Visas For Life – A Special Concert from the Israeli Embassy

On Tuesday night I had the privilege of attending a concert put on by the Embassy of Israel in Japan.  It was titled “Visas for Life” and dedicated to the work and the memory of Chiune Sugihara, who wrote transit visas in Lithuania during WWII to save thousands of Jews.  The embassy organized the concert as part of its year of celebrations to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Israel.

In case you don’t know, Chiune Sugihara is a Jewish hero.  A gifted linguist, he was the Japanese consul to Lithuania during the war. The Japanese government has expressly forbid him to write visas to help Jews and he did it anyway to save the thousands and thousands of Jews who were fleeing Hitler’s wrath in Eastern Europe.  He wrote transit visas so the Jews could get on the trans-Siberian railway across Russia, then take a ship to Japan, where they could then get to an island called Curacao, which did not require entry visas.  Some made it all the way, and some ended up staying in the port city of Kobe, Japan.  Sugihara was moved by the crowds of hungry, dirty Jews who congregated outside of his door at the consul’s residence to beg for help.  In the end, he had to retire from the Japanese foreign service in disgrace because he had defied his government, but he always maintained that he did the right thing and refused to be seen as a hero.  He would tell people that anyone would do the same.  Most people beg to differ; there were a lot of people who turned a blind eye to the suffering, but not Sugihara.  He is the only Japanese person with a tree planted in his honor at the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, in Israel.

The first half of this concert was a re-telling of the Sugihara story set to music.  There was a seven-piece orchestra playing music specifically designed by the writer of the story.  It was touching and beautiful, moving many to tears.  Even in the English translations, the words put together a scenario of both despair and hope that lifted the spirit in the end.

The audience got to hear a real treat for the second half of the concert: pieces played by pianist Sasha Toperich from Sarajevo and Japanese violinist Eijin Nimura.  Both men, in addition to being exquisite musicians, are Unesco Ambassadors for Peace, which means they are using their talents to further diplomacy between nations, a worthy goal. (Please click on their links to see their websites and hear some of their music)

Toperich played two solo pieces, one a vibrant wonderment by A.I. Khachaturian where the pianist’s fingers moved across and back on the keyboard at the speed of light, followed only by his head and flop of rich, black hair.  The second was a lilting and familiar Chopin Nocturne.

Nimura’s solo piece was a few minutes of artistic magic and majesty.  He played a Paganini opus, and I truly didn’t know a violin could be played or sound like that.  The pizzicato with the left hand while bowing with the right left the listener bewildered and mesmerized.  It was a force to be be reckoned with.

When the two men played together, the concert hall was electrified.  They played, in a nod to the Israeli contingent, Bloch’s “Nigun No. 2 from Ba’al Shem Tov” and then a Brahms piece.  The two masters, together, created an atmosphere of rich excitement and there wasn’t a person in the hall who wasn’t rapt with attention.  It was an unbelievable pairing of talent, and afterward, they each bowed to the other.

After the Israeli Ambassador, a wonderful man named Nissim Ben Shitrit, who is talented in oratory and diplomatic arts,  gave Nimura a certificate of Cultural Ambassadorship from Israel, the two artists played a beautiful encore.

All of the artists from the evening greeted guests in the lobby after the concert, and asked for donations for Tohoku, the perfect ending to a delightful evening.  Everyone clearly gave generously, uplifted by the heights of the evening.

Such, as they say, is the power of music.  I was privileged to be a part of it.

Music In My Tokyo

I always think of “my” particular Tokyo as a place where life is ordered and predictable, clean and sweet.  However, sometimes something comes along that reminds me that “my” Tokyo is different from another expat’s Tokyo or especially a Japanese person’s Tokyo – in a wholly great way.

One thing I’ve also learned about Tokyo is that there are segments to it and sometimes they don’t seem to meet up, but then they clash in the most interesting ways, and this night was one of those times.

We invited to go with friends to hear a Cuban band in a small bar in Nishi Azabu, about a fifteen minute walk from our home.  Not one to turn down a night of fun, even on a Sunday, my husband and I decided to go.  In a place like Tokyo, you just never know what you’re going to find.

In this case, the opening band – or artists, really – were the real find of the night.   There we were, sitting at the bar in a place that was smaller than my kitchen, with lowered lights and a prominent, twirling disco ball above us, when out comes a guy in a multi-colored, African-looking hat.  He proceeds to sit down at the head of what seems to be a long, dark wooden tube in the middle of the room.  This man, it turns out, is a one-man band – a one-man extravaganza, really.  The tube was actually an Australian instrument called a didjeridu.  The man put his mouth on it, and with a complex series of mouth movements, sucking and blowing, coaxed out of it a long, sonorous tone that varied in depth and length.  He played that for a moment, then used his hands for a wooden xylophone.  One foot had bells attached to it, while the other foot tapped a piece that hit a drum for added rhythm.   The sounds and beats that emanated from this man were nothing short of astounding.  A few moments later he allowed a bongo-player to sit next to him and play, but other than that, this guy was his own show.

The combination of the distinctly Japanese bar, the African Music and the swirling disco ball of atmosphere made everyone wonder if they had just gone through a break in the space-time continuum.  I felt like my particular Tokyo was turning on its ear for a few moments and I would enjoy the new world until it righted itself once again.  Here’s one clip of the evening – enjoy!

My very favorite part of being in Tokyo is that I never know exactly what I’m going to find here.

“Glee” – My New Perspective

From the "Glee" website...

I took my daughter to see the “3-D Glee” movie last week.  It hasn’t been open long in Tokyo, and since she had a day off from school, lunch and the movies seemed like a good plan.  As a rule, I’m not a fan of “Glee.” Perhaps I would be if we lived in the U.S., but with the time difference, beyond college football, there is very little American TV that we watch regularly.

A lot of parents have thought that the show “Glee” focuses on the music, when in reality, the students at this particular mid-western high school go through more than their fair share of teenage angst, including issues of homosexuality, teen pregnancy and bullying in the form of being “slushy-ed” – have a slushy thrown in one’s face.    To be sure, the music is great – it’s a mix of classic and new that appeals to a wide audience of fans.  The choreography is great and the few times I’ve seen it, I’ve enjoyed the musical factor.  But I have turned it off in between numbers when watching with my 9-year-old due to some of the themes.

What I didn’t know was about “Glee’s” beginnings and why the devoted fans of the show are called “Gleeks.”  Apparently, joining the glee club in high school used to be the height of looser-ness, and this club is comprised of kids from a myriad of social, ethnic and ability groups that all must come together for the glee club – or, more commonly called, a show choir.  The show has a subtext of acceptance – getting to know and embrace yourself, warts and all.

That’s where the movie comes in.  It’s a concert movie, which means that it’s based mostly on music, like the “Hannah Montana” or “Justin Beiber” concert movies. It has also been held up to the Michael Jackson flick, “This Is It.”  However, those movies focused on the artists and showed a lot of their backgrounds and real lives in between songs.  The “Glee” movie has garnered a lot of criticism for this actually – they don’t do much with the actors between musical numbers.

However, what I enjoyed most about the movie – and taking my 9-year-old to see it, was the genius sketches between musical numbers.

In between songs, the filmmakers introduced viewers to a few people who have been positively influenced by the show.  These are no ordinary people – they’re outsiders, different and “Glee” has made them embrace their differences and celebrate them.  One was a guy who “came out” as a homosexual in 8th grade, unwillingly.  In fact, he had a rough go: a former friend outed him.  But “Glee” has helped him accept himself.  One was a dwarf – a little person – who is a cheerleader and got to be prom queen.  She identifies with some of the Glee club members and never misses an episode.  Then there’s the girl with Aspergers Syndrome who joined a chat room for people who love “Glee,” and now she has her first friends ever in her fifteen years, and she watches the show with them weekly.  My daughter loved the music, but she admired the young-people between the songs as well.  And she learned something about people – and accepting differences.

I expected to have some fun with my daughter having lunch and seeing some nice music being performed, but I didn’t expect to have teachable moments with her – and to learn something myself.

Technically the “Glee” movie is a flop because it didn’t even recoup production costs even with its blockbuster opening fanfare across the globe – it opened in 2000 theaters simultaneously.  Part of the reasons cited by various critics is that it doesn’t focus on the inner lives of the character or the actors who play them.   But I think this way was much better – a stronger focus.  I plan to become a somewhat regular viewer now.

Kudos to “Glee.”

AC/DC Rocks the Saitama SuperArena!!

My hair is sort of big and curly anyway, so teasing it into an eighties ‘do wasn’t too difficult.  I clipped big earrings onto my lobes and donned my best black t-shirt and jeans.  I was ready to rock out to none other than AC/DC, performing live at the Saitama Super Arena last Friday night.

I discovered that concerts are quite different in Japan than they are in the U.S.

First of all, the concert itself started at 7pm.  I’m not sure any concerts in the U.S. start that early unless they’re matinees!  And then shockingly, there was no opening band.  The concert opened and closed with AC/DC.

The show itself put on by the band was simply incredible.  Angus did his strip tease and performed the balance of the show shirtless.  They had a blowup doll as large as the stage rockin’ through one song.  They had cannons.  They had the requisite bell that Malcolm runs and jumps to ring.  The lights shot like lasers through the crowd and on the band.  The base pumped loud enough so I could feel it jumping through my chest. The guitar riffs…what can I say about the guitar riffs?  They were long, ear-splitting, and technical genius. It had all the elements of any great rock concert.

Then there was the crowd.  I would estimate that about half of the crowd was completely into it.  Everyone was standing – there wasn’t a butt in a chair in sight.  My favorite example was the woman directly behind me.  She was as stoic as a streetlight.  She never moved, never swayed, never shouted.  Her face was a mask of nonchalance.  She was wearing the light-up red devil-horns, but never moved a muscle.  I might estimate that half the crowd looked similar.  Oh, when there was a very familiar song playing, such as “We Got the Jack” and there are common hand movements – aka fist-pumps, the Japanese crowd could do that, but they are accustomed to unison movements and cheering.

There were a number of foreigners that we could see.  From our seats, which were only about fifteen rows up from the floor on the side of the stage, we could see a group of blond Americans close to the stage who were completely into it and trying as hard as they could to rabble rouse among the Japanese and looking to elicit emotion.  It just wasn’t going to happen on a grand scale.

A friend of mine was telling me that she went to see Madonna at the Tokyo Dome, the biggest arena available in Tokyo. My friend said that Madonna did a great job of trying to raise the noise level of the place, but didn’t do that great of a job.  The funniest part, though, she said came after the concert.  After the encore was done, a loudspeaker announcement asked everyone to sit down and for crowd control; they would be dismissing the crowd by section number.  My friend said that everyone simply sat down and waited until their section was called and then filed out quietly. Holy moly!

Even when the AC/DC concert ended, the Japanese clapped and clapped in a polite way until the band returned for an encore.  After they played “Highway to Hell” and one other song, the band disappeared and so did the crowd.  I’m serious: the entire crowd pretty much stopped clapping after the first encore and the people dispersed.  Granted, most of the dispersion happened toward the subway, but everyone was kind and polite and things never got out of hand.

The entire thing was done by 9:30.

Can you believe that? 9:30!!!  I bet AC/DC loves Tokyo – they get all into their music, give a good show, and can get into bed before 11pm.

For me, half the fun was the fact that I was with 11 other people – close friends – who enjoyed it as much as I did, if not more.  We all went to a great Izakaya (casual Japanese dining and drinking) after the show and made a full night of it.  I’m so glad I went.  The whole thing was experiential.

**All photo credits to Jason Kwan