Japan, a safe haven for Jews in World War Two?
Oddly enough, yes, Japan was a safe haven for Jews in World War Two. How the hell was this possible, wasn’t Japan an ally of Nazi Germany? Yes, yes they were. Didn’t Hitler want the Japanese to round up their Jewish population? Yes, yes he did. Why did the Japanese refuse? And how come there were Jews living in Japan in the first place? It’s an interesting story, and that’s bread and butter for Doug’s Darkworld, so here it is …
As one might expect, Jews are a recent arrival in Japan. Very recent, mid nineteenth century recent. There may have been the occasional traveler, but no Jews settled in Japan before then. In fact Japan lived in splendid isolation until 1848, when the USA forced them to open their country up to foreign trade. Shortly thereafter, small numbers of Jews settled in Japan. I don’t know why, but suspect it was the usual reason, they visited the place and liked what they saw. Also there was no antisemitism in Japan, and they were generally welcomed as knowledgeable westerners who would help bring Japan up to speed with the west. And no doubt the occasional Jew settled because some cute Japanese girl (or vice versa) caught their eye. People are people.
All was well for the tiny handful of Jews living in Japan up until the early 20th century. Then the wave of antisemitism sweeping Europe from such things as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” arrived in Japan, and some Japanese bought into the conspiracy theories surrounding the Jews. Most didn’t though, and while there was some antisemitism in Japan, it never reached anywhere near the levels it reached in European countries. If anything the Japanese are a pragmatic people, and their government’s reactions to rising Nazism and other antisemitic tropes was pragmatic indeed. The early 20th century Japanese government instructed their intelligence agencies to look into the whole “The Jews are secretly plotting to rule the world” theories. Japanese intelligence agencies investigated carefully, and determined it was all garbage, there was no secret Jewish conspiracy, and Japan’s Jews were not a threat to Japan in any way.
And that was that. The background at least. And then came the war. A lot of people know about the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who gave travel documents in World War Two as German armies approached, Chiune Sugihara, saving thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews. He was just the best known Japanese citizen who helped saved Jews, partly because he saved so many and partly because he was a diplomat. He wasn’t the only one, numerous other Japanese citizens, mostly ones working abroad for the Japan Tourist Bureau, also did what they could. And all for the right reasons as far as I can tell, IE, pure humanitarianism.
How many Jews escaped to Japan and Japanese occupied territory before and during the war? I couldn’t find consistent figures, but upwards of 20,000 is reasonable. It’s a complicated story. There is even the idea that Japan planned to start a “Jewish Homeland” in Japanese occupied China, the so called Fugu Plan. While most sources still treat this as fact, apparently it’s based on some very limited scholarship by one author, and other historians are not convinced anything of the kind was ever planned. That’s one of the problems with history, it’s not nearly as cut and dried as many people would think.
Sadly the Japanese who helped Jews escape weren’t exactly popular with their countrymen. I’m not exactly sure why, though some, at least in Chiune Sugihara’s case, suffered career-wise because they had acted against the wishes of their superiors. Still, their contribution to humanitarian values is has recently become more acceptable in some circles, and efforts are being made to identify and thank them. One such person was Tatsuo Osako, a young employee of the Tourist Bureau at the time. He died in 2003, and seven photos of Jewish escapees were found in his diary. One of the photos is reproduced above. The identity of the people in the photos is not known, but efforts are being made to find out and track down relatives. Holocaust survivors and escapees got out with very few personal effects, so these photos are a precious and rare reminder of a sad and terrible chapter in human history, and the undeniable fact that there are always a few people who do the right thing no matter what the risk to themselves.
It frankly is the only thing that gives me hope for the race, and it’s a slender hope at best. Next up, another story from World War Two Japan … Japanese war resistors, were there any?
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. God only knows who holds the copyright, since it’s not being used for profit and indeed is posted in the hopes someone may recognize the young man, I think I’m good. Do any of my illustrious readers recognize him? He doesn’t look like anyone in my family, plus they were all farmers back then.)