Japan. The birthplace of the Mazda parked outside, the Toshiba laptop on which I work, play, and shop. It’s no secret that Japan is a leader in the electrical and automotive industries, and chances are a fair amount of appliances in the average American home originate from Japan. But patriotism shines in our kitchen, where most foods are manufactured in the US. Several sheets of seaweed, some rice, and wasabi powder — souvenirs of my short stint as sushi master — are the only foods with a Japanese label. Yet despite the army of American foods stationed in my cabinet, a simple inquiry would reveal many of their ingredients, too, can be traced back to Japan.

In addition to electronics, Japan is one of the primary producers of some of the major food additives, health supplements, and basic raw materials necessary in kosher food production.

If the contents of my kitchen cabinet originated in Japan, where could it be easier to find fresh, kosher Japanese cuisine than Japan itself? Well, New York for a start. Or London. Or Yerushalayim. But although raw materials and additives are readily available, a diet of chemical additives is not quite sustainable. Shopping for ready-made kosher cuisine in Tokyo is like shopping for a jelly doughnut on Passover, Rabbi Hertsel Simantov soon found out. An Oriental Medicine practitioner, Rabbi Simantov moved to Japan in 1989 to research Oriental medicine. Two years later, Rabbi Simantov started working for OK Kosher Certification as a mashgiach temidi.

Japanese society values natural and holistic approaches to healing, and it was his interest in Hari acupuncture that brought Rabbi Simantov to Japan. Natural and organic foods including sembe, miso, sushi, soy and green teas are all staples of the Japanese diet. Soy sauce has become an indispensible ingredient in hundreds of Shabbos recipes. It may be hard to imagine, but Asian gourmet products were not always available for the kosher consumer. In 1970, shortly after Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon, OK Kosher Certification took one giant step for the kosher industry by becoming the first kosher agency to certify a food manufacturer in the Far East. Mitoku, manufacturers of macrobiotics and organics, was certified by OK’s strict standards and made available to the kosher consumer. Mitoku is now one of close to 100 Japanese companies currently certified by the OK.

In 1970, shortly after Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon, OK Kosher Certification took one giant step for the kosher industry…

More than for their sushi, Japan’s claim to fame is its status as leader in the science industries. Many foreigners frequent Japan for business, among them a significant number of Jews. From Israel, Europe and the USA, they settle in Japan for several months or years, both alone or occasionally with family. Having lived in Japan for over two decades, Rabbi Simantov is something of an anomaly. He fondly remembers his first few years there.

Ironically, despite being heavily involved in the kosher industry, finding kosher food was a struggle for Rabbi Simantov. "My Japanese friends were amused by my rabbit food," he says of his diet. "I ate fruits and vegetables, lots of them. Meat and poultry were imported every couple of months, and our baking skills received constant practice. Bread, challah, and cookies were all homemade. We could snack on an unlimited supply of sembe crackers, but we’d have to be in Israel or New York to be able to go out and enjoy a kosher restaurant dinner."

"In the beginning, it was very hard," he admits. "There was no community. I would travel back and forth between Japan and New York." It was on one such flight that he met a Chabad rabbi. Although a private audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe was rarely granted, an audience was arranged for Rabbi Simantov and his wife. "At the yechidus, the Rebbe told us that a person has to improve his surroundings, and that we should keep our eyes and minds open to helping the community," he relates, "but I was not an outgoing guy. I was not that guy who stands up and speaks in front of a group of people."

With no Orthodox synagogue in the area and the High Holidays fast approaching, the Jewish expats turned to Rabbi Simantov to organize services. "Our first Rosh Hashanah services were held in the living room of our apartment" he says pointing to the cozy space behind him. From the webcam screen I am using it looks rather small for a synagogue. "It’s two by three meters," he confirms, "but throughout the day 120 people came here to pray. When we blew the shofar all the neighbors’ windows opened; I guess they thought we foreigners had an unusual taste in music!"

In addition to his roles in the medical field and kosher industry, Rabbi Simantov soon found himself speaking, teaching, and leading services for the many Jewish expats from around the world. For the holidays, he arranged for several Lubavitch young men to help serve the religious needs of the community. The young men would leave their parents’ seder tables and their familiar shuls. In exchange they would prepare and lead holiday sedarim and services, injecting their contagious enthusiasm and excitement in the Japanese Jewish community. Mendi Sudakevitch was one such young man whose frequent trips to Tokyo resulted in a significantly longer stay. Shortly after marrying his wife Chana, the couple returned there permanently for a life on shlichus.

"We recently purchased a building for use as a Jewish center, and are in the final phase of renovations for the shul. In fact, the upshernish (first haircutting ceremony) of the shliach’s son was just held there today!" Rabbi Simantov says proudly. "The building of the mikvah was due to begin now, but the earthquake has upset the plans…" his voice trails.

The images of destruction and devastation left by the infamous earthquake on March 11, 2011, shocked the world. Rabbi Simantov remembers the day vividly. "It was around 3:00pm and I was at a kashrus meeting. We were on the eleventh floor. Suddenly the building started shaking. The higher you are the more you feel it, and feel it we did. It was swaying side to side; up and down… we were being shaken like lulavim on Sukkos. It just kept going without stopping. After three minutes the end still didn’t seem in sight. I started praying…"

After what seemed like an eternity, all was still. The power was out; elevators, trains and electricity were out of service, and there were no taxis on the roads. With only two and a half hours left until Shabbos, he had to move quickly. Japanese etiquette requires one to remove their shoes before entering a room. Rabbi Simantov was close to the ground floor when he realized that his shoes were still on the eleventh floor and he would have to climb back up the dark building to get them. After a long trek through the panicked streets of Tokyo, Rabbi Simantov eventually made it to the Chabad House for Shabbos. The mood there was somber as the extent of the damage was becoming apparent.

With 15,000 dead and 400,000 without shelter, the Jewish community’s energy and resources were quickly diverted to aiding the victims…

With 15,000 dead and 400,000 without shelter, the Jewish community’s energy and resources were quickly diverted from building the shul and mikvah to aiding the victims of the disaster. After sending his family to Israel for their safety, Rabbi Sudakevich stayed in Japan to help with disaster relief. Together with Rabbi Avtzon, the head Chabad Shliach to the Far East, and many other volunteers, they embarked on a humanitarian mission to provide aid for the thousands of hungry and homeless. In Sendai, a coastal city hard struck by the tsunami, Japan Jewish Relief supported two shelters and organized a free bakery where thousands of meals were served daily.

Villages and towns that were bustling with life only short months ago are now abandoned ghost towns. A country in crisis coupled with a food shortage often invites lawlessness, rioting, and looting, yet the Japanese maintained their trademark dignity.

The country is slowly recovering from nature’s deadly blow. In the metropolis, the Japanese return to business as usual, yet scars are still visible. Life is different. When planning his schedule to inspect different kosher plants, everything now takes longer. As part of an emergency effort to conserve energy, escalators are switched off and the trains run much less frequently. Businessmen meet in dimmed offices without shoes and ties. Suits are in lighter color and fabric in attempt to be comfortable while keeping the air conditioner temperature no lower than 80 degrees. But nobody complains of their discomfort, they feel lucky to be alive. At a recent meeting a manager told Rabbi Simantov of one of their facilities that was annihilated, swept away by a 30-foot wall of water and taking the lives of several employees.

But life goes on. People continue to eat, companies continue to produce food, and Rabbi Simantov and the OK continue to ensure that the highest kosher standards are maintained by almost 100 OK certified Japanese companies. With all resources being channeled to the relief effort, the renovations of the Jewish community suffered a setback and the building of the mikvah is on hold until the much needed funds can be secured. But for the Jewish community of Japan, the future is bright. In the visible horizon, past the debris and alongside the Mazda and Mitoku plants, the silhouette of a shul, mikvah, and kosher restaurant can be seen.