This article is the third and final installment of a unique series in honor of Japanese Culture Week. For the first in the series, click here; for the second, click here.
What do Judaism, traditional Japanese taiko drumming, African-American gospel music, and the Shinto religion of Japan have to do with each other?
For Heavenese, a unique 16-member band from Tokyo, it’s all part of a message of global harmony that they spread worldwide with their diverse array of musical styles and compelling rhythms, and which they brought for the first time on Monday night to the “city of peace” - Jerusalem.
The group’s leader Marré Ishii strikes an imposing figure onstage, powerfully pounding on the traditional Japanese drum or playing piano surrounded by his musician partners, all while decked in a costume reminiscent both of historical samurai garb and clothing from an anime show or video game.
I got a chance to speak with Ishii in Japanese after the performance on Monday night’s official opening ceremony, as part of Arutz Sheva’s exclusive coverage of Japanese Culture Week.
The idea for Heavenese (whose Japanese name tengokumin means something like “nation of heaven”) began in 2005, when 9-time Grammy Award winning gospel musician Andraé Crouch visited Ishii’s Kick Back Cafe in Tokyo and fell in love with his fusion sound encompassing traditional Japanese music, Black soul music - and even Jewish folk music.
With Crouch throwing his weight behind the project, the band got off the ground and in 2011 made its first US tour after the Tohoku earthquake disaster. In that tour they caught the attention of famous musician Sheila E, who in the past worked with Prince, and who produced Heavenese’s first EP “Silk Road” in 2012 under her Stilettoflats Music label.
According to Ishii, the “Japanese heart” and mindset has emphasized harmony since ancient times, a harmony reflected in his fusion of world sounds. “If that harmony can be communicated to the world through music and a message, I think that would be a wonderful thing. And that’s why I’m extremely happy about this event in Jerusalem.”
“Modern Japan exists thanks to Israel”
This may be the first time for Heavenese in Japan, but for Ishii personally this is his second time. A local church around 20 years ago held a “Holy Land tour” to Israel, but with one person short it was on the brink of cancelling.
Since Ishii had a passport they told him to join the tour a mere two days before it set off for Israel, and so he went. “It was fate,” Ishii tells me laughingly.
“On TV news you hear ‘Israel is dangerous,’” the musician continues, noting that 20 years ago people in Japan kept asking him “are you OK?” However, as he puts it “the reality is different from what you hear…the goodness of Israel can be seen from daily life here, you can’t understand just from political news.”
Ishii’s interest in the Jewish people and Israel was sparked, particularly as he noted similarities with the cultures and customs of Japan, and as he began studying the connection he came across further historical ties as well.
In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Jewish-American banker and broker Jacob Schiff helped finance the Japanese war effort at a sensitive time of modernization efforts beginning in the Meiji restoration of the 1860s, which came after over 200 years of a “closed country” policy that severely limited outside contact with Japan.
“In its first war (after modernizing), the help from Israel – from Jews – was very significant. So for modern Japan, without Israel’s help, Japan of today would not exist,” asserts Ishii.
Japan’s fascination with the Jewish people
That historical connection continues to today in Ishii’s estimation, as he notes “it’s strange how much Japanese people like Jews. Books about Jews really sell well,” pointing out a growing literature in Japanese on a variety of topics - from surveys of wealthy Jews to Jewish traditions of child-rearing.
“If it’s something about Jews, it sells. Everyone loves Jews. I don’t know why the Japanese like Jews so much, but they really do,” Ishii tells me. The words are very welcome, particularly given the rising global climate of anti-Semitism.
The Japanese interest may be the sign of great things to come according to the musician and author, who notes “I think there’s a curious connection (between the two peoples); if that becomes stronger it will have a good influence on the world.”
Jews in Japan for thousands of years?
According to Ishii, the connection between the Japanese and the Jews even extends to their natural tendency towards spirituality - which may indicate an even older historical connection.
In Japan, the Shinto indigenous religion is treated by modern Japanese less as a religious doctrine than as a natural tradition “that’s in our DNA,” Ishii says.
“For people in Israel the ancient religion of Judaism from Biblical times is deep in their roots, even for those who don’t go to the synagogue. It’s something natural,” he asserts, finding a similarity in the natural and deep connection with Shinto traditions in Japanese culture.
Ishii also ascribes to the idea that there are similarities between the Shinto purification rituals and ancient Semitic ones, raising the theory that Semitic peoples may have travelled along the Silk Road over 1,700 years ago - and may even have had contact and mutual influence with the Japanese people.
The band’s information materials feature a Scriptural quote in support of the connection between Jews and the “Land of the Rising Sun,” quoting Isaiah 59:19: “From the west, men will fear the name of the L-rd, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere His glory.”
Jews are known to have reached as far as the Chinese city of Kaifeng, but whether you put credence in the theory of an ancient Jewish connection to Japan or not, the mutual interest and desire to find a link between the peoples is certainly a thing to be enthusiastic about.
Ishii says another key mutual feature is the very message of “harmony” which he hopes to spread in his music, noting that Israel is a country of immigrants with a diverse population that must live in harmony.
Jerusalem’s name holds the connotation of “city of peace,” notes Ishii, commenting that it is his belief that the city can become the best example in the world of that peace.