Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drawn accusations of cultural insensitivity after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and his wife Akie Abe were served dessert in a dish shaped like a shoe while visiting Netanyahu in Israel.
In his second visit to Israel, Abe dined with Netanyahu on Monday, May 2. According to The Washington Post, their discussions focused on topics including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal—and the possible relocation of Japan’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In an earlier meeting, Netanyahu presented evidence Iran violated nuclear agreements. However, Abe has chosen to continue supporting the Iran nuclear deal. According to Haaretz, Abe asserted the Japanese embassy would remain in Tel Aviv while conveying his continued support for a two-state solution.
After attending meetings that day, the two prime ministers and their wives were served dinner by Israel’s celebrity chef Segev Moshe. Following the dinner, the four were presented chocolates in a stylish shoe sculpture that many have deemed culturally insensitive. As reported by Kotaku, the shoe was crafted by UK designer Tom Dixon, whose website showcases the series of sculptures as doorstops. Though Abe stated he “enjoyed the dinner,” the chef’s choice of dessert decoration has sparked an internet firestorm.
According to The Japan News, a comment on a photo Moshe uploaded to Instagram described the shoe-themed dessert as “a blatant cultural faux pas that embarrasses Israel on a global scale.” Japanese and Israeli diplomats expressed offense over the incident. “If this is meant to be humor, we do not find it funny,” a Japanese diplomat told Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot via The Jerusalem Post. “I can tell you that we are offended for our prime minister.”
“There is nothing more despised in Japanese culture than shoes,” one Israeli diplomat told Yediot Aharonot. “Not only do they not enter their houses while wearing shoes, you will not find shoes in their offices either. Even the prime minister, ministers and members of parliament do not wear shoes to work.”
Although this statement isn’t exactly correct, the sentiment was felt on both sides of the issue. In Japanese culture, it is customary to remove shoes before entering a home. Traditional Japanese homes have delicate tatami mats on their floors, and in order to keep them clean and prevent them from being destroyed, it is necessary to remove footwear before entering.
Japan’s diplomatic relations with Israel began in 1952, when Japan first officially recognized Israel’s statehood. Japan cut ties with Israel at the behest of the Arab League during the Yom Kippur War and the oil crisis of 1972. Only after the weakening of OPEC influence in the early 1990s due to explosive growth in alternative energy and the U.S.–led shale gas revolution were diplomatic relations restored.