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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 of Kobe.
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.
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.
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.
history and culture. Even Prince Mikasa of the imperial family was drawn to Judaism.
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 Japan.
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 on holidays.
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.
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 Japanese.
Since 1986, a number of books about the Jewish faith have been published and distributed throughout Japan.
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 in 1961.
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.
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.
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 notification requested.
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.
The Jewish Communities of Japan
Photographs of JCC Tokyo courtesy of Lior Jacobi
Photographs of Ohel Shelomo courtesy of Tamar Engel
Photograph of Byodoin Phoenix Hall courtesy of Wiiii