Community in Japan - World Jewish Congress

Japan

According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s “World Jewish Population, 2016,” Japan, is home to between 1,000 and 1,400 Jews. Almost entirely composed of Jewish foreigners and expatriates, the Japanese Jewish community is well-organized and vibrant. The Jewish Community in Japan is represented by the Jewish Community of Japan (JCJ) – the Japanese affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate

Jewish Community of Japan

Telephone: 03-3400-2559
Fax: 03-3400-1827
Email: rsvp@jccjapan.or.jp

President: David Semaya


Community News


History

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.

The years of the Holocaust

In the years leading up to the war and the Shoah, German officials had pressured Japan to do something with their Jewish population, but Japanese governmental and military officials never capitulated to Nazi recommendations of extermination programs. Before the outbreak of fighting, Asia was generally considered a place of refuge for Jews fleeing Nazism. Many Jewish populations that would eventually come under Japanese occupation swelled considerably. Chiune Sugihara, who was a Japan’s Consul in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, began issuing visas to Jews despite contrary orders from Tokyo. He issued between 2,100 and 3,500 transit visas by the time he was forced to leave the country after its annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940.

As the Japanese took over many territories throughout Eastern Asia and the Pacific, many Jewish communities found themselves administered by an Axis power. Yet, the Japanese were mostly towards Jewish citizens who fell under their administration, with Jews generally labelled with the same suspicion afforded other non-Japanese nationals under occupation. Though there were some isolated incidents of Jews interned in detention camps in Malaysia and the Netherlands East Indies, and semi-internment camps in the Hongkew district of Shanghai, Japan largely kept to a policy of neutrality towards Jews during the war.

The biggest problems facing most Jewish communities in Eastern Asia during World War II were financial ones, as the pre-war population increases strained Asian Jewish communities during the war years. Japan allowed Jewish relief organizations, notably the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), to operate throughout the course of the war. After the war, many Jews who had been in Japanese-occupied territories during the war emigrated to countries such as the United States, Canada, and Israel.

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that athere re between 1,000 and 1,400 Jews in Japan as of 2015. Most Jews in Japan live in the capital of Tokyo, though there are also smaller communities in Kobe and other cities.

Community Life

Jewish life in Japan is centered around the Jewish Community of Japan (JCJ), which acts as the communal representative body for Japan’s Jewish community. It works to ensure that the Jews in the country, including expatriates on short-term residencies, are accounted for and able to practice Jewish cultural and religious life. In that regard, the Jewish Community of Japan is also affiliated with the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC) on a regional level, and the WJC on an international level, allowing the community in Japan to be connected to Jews throughout the world. There is a Jewish community center in Tokyo and Kobe.

A number of Jewish organizations operate in Japan, mostly out of Tokyo. This includes the Japan-Israel Women’s Welfare Organization, Japan Israel Friendship Association, and the Japanese Women’s Group, which all contribute to humanitarian and Jewish educational endeavors undertaken by the Jewish community in Japan.

Religious and Cultural life

Jewish religious life in Japan is largely centered around Tokyo, with two active synagogues, though there is also an active synagogue in Kobe. The Beth David Synagogue has a resident rabbi and is not aligned with any particular strain of Judaism, instead focusing on serving a plurality of multi-national attendants. There is also a mikveh and chevre kadisha. Additionally, Chabad runs two official centers in Tokyo and Kobe.

Kosher food is available in Tokyo and Kobe.

Jewish Education

There are no Jewish day schools in Japan, but the JCJ maintains twice-weekly classes for adolescents and a Sunday school. Additionally, both the JCJ and Chabad offer Jewish adult educational courses, including Hebrew lessons.

In terms of Jewish secondary education, Judaic Studies is available in some Japanese universities. The Institute of Social Sciences at Waseda University offers a Jewish Studies Program and there is an academic journal published by the Japan Society for Jewish Studies called “Studies on Jewish Life and Culture (Yudava-Isuraeru Kenkvu).

Information for visitors

There is a Holocaust memorial at Hiroshima and the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Museum, which exhibits the efforts of the Japanese ambassador to save the lives of Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust, also constitutes a notable Jewish site in Japan.

Israel

Israel and Japan maintain full diplomatic relations, with both nations engaging in increased research and economic ties; mainly through tech start-ups and defense.

Embassy of Israel in Tokyo,
3 Nibancho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
102-0084

Telephone: 81-3-3264-0911
Fax: 81-3-3264-0971
Email: information@tokyo.mfa.gov.il

Updated

August 2018

Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter
The latest from the Jewish world