Japan and Israel have a curious bond, which recent events have highlighted. A video showing a group of Japanese senior citizens singing “Japan loves Israel, and Israel loves Japan” (in Hebrew) while waving Japanese and Israeli flags has received more than 900,000 views. The group, believed to be Christians, may be at the extreme end of Japanese philosemitism but their passion is generally shared. A crowd of 1,200 (big for Japan and probably greater than the number of Jews in the entire country) demonstrated in support of Israel in Tokyo earlier this month, just one of several similar events.
The philosophy of the kibbutzim chimed with Japan’s collectivist culture
There have been pro-Palestine demonstrations, but they have been small-scale and placid. I witnessed one with fewer than ten people. The criticism focuses on Israel’s military strategy but not its right to exist. The campuses have been quiet, too. There have been no reports of intimidation or abuse of Japan’s Jewish community.
A good person to comment on this is Philip Rosenfeld, former head of the Jewish Community of Japan, who divides his time between New York and Tokyo. “Antisemitism just isn’t a thing here,” he says. “In New York you could feel the tension. When I got back to Tokyo it just wasn’t there at all. And we have never had a serious issue at the center [in twenty years]. Jews are just foreigners here. They’re not seen as a special group.”
Jews arrived in Japan in very small numbers with the opening of the country in the 1860s. The pioneers were mainly traders who went largely unnoticed in the rapidly changing Japan of the Meiji Restoration. The first communities were established in Nagasaki and Yokohama. From the turn of the twentieth century and through World War Two, Kobe became the primary base.
One particularly significant contribution made by a Jew in Japan occurred during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, which saw the Japanese record a remarkable victory over their far larger and presumed superior near neighbor. This couldn’t have been achieved without the Jewish banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff. He funded Japan’s war effort (to the tune of $5 billion in today’s terms) in large part because of his hatred of the czar and Russia’s pogroms. Schiff was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun and granted a personal audience with Emperor Meiji. His support left an indelible impression on the Japanese establishment.
What effect memories of Schiff had on Japan’s policy in World War Two is hard to gauge, but some scholars such as Meron Medzini think it was significant. Despite being allies, Japan repeatedly rejected demands from the Nazis to deport Jews or assist in their extermination. One plan the Nazis proposed was to put all the Jews in Shanghai (which was then controlled by Japan) on a boat moored on the Whangpoo river and sink it.
The Japanese military was not free of antisemitism. One operation, called the Fugu Plan, was an attempt made in the 1930s to import thousands of Jews to Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the hope of transforming the local economy. It is believed that a group of army officers were seduced by translations, acquired from Russia, of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Certainly, the name of the operation does not suggest compassion: fugu is a poisonous fish which is gutted to remove its lethal component and eaten as a delicacy. There were undoubted heroes, though. The diplomat Chiune Sugihara, a sort of Japanese Oskar Schindler, stamped thousands of visas for Jews who had fled east to escape the Holocaust, traveling via neutral Lithuania, where he was stationed. Sugihara, who was later honored by the Israeli government, acted in contravention of orders from the Japanese government.
There is a case to be made that Japan and Israel have a special relationship, if not an affinity. In the 2000 document “The Jews of Japan,” Daniel A. Kapner and Stephen Levine argue the two countries are united in spirit. They suggest the relationship grew stronger in the post-war era as the two countries focused on nation-building (or rebuilding in Japan’s case). It gives them a shared sense of uniqueness.
The philosophy of the kibbutzim also chimed with Japan’s collectivist culture and captured the imagination of idealistic Japanese youth in the 1960s. In 1963, Tezuka Nobuyoshi set up the Japan Kibbutz Association (Nihon Kibutsu Kyokai). The book Shalom Israel, which described the joy of kibbutz life, was written by a Japanese volunteer in 1965 and became a bestseller. The Makuya, a zealously pro-Israel Christian group which claims to have 60,000 members, was founded by Teshima Ikuro. He believed the Japanese originated from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel.
Ordinary Japanese today may be largely ignorant of Jews and Jewishness, but the few scraps of information commonly known do provoke deep sympathy. The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne no Nikki) has sold 6 million copies and is often taught in high schools. Anne Frank’s story is also associated with that of Sadako Sasaki, who died from radiation after the bombing of Hiroshima. There is a fascination with the Holocaust and films dealing with the subject, such as Life Is Beautiful, have been hugely popular. In Hiroshima, there is a Holocaust Museum; in Tokyo, a Holocaust Resource Center.
The flag-waving senior citizens may have overstated things. In many ways, Japan and Israel hardly know each other. But whatever the true nature of the bond, the Jewish people of Japan have found it to be a blessing.