933) offers a beautiful explanation in his book "Shmiras HaLoshon." King David in Psalms 34 says "Who is the man who desires life, loves days to see good? (My advice is) guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from deceit etc." Why does it say that life and goodness depend on proper speech? King David wants to convey to us the importance of concern for the well being of others. This means that people should be careful even about what they say of others, taking care not to harm anyone through something they say. Someone who is that careful will certainly develop a sensitivity not to DO an action which would cause harm to another person.

However, although this is true, it seems that speaking ill of others has an intrinsic negative side to it as well, aside from what it leads to. The Talmud Yerushalmi writes that the act of learning Torah is the greatest of all of the commandments, and corresponding to that, is that the transgression of speaking ill of others is the worst of sins. The Chofetz Chaim explains that the more spiritual a force is in the world, the stronger it is. His example is fire. It has an ability to consume most things more physical than it is. Wind is the second example he cites. Wind is less of a physical force, and it has the ability to destroy in a most profound way. Since speech involves air, it is a very spirtual force. When it is used positively, its effect is more profound than a positive act which takes on more physical trappings. The same is true in the converse. Negative speech has a more significant effect than a corresponding negative act on a more physical plane.

No one needs to be convinced of the problems people cause through negative speech. We probably all remember the time we wished we hadn't said something. Sensitivity in what we say is an important key to living a happy, effective life.

There is a famous analogy regarding the topic of speech. A man who was not particularly careful about his speech came to a Rabbi. He had decided to change, and needed advice on how to go about it. The Rabbi gave him a very peculiar answer. "Take a feather pillow into the street, and release its feathers in every direction." The man was perplexed, but his resolve was firm to do as he was advised and change his life. After doing as he was told he returned to the Rabbi. "Now what should I do?" he asked. "Go back into the street and collect all of the feathers to the very last one," was the astounding reply. Again the man made his way into the street and began the daunting task. At his wits end he returned to the Rabbi dejected reporting his inability to keep his last words of advice. "Remember," said the Rabbi, "that your words are like those feathers. Once they leave your mouth they never return. Make sure the words you allow out are ones you won't have to go chasing after!"

One Room Apartment - Tokyo

A picture I saw on Yossi Raz's blog in Notes. I assume the reason they built the house up in the air is the need for that much-coveted luxury in Tokyo: a parking spot.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Did Grandma Make Tea Today?

The ageing population of Japan gives rise to many social and economic problems, but also to new business opportunities.

Many Japanese people live alone, their spouses dead and their children far away in other cities. The estimate is that more than 3 million elderly people lead solitary lives. Should something happen to them, it might take a while for someone to notice and send help. Zojirushi, a home applicance company, came up with a new service a few years ago: i-Pot.

i-Pot (for "information pot") is a standard electric kettle, the kind that every home has, sitting in the kitchen and keeping water hot for a cup of tea or a bowl of miso soup. Except i-Pot also has a wireless communication device at the bottom that sends out a signal to a server that in turn periodically sends out an email to a designated internet address. Thus, the recipient can keep track of the i-Pot usage. Put differently: let's check our email and see if grandma woke up this morning to make a cup of tea? The service costs $30 a month, plus a $50 deposit on the kettle.

Apparently, the idea for this invention came up following a notorious case back in the mid-90s, when a 77-year-old woman and her 41-year-old disabled son were found in their Tokyo apartment three weeks after they died of starvation. Zojirushi, together with Fujitsu and NTT, developed the i-Pot to help prevent such tragedies from happening again. Today, more than 2,000 families use i-Pot to help them track the well-being of their loved ones.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Where Are My Pants?

Funny and insightful article in the Sunday Observer this weekend. Apparently, men have this annoying habit of asking their spouses for information on the whereabouts of their pants. Don't ask me; I'm a man...

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II died this weekend, at the age of 84. I will carry two memories of him with me.

The first is of his election in 1978. I was a young boy growing up in Rome at the time and I remember both the relief and the surprise surrounding the news of his election. Relief, because it concluded the prolonged wait for the decision, coming so soon after the premature death of his predecessor. Surprise, as he was the first non-Italian pope to be elected in more than 400 years. I remember the day vividly; suddenly all the church bells started ringing out to announce that white smoke was coming out of St. Peter's basilica.

More importantly, I will always remember him as the pope who went a long way to mend the relationship between Christianity and the Jews, in words and in deeds. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue and the first pope to visit Israel. During his visit to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, he said: "the fact that anti-Semitism has found a place in Christian thought and teaching requires an act of teshuva (repentance)". I can only hope his successor continues his ways.

May he rest in peace.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Shemini - The Sound of Silence

ויאמר משה אל אהרן: הוא אשר דבר ה' לאמר, בקרובי אקדש ועל פני כל העם אכבד. וידם אהרן

(ויקרא י', ג')

Picture the moment: The mishkan is ready and the week-long inauguration ceremonies are reaching their climax on the eighth day. And in the middle of all the celebrations, Aharon's sons enter the tabernacle to perform a ritual service with their fire-pans and as a result of this expression of servitude to God, they meet their death.

Moshe tries to console his brother for the death of his two sons:

Then Moshe said unto Aharon: "This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified." And Aharon held his peace.

(VaYikra 10, 3)

Aharon's reaction to Moshe's words are silence. The Hebrew vayidom is irregular in this usage and a more appropriate verb would have been vayishtok, he was quiet. Vayidom expresses more than silence; it expresses total submission, no reaction of any kind. The Hebrew word for inanimate objects - the lowest rung in the categorisation of nature (humans, animals, plants, inanimate objects) - is domem. Aharon's reaction was that of an object. In face of tragedy, he did not mourn as a human would, he did not cry out as an animal would and he did not even wilt as a plant would. He was completely domem.

Perhaps we can learn something from this sound of silence by looking at the rest of this week's parasha. The story of the tragedy of Aharon is one of the two main topics in Shemini, the other being the laws of kashrut regarding animals we are allowed and not allowed to eat. Both topics relate to discipline and acceptance. Aharon's silence represents the total acceptance of God's will and the understanding that we humans are unable to comprehend fully the terrible mysteries and tragedies of human existence. There are many events in our lives that we have no control over - death of a relative being perhaps the most tragic - and silence is one way in which we can discipline ourselves to submit to the will of God.

The same goes for the laws of kashrut. To be able to control our eating habits based on religious principles which are sometimes not fully understandable to us, is a matter of discipline. We are witness to many people who do not follow the laws of kashrut and yet seem to lead perfectly healthy lives. And yet we understand that the reason we keep kashrut laws is not health or other tangible benefits but rather the acceptance of the will of God. Like the silence in face of tragedy, our faith in keeping the dietary laws dictated by the Torah is a matter of discipline and submission to God's will.

This week a good friend of mine lost his mother. Aharon's silence relates also to one of the laws of Shiva. Many people come to visit the mourners during this week, offering their condolences trying to provide whatever comfort is possible. Sometimes they engage the mourners in conversation about this and that, thinking that by doing so they are helping them to take their mind of things. But oftentimes the mourner wishes to just sit quietly and be comforted by silence and not by words. The Halacha says that the visitor should take cue from the mourner and refrain from engaging in unnecessary conversation if silence is more appropriate. We often do not feel at ease with silence and feel the urge to put an end to the awkwardness of quiet. The Halacha tells us to overcome this urge and be more sensitive, to follow the example of Aharon and be silent.

In memory of my friend Amnon's mother, Rut bat Reuven HaCohen, z"l.