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Jews are a minor ethnic and religious group in Japan, presently consisting of only about 2,000[1] people or about 0.00016% of Japan's total population. Although Jews have been present in Japan and Judaism has been practiced since the 16th century, on a very limited scale, in Japan, Japan comprised but a small part of Jewish history from the ending of Japan's "closed-door" foreign policy to World War II.


Jewish history in Japan


Early settlements

The first confirmed contacts between the Japanese and people of Jewish ancestry began during the Age of Discovery (16th century) with the arrival of European travelers and merchants (primarily the Portuguese and Dutch). However it wasn't until 1853, with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry following the Convention of Kanagawa ending Japan's "closed-door" foreign policy that Jewish families began to settle in Japan. The first recorded Jewish settlers arrived at Yokohama in 1861 establishing a diverse community consisting of 50 families (from various Western countries) as well as the building of the first synagogue in Japan. The community would later move to Kobe after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923.

Another early Jewish settlement was one established in the 1880s in Nagasaki, a large Japanese port. This community was larger than the one in Yokohama, consisting of more than 100 families. It was here that the Beth Israel Synagogue was created in 1894. The settlement would continually grow and remain active until it eventually declined by the Russo-Japanese War in the early 20th century. The community's Torah scroll would eventually be passed down to the Jews of Kobe, a group formed of freed Russian Jewish war prisoners that had participated in the Czar's army and the Russian Revolution of 1905.

View of Beth Israel Synagogue in Nagasaki.

From the beginning of the 1900s to the 1950s the Kobe Jewish community was one of the largest Jewish communities in Japan formed by hundreds of Jews arriving from Russia (originating from the Manchurian city of Harbin), the Middle East (mainly from Iraq and Syria), as well as from Central and Eastern European countries (primarily Germany). During this time Tokyo's Jewish community (now Japan's largest) was slowly growing with the arrival of Jews from the United States and Western Europe for multiple reasons. Both of these communities were formed based on constitutional values along with community organizations that had a committee president and treasurer and communal structure. Each community now has its own synagogue and welcomes anyone of the Jewish faith 18 years or older to become a member.

Jewish settlement in Imperial Japan

Some Japanese leaders, such as Captain Inuzuka Koreshige (犬塚 惟重), Colonel Yasue Norihiro (安江 仙弘) and industrialist Aikawa Yoshisuke (鮎川 義介), came to believe that Jewish economic and political power could be harnessed by Japan through controlled immigration, and that such a policy would also ensure favor from the United States through the influence of American Jewry. Although efforts were made to attract Jewish investment and immigrants, the plan was limited by the government's desire not to interfere with its alliance with Nazi Germany. Ultimately it was left up to the world Jewish community to fund the settlements and to supply settlers, and the plan failed to attract a significant long-term population or create the strategic benefits for Japan that had been expected by its originators.

Ironically, during World War II, Japan was regarded as a safe refuge from the Holocaust, despite being a part of the Axis and an ally of Germany. During World War II, Jews trying to escape Poland could not pass the blockades near the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean Sea and were forced to go through the neutral country of Lithuania (which was occupied by belligerents in June 1940, starting with the Soviet Union, then Germany, and then the Soviet Union again).

Of those who arrived, many (around 5,000) were sent to the Dutch West Indies with Japanese visas issued by Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania. Sugihara ignored his orders and gave thousands of Jews entry visas to Japan, risking his career and saving more than 6,000 lives. Sugihara is said to have cooperated with Polish intelligence, as a part of bigger Japanese-Polish cooperative plan.[2] They managed to flee across the vast territory of Russia by train to Vladivostok and then by boat to Kobe in Japan. The refugees in number of 2,185 arrived in Japan from August 1940 to June 1941. Tadeusz Romer, the Polish ambassador in Tokyo, had managed to get transit visas in Japan, asylum visas to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Burma, immigration certificates to Palestine, and immigrant visas to the United States and some Latin American countries. Most Jews were permitted and encouraged to move on from Japan to the Shanghai Ghetto, China, under Japanese occupation for the duration of World War II. Finally, Tadeusz Romer arrived in Shanghai on November 1, 1941, to continue the action for Jewish refugees.[3] Among those saved in the Shanghai Ghetto were leaders and students of Mir yeshiva, the only European yeshiva to survive the Holocaust. They, some 400 in number, fled from Mir to Vilna with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, and then to Keidan, Lithuania. In late 1940, they obtained visas from Chiune Sugihara, to travel from Keidan, then Lithuanian SSR, via Siberia and Vladivostok to Kobe, Japan.[4] By November 1941 the Japanese moved this group and most of others on to the Shanghai Ghetto in order to consolidate the Jews under their control.[5]

Throughout the war, the Japanese government continually rejected requests from the German government to establish anti-Semitic policies. Towards the end, Nazi representatives pressured the Japanese army to devise a plan to exterminate Shanghai's Jewish population, and this pressure eventually became known to the Jewish community's leadership. However, the Japanese had no intention of further provoking the anger of the Allies, and thus delayed the German request for a time, eventually rejecting it entirely.

One famous Orthodox Jewish institution that was saved this way was the Lithuanian Haredi Mir yeshiva. The Japanese government and people offered the Jews temporary shelter, medical services, food, transportation, and gifts, but preferred that they move on to reside in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

Throughout the war, the Japanese government continually rejected requests from the German government to establish anti-Semitic policies. At war's end, about half these Jews later moved on to the Western hemisphere (such as the United States and Canada) and the remainder moved to other parts of the world, many to Israel.

Accusations of antisemitism

With only a small and relatively obscure Jewish population, Japan had no traditional antisemitism until the 20th century, when Soviet antisemitism and Nazi ideology and propaganda influenced a small number of Japanese. Antisemitism became relatively widespread, and persists today,[citation needed] taking the form of a subculture of conspiracy theory which is expressed in the context of Western conspiracy to subjugate the world (or Japan),[citation needed] which is ultimately controlled by Jews.[citation needed] Antisemitic and conspiracist books and pamphlets are sold in major bookstores (although mostly in Tondemo category), and antisemitic themes enter the popular culture and even affect the educated academic community.

Current antisemitism in Japan includes elements of the occult and of conspiracy theories. Furthermore, Japanese society lacks many of the taboos held by the Western world on racial characterizations, as they have less experience with racist connections; this is occasionally reflected in elements of Japanese popular culture, reflecting stereotypes or other forms of expression regarding the Jewish people, or other peoples, that would be considered outrageous in the West.

In 1918, the Japanese army sent troops to Siberia to aid the White Army against the Bolshevik Red Army. It was at this time that Japanese were first introduced to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a conspiratorial text describing the Jewish global conspiracy in detail.[citation needed]

Though deeper research by the Japanese military and government unearthed no evidence of a global Jewish conspiracy, a small number of officials and officers continued to believe in the economic and political power of the Jewish people. In the early 1930s, a plot known as the Fugu Plan was thus hatched, in which this small cadre of "Jewish experts" convinced the government and military to arrange for the re-settlement of thousands of Jews from Europe in the Japanese Empire. The underlying belief behind this plan was that a population of Jews could create amazing economic benefit for Japan, and that the power of Jews in other parts of the world, particularly in the United States, was great enough that the rescue of Jews from the Nazis could benefit US-Japan relations.

In 1936, lieutenant general Shioden Nobutaka (四王天延孝), translated the Protocols into Japanese. Shioden became a believer in a Jewish conspiracy while he was studying in France. According to Dr. David Kranzler, "The key to the distinction between the Japanese and the European form of antisemitism seems to lie in the long Christian tradition of identifying the Jew with the Devil, the Antichrist or someone otherwise beyond redemption ... The Japanese lacked this Christian image of the Jew and brought to their reading of the Protocols a totally different perspective. The Christian tried to solve the problem of the Jew by eliminating him; the Japanese tried to harness his alleged immense wealth and power to Japan's advantage[6]."

As Japan was allied with Nazi Germany in World War II, Nazi ideology and propaganda regarding the Jewish people came to be circulated within Japan as well, contributing to the development of Japan's particular brand of antisemitism. However, while various theories about the Jewish people may have gained a degree of acceptance among the Japanese people as a whole, the Japanese government and military never gave in to Nazi recommendations that extermination programs or the like be undertaken.

By the end of the 20th century, a great many books were published relating to the Jewish conspiracy or the theory that Japanese and Jews have common ancestry. Various theories and explanations for the alleged Jewish control of the world were thus circulated, many involving elements of the occult and intellectual play, and gossip. Occult theories relating to the Jewish people, along with theories connecting the Jews and Japan, play a major role in a number of so-called "New Religions" (Shinshūkyō) in Japan. However, anti-semitic books in Japan are usually regarded as a type of tondemobon (トンデモ本, dodgy/outrageous books, a term which covers a very wide range of occultist subjects, such as UFOs and psychic power), and are generally taken very lightly by the vast majority of the population.

Jews and Judaism in modern Japan

After World War II, a large portion of the few Jews that were in Japan left, many going to what would become Israel. Some of those who remained married locals and were assimilated into Japanese society.[citation needed]

The Israeli embassy and its staff is based in Tokyo. Presently, there are several hundred Jewish families living in Tokyo, and a small number of Jewish families in Kobe. A small number of Jewish expatriates of other countries live throughout Japan, temporarily, for business, research, a gap year, or a variety of other purposes. There are always Jewish members of the United States armed forces serving on Okinawa and in the other American military bases throughout Japan.

There are two major active synagogues in Japan. The Beth David Synagogue is active in Tokyo, and the Ohel Shlomo Synagogue is active in Kobe. The Chabad Lubavitch organization has two centers in Tokyo [1] [2].

List of notable Japanese Jews


  • Jewish Soul Music: The Art of Giora Feidman (1980). Directed by Uri Barbash.

See also


  2. ^ Palasz-Rutkowska, Ewa. 1995 lecture at Asiatic Society of Japan, Tokyo; "Polish-Japanese Secret Cooperation During World War II: Sugihara Chiune and Polish Intelligence," The Asiatic Society of Japan Bulletin, March-April 1995.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Shanghai Jewish History
  5. ^ Pamela Shatzkes. Kobe: A Japanese haven for Jewish refugees, 1940–1941. Japan Forum, 1469-932X, Volume 3, Issue 2, 1991, pp. 257–273
  6. ^ Kranzler, David. Japanese, Nazis & Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community in Shanghai, 1938-1945. p.207
  • Joseph Eidelberg: The Biblical Hebrew Origin of the Japanese People. Gefen Publishing, ISBN 965-229-339-3
  • Tokayer, Rabbi Marvin (1979). "The Fugu Plan" New York: Weatherhill, Inc.

External links and references

Jewish life in modern Japan
Judaism and Japan


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