Japan is an island nation located in the Pacific Ocean on the eastern part of Asia. The first Jews to settle in Japan came during the late-19th century. Today, the Jewish population in Japan is approximately 1,000.
- Early History
- The 1900's
- Post World War II
- The 1970's
- Modern Day Japan
- Relations with Israel
- Jewish Tourist Sites
When representatives from Japan and the United States
signed a historic treaty in March 1854, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of
the U.S. Navy had successfully opened the doors of trade with Japan.
With this new enterprise came a small number of Jewish merchants settling
down in the principal port cities of the islands.
The first Jews to arrive were Alexander Marks and his
brother in Yokohama in 1861. They were followed by American businessman Raphael Schover. Though primarily involved with trade and commerce, Schover
also became the publisher of the Japan Express, the first foreign-language
newspaper in Japan.
The first Jews to immigrate to Japan were primarily
from Poland, the United
States and England. Most
made their homes in Yokohama, just south of present-day Tokyo. They
establsihed a synagogue,
school, cemetery and burial society. Even today, Yokohama continues
to be the main hub of Japanese Jewish life.
In the late 1860s, approximately 50 Jewish families
lived in Japan. The earliest Jewish tombstone dates 1865. By 1895 this
community, dedicated Japan's first synagogue. In 1882, after many years
of careful planning and hard work, a committee of Protestant missionaries
and Japanese Christian converts completed a Japanese translation of
the Old Testament.
In the late 19th century, a Jewish settlement was founded
in Nagasaki. It was mainly composed of Jews of Russian origin who came
to Nagasaki because it had long been used by the Russian Far Eastern Fleet as a base for rest and relaxation. This community
maintained a synagogue, community center and cemetry, which was uncovered
post-World War II. It was considerably larger than the settlement in
Yokohama, with about 100 families.
In Nagasakis, the Beth Israel Synagogue was built in
1894. One of the more popular and notable members of this congregation
was Joseph Trumpeldor,
who lost an arm during the Russo-Japanese War. Trumpeldor later became
a hero of the Zionist movement,
contributing in the formation of the Jewish defense forces in Palestine.
After the earthquake of 1923, this settlement moved to the rising port
Around the time of World War I, Jewish immigration
to Japan increased. Many Russian Jews fleeing the Russian Revolution
of 1905 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 traveled through Manchuria
and China, eventually settling in Japan. Some settled permanently in
Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kobe, but many others eventually found haven in
the United States and Latin America.
Jewish Community Center in Tokyo
After World War I, there were only a few thousand Jews
living in Japan. Most of the Jewish population was concentrated in the
cities. Ironically, most of the Japanese population was unaware of the
Jews and the Jewish faith. Many actually percieved Judiasm as a Christian sect. In the 1920s, however, anti-Semitism first surfaced. This hatred stemmed from soldiers who were a part of
Japan's Siberian Expedition (1918-1922). These soldiers had been infected
with anti-Jewish thoughts from extremely anti-Semitic White Russians.
Although prejudice existed, it was not widespread.
In 1931, the Japanese attacked Chinese troops in Manchuria.
As Japan looked to expand it's military power, the fortunes of thousands
of Jews were both directly and indirectly affected.
During the early years of World War II, many Jewish
refugees found haven in the Far East. Many settled in Shanghai. However,
in 1941 the Japanese
occupied the Settlement and about 50,000 Jews came under Japanese military
rule. Refugees were placed to internment camps for the rest of the war,
far better than the concentration
camps back in Europe.
As Japan developed a closer relationship with Nazi
Germany, anti-Semitic literature was introduced in Japan. After
1937, many anti-Semitic works were translated into Japanese from German.
These books had limited circulation and people were unaffected by them.
Despite being allied to Nazi Germany, the Japanese
did not adopt the anti-Semitic attitude of the Nazis, and even helped
the Mir Yeshivah escape from occupied Europe.
Post World War II
The United States occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952
and it was in these seven years that the Jewish population reached its
zenith. This population consisted of Jewish officials of General MacArthur's
regime and many Jewish G.I.'s. When the occupation ended, the number
of Jews dissipated.
World War did, however, spark a growing interest in Judaism.
Japanese showed a growing interest in the study of Jewish
Jewish Community Center
history and culture. Even Prince Mikasa of the imperial family was drawn
Converting to Judaism was not very common. The majority
of converts were Japanese women who had married American-Jewish servicemen,
eventually moving to the United States. Setsuzo Kotsuji was one of the
few male converts to Judaism. He was a descendant from a long line of
Shinto priests, on a quest for faith that led him to Judaism.
By 1970, approximately 1,000 Jews lived in Japan, mostly
in Tokyo and Yokohama. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was an influx of
foreign workers that justify increased the number of Jews living in
The Tokyo community began development post-World War
II. The community established a synagogue and religous school, a Judaica
and general library, a restaurant, a mikveh, and a hevra kaddisha. Services
are held every Sabbath and
The community is a member of the Federation of Jewish
Communities of Southeast Asia and the Far East. It also recieved an
award from the Japanese government for creating "mutual understanding
and goodwill between the Japanese and Jewish peoples." Tokyo served
as the home of the Japan-Israel Women's Welfare Organization (J.I.W.W.O.),
the Japan Israel Friendship Association (J.I.F.A.) and the Society for
Old Testament Students. The annual J.I.W.W.O Hanukkah bazaar is always
attended by a member of the Japanese imperial family. J.I.W.W.O also
finances and sends students to Israel each year.
The Kobe Community consists of about 30 families. Most
of these familes are of Sephardi origin. Its Ohel Shelomo Synagogue was completed in 1969.
Modern Day Japan
There are approximately 1,000 Jews in Japan, today
excluding American armed forces personnel and staff. Most reside in
the Tokyo area. About 60 percent come from the U.S., 25 percent from
Israel, and the rest from all over the world. There are only about a
dozen Japanese converts. Professionally, most represent major businesses,
banks and financial institutions, or are journalists and students. The
number who are active in synagogue or community affairs is considerably
fewer. It is rare for these communities to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah
or a Jewish wedding.
The Kibbutz Society publishes the Kibbutz Monthly in
Since 1986, a number of books about the Jewish faith
have been published and distributed throughout Japan.
View of Side Wall of Synagogue Earthquake Rubble Visible in Front
Jewish subjects are occasionally taught in schools.
At the Institute of Social Sciences at Waseda University there is a
Jewish Studies Program. There is also the Studies on Jewish Life
and Culture (Yudaya-Isuraeru Kenkyu), a journal by the Japan Society
for Jewish Studies, which has published several issues since its establishment
The average Japanese still have very little knowledge
of the Jews. Information is very limited if not misleading. The Jewish
community in Japan is working hard to make accurate information about
Jews more accessible.
Relations with Israel
Formal diplomatic ties were established in 1952. The
Japanese government did, however, cooperate with the Arab boycott of
Jewish products and manufactured goods, hindering for decades Israel's
capacity to reach it's full economic potential. Since the signing of
peace agreements between Israel and the PLO and Jordan, the boycott
has gradually crumbled. Japan has exponentially increased its trade
with Israel since the peace process began. Still, the boycott remains
technically in force and several countries, most notably, Saudi Arabia,
continue its enforcement.
Today, Israel and Japan continue to maintain friendly
relations. These relations lie primarily in the areas of trade and culture.
From 1965 to 1998, Israel's exports to Japan rose from $16 million to
$31 million and imports also increased considerably from $18 million
to $41 millions. Since the mid-1980s, Israel and Japan have steadily
expanded bilateral cooperation, reflected inter alia in the signing
of several agreements, reciprocal visits of prime ministers and ministers
and Japan's contribution to the multilateral peace process. During 2002,
Israel and Japan celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment
of diplomatic relations.
The Makuya and the Christian Friends of Israel, two
relatively new religious sects, continue in their strong support of
the State of Israel and in their friendly ties to the Jewish community.
Makuya is a pro-Israel Christian group with about 60,000 members, Every
year three groups consisting of 50-70 Japanese youth spend time on a
Kibbutz in Israel through Makuya. Christian Friends of Israel has about
10,000 members. Its headquarters, Beit Shalom (House of Peace), is located
in Kyoto. The group's focus is on supporting Israel and includes prayers
for the coming of the Messiah.
In May 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a five-day diplomatic mission to Japan to help foster better economic and defense ties between the two countries. While in Japan, PM Netanyahu and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced an agreement to increase defense cooperation.
"There is a common bond between us," said Netanyahu at a meeting with the members of the Israel Japan Parliamentary Friendship League. "We're both democratic, progress, technological societies. You face North Korea, which is a rogue regime with nuclear weapons. We face the possibility of Iran, which is a rogue regime that wants to have nuclear weapons. They're cooperating between them, and we should cooperate between us."
In June 2014, Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett and Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi signed Japan's first ever Industrial R&D Collaboration Agreement. This agreement creates joint projects in the fields of homeland security and cyber-security, among others.
Jewish Tourist Sites
The Holocaust Education Center
Rev. Makoto Otsuka, 866 Nakatsuhara, Miyuki, Fukuyama 720
Tel/Fax : 0849 558001
The Ohel Shelomoh Synagogue (Orthodox) and community centre
4-12-12 Kitano-cho , Chuo-ku, Kobe 650-0002.
Tel: (078) 221 7236.
There is a mikva on the premises.
Shabbat morning services start at 9:30 a.m., followed
by a full kiddush meal.
There are no Jews living in Nagasaki. The old Jewish
cemetery is located at Sakamoto Gaijin Bochi. The site of the first
synagogue in Japan is Umegasaki Machi.
While there is no native Jewish community. on Okinawa,
there are normally 200-300 Jews serving with the U.S. military on the
island. Regular services are conducted by the Jewish chaplain at Camp
Smedley D. Butler, and visitors are welcomed.
Jewish Community Center, 8-8 Hiroo, 3-Chome, Shibuya-ku,
150. Tel: 3400-2559 Fax (03) 3400-1827.
Pres.: E. Salomon.
Synagogue: Beth David Synagogue is in the Community Centre premises.
Services held Fri. evening., 6.30 p.m.
(7.00 summer); Shabbat morning, 9.30 a.m., and on Holy days & festivals.
Rabbi James Lebeau.
Kosher: Kosher meals availlable in the Community Centre premises, Advance
Israel Embassy, 3 Niban-cho Chiyodaku. Tel: 3264-0311.
There is a Jewish chapel at the United States naval
base here, and some religious services at the base are open to visitors.
Sources: "Japan," Encyclopedia Judaica; The Jewish Communities of Japan; Bloomberg News (May 12, 2014); Jerusalem Post (May 12, 2014)
Photographs of JCC Tokyo courtesy of Lior Jacobi; Photographs of Ohel Shelomo courtesy of Tamar Engel; Photograph of Byodoin Phoenix Hall courtesy of Wiiii