Jews first arrived in Japan as merchants employed by the Dutch and British navies in the 16th and 17th centuries, before the implementation of Japan’s “closed door” foreign policy. After Japan closed its doors to the outside world, there was no permanent Jewish, or any foreign community in the country for centuries. It was not until Commodore Matthew Perry agreed to a treaty with Japanese officials to open the island to international trade in 1854, that foreigners were allowed back into Japan. Shortly after, small Jewish communities began to spring up in some port cities throughout the island.
The majority of these early Jewish immigrants settled in Yokohama, a city just south of modern-day Tokyo, and were largely involved in the booming trading and commerce industries that developed with industrialization in Japan. Jewish refugees from Russia, fleeing pogroms, arrived in Nagasaki and began establishing a community there towards the end of the 19th century. When the Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904, nearly 2,000 Russian Jewish soldiers were taken prisoner in Japan, and after their release at the war’s conclusion, they formed a Jewish community in Kobe. Further Jewish immigration to Japan followed the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the later Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
After World War I, the Japanese Jewish population had grown to over a few thousand people, and most communities were situated in major cities throughout the island. However, the Jewish community in Nagasaki moved to Kobe in 1923 following the great Kanto earthquake. Around this time, anti-Semitism began to surface in Japan, as Japanese troops sent to Siberia to aid the White Army against the Red Army were introduced to Russian anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and propaganda.
Japan’s alignment with Nazi Germany in 1940 saw the absorption of further antisemitic ideologies and propaganda into Japanese society, particularly in some of Japan’s ruling circles. However, Japanese society was mostly apathetic to the Nazi’s fervent antisemitism, and did not view the “Jewish question” as particularly important. The Five Ministers Council, the highest decision-making council in Japan, did decide to prohibit the expulsion of Jews in Japan in 1938, despite Germany’s reminders about the “dangers” Jews in Japan posed, but Japanese policy towards Jews in the lead up to the war was still discriminatory.
In the aftermath of World War II, Japan was occupied by the United States and the Jewish community in Japan reached its peak, as many Jewish officials of General MacArthur’s regime and Jewish G.I.’s were stationed in Japan throughout occupation. This included Charles Louis Kades, who was instrumental in the passing of the GHQ’s draft of the Japanese constitution in 1946. When the occupation ended in 1952, the number of Jews in Japan fell considerably.
As Japan continued to rebound throughout the latter half of the 20th century, many foreign Jewish workers came to Japan due to increased economic opportunities. This was particularly the case in Tokyo, as the Jewish community in the capital city experienced increased growth throughout the 1970s and 1980s, while also establishing a number of Jewish institutions. Today, almost all Jews in Japan are expatriates representing foreign businesses, banks, or financial institutions, and the Jewish community in Japan exists peacefully with its non-Jewish neighbors.