- Under the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Japan and the Jews during the Holocaust Era by Meron Medzini
Considering the tiny sliver of history in which Jewish and Asian history have overlapped, it is extraordinary that so many people have written about [End Page 496] the experience of Jews in that part of the world.1 More attention in this small subfield has been focused on China, but Japan is a not-so-distant second. It should be noted from the outset that there is a great deal of popular writing about Japan, China, and the Jews—of the "lost tribe" ilk—that is simply silly. Thankfully, Meron Medzini does not waste our time dispensing with it. I mention it merely because I want to stress just the scholarly writing on this topic. There is also heinous anti-Semitism coming out of Japan, a topic on which Medzini does touch.
There were theories that one of the early Western visitors to Nagasaki was a Jew, who would thus claim to be the first such member of the faith to step on Japanese soil, but that notion remains clouded in uncertainty—not even rising to the importance attributed to Christopher Columbus's "interpreter," Luis de Torres (d. 1493), the first Jew to settle in North America. The first Jews to settle in Japan in post-sakoku times came in the bakumatsu period. Small communities have existed on and off in Nagasaki, Yokohama, and Kobe ever since. At present, there are two active synagogues: in Tokyo and in Kobe. Presumably, there is also a Jewish chaplain attached to (or responsible for) the U.S. military bases.
Medzini focuses primarily on the 1930s and 1940s. In those years several tens of thousands of Jewish refugees found themselves either in Japan or in areas under Japanese control (Manchuria, occupied China, and Southeast Asia). One of the great ironies of these years is that ideologically the Chinese and other Asians, who were supposed to be Japan's allies to rid Asia of Westerners, suffered horrifically at Japanese hands, while the Jews, who in most instances were citizens of countries at war with Japan or who had been expelled from countries allied with Japanese, almost all survived the war. Some have seen this as Japanese policy, based on their own mythology of international Jewish power and influence—namely, by protecting the Jews, they might obtain international support for Manchukuo and other exploits of Japanese imperialism. Jews at the time did not exactly live the life of Riley under Japan, but unlike their European brethren, almost all of them survived. Medzini does not confront this enigma directly, but he does address it indirectly.
Medzini wants us to believe that the Japanese (by hook or by crook) provided shelter to all those Jews who ended up in the late 1930s and 1940s on terrain in Japanese civil or military hands. True, most survived, but why, one might ask, should that be our standard? Isn't survival setting the bar rather low? The unarticulated premise to such a standard is that, because the Japanese were allied with Nazi Germany, we should be thankful that the Japanese authorities didn't simply board onto boxcars all those Jews on [End Page 497] Japanese-held terrain and send them to the extermination centers in Central and Eastern Europe. There were Japanese, mostly associated with various branches of the military, who translated into Japanese the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that infamous forgery from late-tsarist Russia with possible roots in France.2 Indeed, there were numerous translations in the first half of the twentieth century, but often the motive was as much philo-Semitic as anti-Semitic—that is, those Jews are really smart and well-organized, amazing people, so be wary. This particular canard lies behind the infamous fugu metaphor: the Jews are like blowfish; they can be delicious, but they can also kill you. In other words: be wary! That this particular notion played...