Philip Patrick Philip Patrick

The deep affinity between Japan and Israel


Japan and Israel have a curious bond, which recent events have highlighted. A video showing a group of Japanese senior citizens singing ‘Japan loves Israel, and Israel loves Japan’ (in Hebrew) while waving Japanese and Israeli flags has received more than 900,000 views. The group, believed to be Christians, may be at the extreme end of Japanese philo-Semitism but their passion is generally shared. A crowd of 1,200 (big for Japan and probably greater than the number of Jews in the entire country) demonstrated in support of Israel in Tokyo earlier this month, just one of several similar events.

The philosophy of the kibbutzim chimed with Japan’s collectivist culture

There have been pro-Palestine demonstrations, but they have been small-scale and placid. I witnessed one with fewer than ten people. The criticism focuses on Israel’s military strategy but not its right to exist. The campuses have been quiet, too. There have been no reports of intimidation or abuse of Japan’s Jewish community.

A good person to comment on this is Philip Rosenfeld, former head of the Jewish Community of Japan, who divides his time between New York and Tokyo. ‘Anti-Semitism just isn’t a thing here,’ he says. ‘In New York you could feel the tension. When I got back to Tokyo it just wasn’t there at all. And we have never had a serious issue at the centre [in 20 years]. Jews are just foreigners here. They’re not seen as a special group.’

Jews arrived in Japan in very small numbers with the opening of the country in the 1860s. The pioneers were mainly traders who went largely unnoticed in the rapidly changing Japan of the Meiji Restoration. The first communities were established in Nagasaki and Yokohama. From the turn of the 20th century and through the second world war, Kobe became the primary base.

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