My Trip to Japan

By Simcha Eichenstein
New York State Assemblyman
July 28, 2023
I like to travel, especially when my travels take me to distant destinations and places I’ve never visited before.

So, when I was invited on a trip to visit Japan this past winter, I jumped at the chance. As a member of the New York State Assembly, I am always interested in exploring different cultures as it is an opportunity for me to learn some valuable lessons on how to improve our own quality of life back home.

My itinerary included meetings with government officials and political leaders in Japan so we can share our thoughts and opinions. I also looked forward to seeing some of the celebrated tourist sites. And, as an observant Jew, I was most interested in learning about the Holocaust survivors who escaped the Nazis by coming to Japan. So, I packed my bags and flew to Tokyo.

My first impression? I was immediately struck by the pristine cleanliness of my surroundings. To be honest, I was a bit jealous. The streets were spotless. No candy wrappers, no empty botles, no discarded plastic bags lying around. Not even a trash can. Nothing but sparkling streets and roads for miles and miles around.

This may not sound like a big deal but for me, it was striking. I’m sorry to say, it was quite different than what I am accustomed to in New York.

I am told that the Japanese pride themselves on their cleanliness. Residents are expected to be responsible for their own trash. They hold on to it until they get home where they can dispose of it properly. There’s a cultural sense of community awareness where everyone pitches in to sweep the streets or take out the garbage and recycling bins on the designated days.

When your surroundings are neat and tidy, it affects your quality of life. You feel good about yourself, you take pride in your surroundings, and you can focus better. I’m not sure how we can implement any of this in New York, but it was an eye-opening experience for me.

I was also very impressed by Japan’s updated public transportation system, most notably the bullet train. This high-speed, highly sophisticated, sleek intercity transit system gets you where you’re going quickly and efficiently. It’s light years ahead of the antiquated NYC subway system. I made a mental note to seriously consider how to upgrade our own public transportation so that we can properly serve New York commuters.

The most inspiring part of my trip, the highlight of my stay in Japan, was undoubtedly the time that I spent in the City of Tsuruga.

First, a quick history lesson. During the Holocaust, it was no secret that the Nazis were determined to annihilate the Jewish people. Unfortunately, most of the Jews in Europe had no place to run. They were being hunted like animals, but there was nowhere to hide. Even those who had managed to escape weren’t allowed into other countries.

In 1940, 6,000 Jews fled the Nazi inferno and traveled by ship on a long and harrowing journey to Tsuruga. They were hungry and tired and terrified. They did not know what to expect. But the people of Tsuruga opened their homes and their hearts to the Jewish refugees. They shouted words of encouragement and, according to legend, offered apples to the hungry and desolate strangers.

My visit to the “Port of Humanity Museum” in Tsuruga was an emotional one. The museum tells the story of the Jewish refugees who came to Japan and of the incredible heroism of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who issued transit visas for the refugees, despite the obvious danger to himself and his family.

As the grandson of four Holocaust survivors, this is very personal to me. And I will be forever grateful to the people of Japan for their hospitality and genuine kindness.
Exhibition of the Jewish Refugees
To follow that, I visited Hiroshima, a city that was largely destroyed by an atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. There I stood, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, staring into the sky, no words to be said. If I was spoken to, I didn’t even hear it. I felt the chills. I am literally standing on the site of an atomic bomb that killed well over 100,000 people, most of whom died on the very first day, perhaps within the first few minutes. Calling it surreal would be an understatement.
My trip was over all too soon. I learned so much from the people whom I met and the places I visited. I enjoyed the pristine beauty and the modern system of public transit. I relished my conversations with Japanese community leaders and elected officials. The people of Japan moved me in a very personal way. History proves that when nobody else in the world wanted the Jewish people, diplomat Chiune Sugihara selflessly risked everything to help strangers in need, and the Japanese people welcomed them with open arms. That is something we will cherish and remember for all time.
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