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The Holocaust: Japan & the Jews

During the war years, the Jewish communities in the Far East living under the Japanese occupation - principally the 30,000 in Shanghai- but also small communities in other Chinese cities and throughout the Netherlands East Indies and Philippines - lived under an administrative policy that was noteworthy for its generally neutral attitude. (Another group lived in French Indo-China, but they were subject to Vichy's anti-Jewish laws and suffered removal from government positions and had prohibitions placed on their activities. Although a small number of Jews suffered maltreatment at the hands of individual Japanese officials, few were imprisoned or restricted because of their identity. In these latter cases, the Jews were singled out because they were stateless persons, having been stripped of their Polish or German citizenship by Nazi policy, and necessarily because they were Jews. Overall Japanese policy and actions towards Jews as a group was one that could be characterized as studied even-handedness. The Japanese did not single out the Jews for special attention or restrictions because of their “ethnic” or religious uniqueness. On the other hand, the Jews shared equally in the suspicion that the Japanese held for all neutral and non-Japanese nationals living within the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The Japanese view of the Jews probably grew out of the complicated mixture of racism, nationalism, and fear of foreign conspiracy and secret control of international events that dominated Japanese national attitudes towards all foreigners, especially those living in western countries. Significant anti-Semitism first appeared in Japan after World War I and was probably part of the extremist, anti-Communist reaction against the Bolshevik Revolution that strongly emphasized the Jewish “nature” of the revolution, its ideology, and its leaders. With the signing of the GermanJapanese Anti-COMINTERN Pact in 1936 and the Tripartite Treaty of September 1940, anti-Semitism gained a more formal footing in some of Tokyo's ruling circles. Meanwhile, the Japanese public was exposed to a campaign of defamation that created a popular image known as the Yudayaka, or the "Jewish peril."

Still, attitudes among individual Japanese diplomats and politicians varied greatly towards the Jews and the attendant myths about them like that of Jewish worldwide political and economic influence. For example, in October and November 1937, Japanese diplomats in Paris reported to Tokyo that part of the West's opposition to Japan's invasion of China came from "English, American, and French Jewish plutocrats." These bankers were intent on supplying China with arms, and were willing to sustain this support "in a long struggle." An earlier Japanese diplomatic message from Paris had reported that the Jews were also making use of local newspapers to stir up opposition to Japan. This message also mentioned that a Japanese national in Paris had deplored the change that had occurred since the "days of the Russo-Japanese War when the Jewish financial clique was trying to help Japan in retaliation against Russia."

On the other hand, in 1939 the Japanese ambassador to Berlin, Baron Oshima Hiroshi, reminded Tokyo of Japan's debt to certain Jews who had helped it during the war with Russia in 1905. On 16 January 1939, he cabled Tokyo about one Jew, unnamed, who had fled Nazi Germany for Britain and was in dire personal straits. Oshima admitted that there was little that Tokyo could do for this man. However, Oshima noted that the person performed valuable intelligence work for Japan during the 1905 war by notifying it of the sailing of the Czar's Baltic Fleet, and that his steamships (presumably this individual owned a shipping line) had been used to gather intelligence from Russian ports. Oshima suggested that this individual should be given some sort of token of Tokyo's gratitude. In another similar case that same month, Tokyo's ambassador to Washington, Kensuku Horinouchi, went out of his way to assure an American acquaintance that a German Jew, Kurb Singer, a professor of economics teaching at a university in Tokyo, had not been removed from his position because he was a Jew. The ambassador insisted that Jews were not discriminated against in Japan. Horinouchi suspected that the professor had been let go for some other reason and that he was cabling Tokyo to find out what had happened.

These few examples illustrate the difficult problem of attempting to generalize the variety of opinions held by Japanese diplomats and other officials towards the Jews. The majority of the Japanese political, diplomatic, and military leadership probably did not embrace the philosophical, theological, racial, or pseudo-scientific bases that underpinned the Western, and primarily European, versions of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, many Japanese officials appear to have been impressed enough by the claims of Jewish worldwide political and economic influence to try to use it to Japan's advantage. Based on Western signals intelligence sources, in this case almost exclusively Tokyo's diplomatic message traffic, the Japanese attitude towards world Jewry was revealed in further detail as a subtle, complex, and contradictory structure that combined a suspicion of everything foreign with a pragmatic, opportunistic effort to exploit a "Jewish card" in relations with Western countries, especially the United States.

After the start of the war in the Pacific and with the resulting closer workings with the other Axis powers, the Japanese were pressured by the Germans to do something about the Jewish communities under their control - principally Shanghai. The Japanese were aware that Berlin's cancellation of German citizenship of all Jews who had left Germany that affected several thousand Jews in Shanghai. And in May 1942, an intercept of a message from the Japanese embassy in Berlin revealed that Alfred Rosenberg, Nazism's "philosopher " and Minister to the Occupied Eastern Territories, had urged the Japanese to do some thing about the Jews living in their territories before they became a "problem." He was particularly anxious to limit their free travel through the rest of southern Asia.

Yet, the Japanese refused to go along with the German demands. In late January 1942, even as the German authorities met at Wannsee to finalize the mechanisms for the Holocaust, Tokyo's policy was, as some of their diplomats said, "to go easy in our policy towards the Jews." In mid-March 1942, the Japanese policy towards the Jews was set out in a message broadcast from Tokyo to all diplomatic stations in the Far East. The message declared that the fundamental policy towards Jews, as set out in a Japanese Diet declaration in 1938, would be only partly modified to account for the Axis alliance. Jews would still be considered as any other group of foreigners, although the distinction of "Jewishness" would be based on race and culture. But this distinction applied only to stateless refugees - which meant German and Polish Jews. Any expulsion of Jews from Japanese-controlled territory was considered contrary to the stated Japanese national policy of the Common Brotherhood of Mankind (Hakko Ichiu - literally "8 roofs, 1 house"). Therefore, Tokyo's official policy was this: Jews holding citizenship of any country would be accorded treatment comparable to citizens of that country. Jews without citizenship would be considered stateless, in the same category as White Russian émigrés. This group of Jews would be under surveillance because of their "racial characteristics." Another category of Jews, those who could be considered "useful" to Japan because of their political or economic influence, would receive the same treatment that they received prior to the war.

For the duration of the war, the Japanese held to this policy in the lands that they occupied. Aside from some isolated incidents of harassment by individual Japanese occupation functionaries and a small number of Jews who were interned in detention camps in Malaysia and the Netherlands East Indies, the Japanese treated the Jews no differently than other neutral or national groups. In the Philippines, the Japanese military occupation administration issued a general warning to Jews believed to have been involved in black market operations, price manipulation, and espionage. A German report from its embassy in Tokyo noted that the Japanese threatened drastic actions against anyone involved in these activities, "irrespective of the nationality of the persons concerned."

True, Jews in Shanghai were legally circumscribed in their daily activities. Yet these restrictions were the same the Japanese had ordered for all neutral nationals. In French Indochina, the Japanese requested that the French institute similar restrictions of Jews and citizens of neutral countries who held anti-Axis opinions. They also asked French authorities to keep Jews and neutrals under surveillance and that the Vichy colonial regime limit any influx of "such people" into Indochina. Japanese concerns about Jewish attitudes towards them (and the Axis in general) grew more anxious, especially as the course of the war turned against Tokyo. Overall, though, the Japanese remained scrupulously correct in their treatment of the Jews.

During the war, the biggest problem facing the Jewish communities in the Far East was the constant shortage of supplies and money for the relief of the tides of refugees that had arrived at the various cities since 1939. Throughout the war, Japanese officials in Chinese cities were reminded to allow Jewish relief organizations to operate and that Tokyo's officials were to cooperate with the agencies in their efforts. They were to cooperate even if suspicious of their "direction and leaderships." Interestingly, in September 1944 Swiss diplomats in Shanghai reported that the Japanese were reluctant to allow the International Red Cross to intervene and help the Jews in the city. The Swiss added that the Japanese claimed that Jewish organizations were adequately helping the refugees. The Swiss representative finally noted that he had refrained from passing along individual complaints from the refugees about mistreatment by certain [Japanese] officials since it might jeopardize his work with prisoners of war and interned civilians.

A number of Jews, possibly as many as 15,000, and made up probably of a large number of stateless persons, were living in a restricted area in Shanghai already heavily damaged by the fighting between Japanese and Chinese forces in 1937. In late July 1945, during several American 14th Air Force bombing attacks on the city, stray bombs had hit this section killing some 30 inhabitants and injuring another 300. Because of the damage, the Japanese allowed many of these Jews to relocate to other sections of the city. They also allowed the American Joint Relief Committee to extend war relief funds to those affected by the bombing.

By the end of the war, the Japanese attempted to press a propaganda theme that pointedly contrasted their treatment of the Jews in Asia to that of the Nazis in Europe. Some of Tokyo's diplomats and other government officials seemed to believe that this distinction would gain them influence among Jews around the world.

Source: Excerpted from Eavesdropping on Hell: Historical Guide to Western Communications Intelligence and the Holocaust, 1939-1945