We have the privilege of living in an era where no part of the world is too far for us to reach or communicate with, in spite of geographical or cultural differences.
Many things that make our Jewish way of life possible and enjoyable are the result of the collaboration of different companies located in different parts of the world. Items such as the kosher food we eat as well as many Judaica items we use in our daily practice are often manufactured in one corner of the world, assembled in another, and finally distributed in our own neighborhoods.
During the mid 20th century, Japan’s rise to become an economic superpower affected its influence on the kosher world. Currently, Japan produces some of the major food additives, health supplements, and basic raw materials necessary in kosher food production. Naturally, due to the differences in cultural and business mentalities, kosher supervision in Japan is different from that in other parts of the world.
One of the main defining factors in Japanese society and business culture is the concept of hierarchy. This means that the work force is closely divided into segments with clear hierarchical boundaries. All aspects of businesses, and even simple work and social communications, are orchestrated by rules and customs. For example, when two Japanese meet, they exchange a Meishi, (a name card, rather than a business card). This will affirm the hierarchical relation of the two, and will then translate into who will greet/bow first, the degree of the bowing, who sits in the honoree position at the table, who is served first, etc.
Within this context, a visiting rabbi with the position of inspector/mashgiach automatically assumes a distinguished hierarchical position. The whole management team will accompany him on his inspection, and it is highly likely that the company president or general director will make an effort to welcome the rabbi personally.
On the whole, there are two main objectives which kosher supervision emphasizes:
■ to find production faults and expose kosher violations, and
■ to support kosher production.
Although the chief aim of any kosher agency is to make sure the kosher status of a product is not compromised, the ramifications of these two attitudes are considerable in different parts of the world.
In some countries of the Orient, it is prudent to strive to find any delinquency in kosher control. In Japan, however, the supportive approach is more beneficial, as it is more likely to enlist the cooperation of the Japanese company in maintaining high kosher standards. The idea of any type of inspection puts Japanese administrators in a state of high stress and tension. Therefore, a rabbi’s inspection in itself carries great impact. With a supportive attitude, the rabbi can elicit administrators’ utmost cooperation, inducing them to overcome the language barrier, translate all the documents, and in a general way, be as transparent as possible.
As mentioned above, rules and regulations inform every aspect of Japanese behavior. However, in Japanese culture, there also exists what I call the “escape mode.” This allows the overseers to forgo for “one time” all the regulations and procedures. They use the excuse “special one-time case” to get away with breaking the rules.
Although Jewish law allows certain leniencies in select extreme scenarios, in Japan it would be highly unadvisable to apply these leniencies. Once the Japanese become aware that such leniencies exist, it is quite possible that serious kosher violations could occur. In the 179 OK Kosher certified plants in Japan, we instituted the highest kosher standards without relying on any leniencies, whether with regard to kosherization of complex machinery and productions lines, raw material, final product-storage standards or on-site full-time supervision. Our insistence that everything be run on the highest level of Jewish law is highly regarded, as it reflects the Japanese disposition toward scrupulous respect for law.
Moreover, it is common in Japan to find competing companies buying the same product from each other! This leads to a harmonious personal and business relationship despite their market-share competition. Naturally, Japanese companies would share with each other any deviation from the proclaimed kosher standard and procedure by their kosher supervisors-another reason why uncompromising standards of kosher supervision are essential in Japan.
One must be aware, too, of the fact that although many Japanese company personnel do speak English, they nevertheless speak Japanese-English. This means that not everything they actually say in English is what they want to convey. In addition, they might understand the spoken English words but not necessarily their full meaning. The Japanese philosophy and language have an inherent tendency to be vague when defining a concrete reality. This leads to much confusion when foreigners try to communicate with Japanese and receive what sounds like a definite “Yes” or “No” answer from them.
The following samples of Japanglish will illustrate this phenomenon:
“No” can mean “Yes.”
“Sorry” can mean “Thank you.”
“It is difficult” means “No.”
“Maybe” means “Forget about it.”
As a case in point, I witness an incident overheard during my supervision travels. A foreigner at a Japanese airport requested to fly from point A to point B. The agent said, “It is very difficult.” The foreigner said he must make that flight. The agent said again, “It is very, very difficult.” The foreigner then asked, “Can you wait-list me?” Once more the agent said that it was difficult. The foreigner finally exclaimed, “What is so difficult about arranging a simple flight?” The agent replied meekly, “Sorry, but we do not have any flight between these two cities…”
Our Rabbis teach us that during the Kingdom of Nimrod the unity of man was such that “nothing they planned to do will be unattainable for them” (Bereshit 11:6). Unfortunately, this unity was used to further man’s corrupt dominion over nature rather than to infuse G-dliness into creation. This caused the dispersion of man to the four corners of the world and brought about the destruction of unity of man.
In our era of globalization, we have the opportunity to try to recreate this unity. Our rabbinical work in the far corners of the world not only guarantees high-quality kosher food but also bestows on us the duty to be the emissaries of the Torah’s light, which ultimately will bring about the recognition of the Oneness of G-d.
Rabbi Hertsel Simantov is a Kosher Supervisor with the OK Kosher Certification.