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Jews in Japan during the Asia Pacific War (1941)

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2023, we are publishing a special article written by Dr Ayelet Zohar, Senior Lecturer, Art History Dept., Tel Aviv University, who is currently an Academic Visitor at the Sainsbury Institute.

Figure 1, Jewish refugees visit the Ikuta Jinja (Ikuta Shinto shrine) 生田神社 in Kobe, 1941, © Yad Vashem, The Israel Holocaust Museum

The special story of Sugihara Chiune (杉原千畝) and his dedication to Jewish refugees, allowing them to travel to Japan on transit visas to a final destination (mostly the Dutch colony of Curacao on the Caribbean Islands), is well known and has been thoroughly covered over the past decades in numerous publications. What is less known, is what actually happened to the people who carried these visas, and how they proceeded after leaving Kovno (Kaunas) in that war driven summer of 1940. This short essay is based on a presentation given at the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) Conference in Toronto, 2017, the full version of which I hope to publish in the future. For now, I shall examine some of the reports of encounters between Jewish refugees and Japanese personnel, supporters and politicians. By this method, I allow a contextualization of Sugihara’s act beyond the common interpretation that positions him as unique and righteous.

Figure 2, Sugihara Chiune (1900-1986) , © In the public domain

When 2139 Jews received their visas from Sugihara, the problem was how to let them arrive in Japan. That was not trivial. The quickest and most reasonable method was to ride the Trans-Siberian Train to Vladivostok and then catch a boat to Japan. After collecting the money to pay Soviet Intouriste for the expensive ride in tourist class, the Mir Yeshiva bochers, together with hundreds of other Jews, boarded the train in Kaunas for Moscow, and then took the 10000 km trip to Vladivostok. Some of them stopped en route at Birobidzhan, trying to help the miserable Jewish community there, before finally arriving at the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok. Some of them had to wait for weeks, while others had a chance to immediately board the Japanese liner Amakusa Maru, on their trip to Japan.

When arriving in Tsuruga and disembarking at the port town, many of the refugees were surprised at how calm and beautiful it was. After spending a few days in the town, the refugees were sent to Kobe, where a small community of Jews had already resided for several decades prior to the war. According to most sources, including the Mir Yeshiva published The Rising on the Eastern Edge, the total flow of refugees mounted to about 5000 people, although the evidential records show 2139 visas were issued by Sugihara, and around 2000 trips were paid for on the Amakusa Maru to cross to Japan.

Figure 3, Jewish refugees in Kobe, c. 1941 © Yad Vashem, The Israel Holocaust Museum

Life in Kobe was safe and vivid, and the many pictures gathered here show that the refugees could lead their community business and Yeshiva life nearly as normal, worrying mainly about the timing of Shabbat, and how to obtain Matzo and Kosher wine for Passover. However, at some point, the question of their future became a central issue – as they were staying in Japan on transit visas that had expired two weeks after their arrival.  

Another significant Japanese person enters the sequence here: Professor Kotsuji Setsuzō (小辻 節三), a Japanese professor of Hebrew studies, born to a Shintō priest family, converted to Christianity in young age, and to Judaism later in life. Kotsuji represents an understanding, adoring and even admiring approach of the Japanese towards Jewish thought, religion and lifestyle. He made great efforts in helping the religious community receive their Matzo and wine from Los Angeles when Passover was approaching, and helped in the meticulous calculations of the times when Shabbat commenced while in Kobe.

Figure 3, Jewish refugees on a visit to a Buddhist Temple, Kobe, 1941 © Yad Vashem, The Israel Holocaust Museum

Kotsuji was also a crucial link between Japanese authorities and the Jewish community in Kobe—as he had familial relations to Matsuoka Yōsuke (松岡洋右) in the Foreign Ministry. When the police officers in Kobe became unsatisfied with the accumulation of Jewish refugees in town, he bribed them to extend their visas, and used his connections to Matsuoka to arrange for a meeting with the leaders of the Jewish community in Kobe to discuss the possibilities for a solution. And so, in the summer of 1941, the leaders of the Jewish community travelled to Tokyo to explain their situation to government leaders.

While so declaring, Matsuoka met the leaders of the Jewish community in his offices in Tokyo, and promised to look after their community and make sure they would suffer no harm. The situation turned better for the refugees as the police officers of Kobe gave them the desired permit to stay in town, and the government in Tokyo turned its head in the other direction. However, this was all soon to change, when on Dec. 8th Japan attacked the US Navy at Pearl Harbour, and soon the Jews had to leave Kobe for Shanghai.

Dr Ayelet Zohar
Academic Visitor, Sainsbury Institute
Senior Lecturer, Art History Dept., Tel Aviv University