Bruria Lindenberg Cooperman

author  •  sculptor  •  peripatetic  • rebel bubbie

For This
I Survived?


Bruria Lindenberg Cooperman

author  •  sculptor  •  peripatetic  • rebel bubbie

For This
I Survived?



She was no more than 4 foot 11, a Japanese version of every stereotype we have seen of an Asian woman — slightly stooped, bowlegged, shuffling along, holding her wicker basket, dressed casually for an afternoon of grocery shopping.  Then I caught sight of her t-shirt.  It read:  “There’s a party in my pants and everyone’s invited.”

This was the Japan I lived in for nearly 6 years. No matter how crazy, how frenetic it was always orderly and slight crazy — my our Western standards. And I loved it. My German genes loved how everything and everyone was in its place; the 60s, Woodstock hippie loved every nutty things about this country. 

Let me go back a bit to the BC years  — Before Cooperman. I was 39, single in Toronto and realized that if I did not pick up and do something then I would be in my 50s or 60s, saying to myself:  “I I should have…” I had heard that you could go to Japan and get a job teaching English, so why not? I got a leave of absence from the Etobicoke Board of Education, bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo and off I went. No consultation, no asking for permission, no job set up, and nowhere to stay.

Just before leaving, I did get the name of a ryokan, a Japanese inn.  That’s all I needed. Later, I realized, after I knew more about the culture, that it was one of the designated areas catering to gaijins — foreigners.  There were no Japanese guests. That would come later, when they trusted me. For the beginning of my adventure, it was a good transition.  The owners were used to gaijins and the workers were not skittish around us. I was there for a month longer than I had anticipated but it was a great source of information.  Everyone told me that if I wanted to learn Japanese I should live in the countryside.  This Jewish princess was having none of that.  I had to live in the city. 

I’ve always been the outsider, the greener. I was an immigrant to Canada and have remained so in my mind.  When I lived in Japan this was very pronounced in certain respects but interestingly, there were aspects of the society that spoke to me.  I felt comfortable.  Perhaps it spoke to my yeke DNA.

The Japanese are just like you and me but completely different.  I’m a teacher. The main thrust of my instruction is to ask what is not being said.  Nowhere is this truer than in Japan.

One of my favourite countries in the world is Italy. My parents met there in a displaced person camp after the camps. If one was going to start to live again, Italy was the place. I had been there many times. One summer I spent a semester in Sienna, where the annual horse race called the Palio took place in the town square. There is electricity and madness in the air leading up to the day. Each contrade – city district – takes its horse to the church to be blessed. Of course, wearing the contrada’s colours. Every person wore the same scarf! I fell instantly in love with Italy. Of course, I was always a tourist but I loved it because it was so open — open cafes, open people …. it was freeing. You knew exactly what was going on and if you were in any doubt there was always an Italian to tell you how, what, where and why. My wish is to come back as an Italian Jew. 

Japan is different. I don’t think Japan is much smaller or larger in size from Italy but it’s another world. By the time I arrived, the evils of the Western world were starting to creep in — like fat kids chomping their way through potato chips and other poisonous foods! Editorials and people in the media bemoaned the changes. But luckily for me, the country still managed to retain their Japanese-ness.


August 25

Started at the L.A. airport.  Jewish princesses have nothing over these Japanese ones.  As I entered I was suddenly assaulted on all sides by Guccis, Puccis and Louis Vuittons and a few even I have no idea about. They were slightly wild. The airline official had to keep screaming into the speaker that it wasn’t time yet to line up. Within 5 minutes in the lounge I was helping a man take pictures of his family (also extremely well-assembled). I let slip to a ticket official of my ‘plans’.  She said ‘sh-sh.’  

Boarding was late. What else is new?  Got on the plane, the cockpit panel would not light up so off to the nether lands of the airport to get the part.

Upon this news, the food came out …  

Settling In.

Merle Kerr called me back last night. We’re going to lunch next week.  She’s picking me up in her car! What a luxury for me. She mentioned a reception at the Canadian Embassy so I’ll probably go. Need the contacts.

Told Aba to wire me money.  I hope I’ll have enough to tide me over.  Wonder how often they pay at the school? It’s been raining for two days and the typhoons are here. Hot and wet and steamy. So humid that it nuked the knife pleats on my skirt. Literally!

Tuesday September 2

Bonnie sent me to a Mr. Perkins. He taught me for 2 hours. I was freezing from the air conditioning after having been lost in the wet, humid steam bath for 1½.  He’s a tall big man, originally from Ohio, raised in Hawaii. Laughs out of the blue.  He publishes a system of teaching English.

I called the ASA Language School. I accepted the job. I need a home base. I hate this scrambling and hustling. With time, I hope to get more private hours but this will suffice and keep body and soul together.  How am I going to tell Mr. Perkins?  He gave me numbers, etc.  Will try to freelance in the school system.

At the onsen, where I’m staying temporarily, I keep getting the kimono caught in the sliding doors. I am such a klutz.

Observations:  On the subway, when  a child wants to sit up on the seat looking out, the mother takes off the child’s shoes and places it neatly on the floor beneath the bench.

Sunday, September 7

Went to see SANKEI JUKU yesterday, outside of Tokyo. Took the bullet train. They are the weirdest group I have ever seen in my life.  A bit pretentious but novel.  They performed in a cave!  Large eggs and a pool on stage and people moving so slowly that it seems non-human in outfits made out of a Mary McFadden type of material. They climb up sheer walls.

January 12

FINGERPRINTING – I went to the Word Office to change an item in my Alien Registration because I had finally gotten my Work Visa – must go again when my passport is renewed. They asked me to have my fingerprint taken – I was taken aback and feigned “ignorance” – nervous giggles and a hundred “sorries” – I very chauvinistically said I was surprised because in Canada, only criminal or suspected criminals are fingerprinted. “But that’s ok, it’s not my country” nudge, nudge my political statement – as if they care – they’d rather have all of us out of here — we’re such a bother. 

Drunks – Well, I’ve seen it all – I think.  It was snowing when I left school tonight and everybody was hurrying to get home – although that’s not so unusual and they were the usual “drunks” in only their shoes and thing coats. How do they do it? I look like a member of Admiral Byrd’s expedition –  Nanook of the North – and they’re dressed for spring. So I’m on the subway and your “usual” common Japanese drunk roars into the car – first he was yelling something to his friend still on the platform – loud so everybody looks away, then he lurches, literally to a seat and proceeds to bang his head, hard, against the window, starting to fall asleep. Then he sways toward to the man sitting next to him who’s trying to read his paper. Every time he leans against the man, the man pushes him away. This happens several times. Then his head falls down to his knees and I’m thinking “Oh no, he’s going to throw up!” This is unusual for me because I’ve only seen them throw up on the platform. I find this all sad and funny at the same time. I catch the eye of an older Japanese man, who is atypically Japanese because he also starts to smirk and keeps looking at me. So I try to look away and not to burst out laughing. I’m also soaked (summer shoes as substitutes for boots are not a good idea!) Then, the guy just lurches forward, head first (the whole car heard it) and collapses on the floor but with one foot still up against the seat, trapping the man with the newspaper. By now people have to look. And there he is SPRAWLED on the floor.  I had a feeling he was throwing up and would choke, but I saw he was breathing. What do they say? God protects a drunk. The “smirker” signals to my side to get away. Mr. Newspaper is looking everywhere but at the drunk and pushes the trapping foot away, which drops like a dead weight. Then, still looking away and after seconds of hesitation, delicately steps over the drunk. There was also a couple beside me. She was obviously concerned but her male partner practically dragged her away and told her not to do anything – ignore it. Then I caught the eye of another gayjin. Of course we acknowledged each other. My stop was coming up so I got up – of course, earlier than usual. He said to me “you’re obviously new ‘to Tokyo’.” The drunk guy had also gotten up – leaving a little something on the floor.  New people coming on were interesting to watch as they spotted this “thing/blob” and quickly, agilely stepped around it.  Yuck! I nearly threw up myself.  Q: Are the pressures of life and work so bad that they do this?

January 13 

Our train is the best sideshow around.  Who needs a newspaper! Tonight, a labourer walked on with the construction pantaloon and the sock/boot with the toe, and a filthy blue trench coat – of course he sat across from me in between two men. It was a three-seater at the end of the car. Everybody rearranges themselves and he gets his packages in order. He crosses his arms across his chest and closes his eyes. He was so gnarled and wrinkly, I thought he was scrunching his face.  Then, apparently he wasn’t comfortable and the man next to him was shaking his leg so the scruff pushes his knee onto the other man and says something. Probably something like “stop it.” The man doesn’t react and like a signal EVERYBODY turns their eyes away – anywhere but at the man; when Meguro station came up, everybody jumped up with relief, just to get away from him. 

January 14 

Another drunk – sitting in my usual seat – with only his back on the seat, legs out

One of my Pink students tonight was a 42 year old woman lawyer – looking exactly as one would in Canada – smartly turned out, with it, lively and intelligent. The other woman, close to my age – I think I’ve had her before – a real ball of fire, vivacious, chunky, but in an exotic sexy way. All 3 of us are single. I had chosen a lesson to be taught but we got to talking, which is really what they like to do instead of a structured lesson. Talking about women, women’s roles and behaviour in Japan vs. North America.  

Surprise of the evening – lawyer tells me that she looks up to men, reveres their strength etc. I was sitting there with my mouth open. Here’s a woman who got a degree and started practicing law before it was even fashionable and acceptable in Canada – she did it in Japan and she holds these beliefs. The other woman was not surprised. After an explanation, the last comment was, “She’s a Japanese woman, that’s why!”  Well, we had a good time yacking it up and I tried to get in some expressions and idioms then, out of the “corner of my ear” so to speak, I hear from Melissa’s mouth (the teacher at the next table, a typical peppy New Yorker) say, “the expression is cruising chicks but if your mother asks you where you’ve been, don’t say ‘cruising chicks’”. After the lesson I asked her what that was all about (my family training allows me to hear other conversations while carrying one on myself.) She asked these guys what they did over the holidays and one said “hunting chicks!”  Apparently, that’s the expression they use in Japanese. 

The Japanese are extremely everything. They are honest, loyal, arrogant and yet humble. There are rules for everything and everybody and yet they can be so childlike and wacky that is at once both charming and disconcerting to a western observer.

As I said, I went to Japan for a new experience. I took a leave of absence from my teaching job. I cut off all financial ties, packed up two suitcases and went — with the name of a friend-of-a- friend and a place to stay temporarily. Within a month I was settled in an apartment and had more work than I could handle. I worked hard, played hard, walked hundreds of miles a day and in the and experienced stories that stay with me to today.

Living in Japan is easy – really. Just follow a few rules.

When I finally acquired an apartment I soon realized I was no longer in Canada. Within the first several months of living in my new home, two newspaper items caught my attention. In one, construction workers found an abandoned safe left out in the field. It had over a million dollars in cash. They handed in the money. Now — I know they would have gotten a ‘presento’ of some sort for that but imagine — If I’m not a suitcase of money was found in my house about to be demolished in both cases they return the money!

If you leave anything on the train – the subway — you’re only aggravated, never worried. It’s a bother but you’ll get back whatever you left behind. People were always forgetting stuff. Money, trumpets, hats …. You have to go to the end of the line, to the lost and found. They’ll find it documented in a huge log book. I mean huge — like something out of a wizard’s lab.

One morning, entering my local train station I found a ¥10,000 note on the ground. At that time, that would have been about 100 dollars. I picked it up and did what every resident of Japan did,  handed it to the station supervisor. I needed to go to work but the station master was having not of that. There is a process. Out came the huge leger. He entered all the information — name, numbers, etc. But by the time that was done, the person who had lost the money had called in. Of course he did. He knew it would be somewhere. So I was made to wait for the gentleman. Finally, he arrived. We did the usual courtesies — bowing, thanking, bowing, thanking. He was at a lost because I was a gaijin — a foreigner — and he was paralyzed. We finished and off I went. But I did not realize until the next day that he had breached cultural etiquette. When I arrived the next day, five employees ran out, formed a line and bowed to me. They were thanking me because the old man did not do that. They did that every day for 4 or 5 days. Finally, I tried to tell them that it was okay and that this was not necessary anymore. 

Letters from My Students:


I did my homework.  Please check my sheet

I’m looking forward to have your nice lesson and to listen your pretty sneeze too.

Thank you.

Dear Bruria

I am regretful for your retirement from ASA. But congratulations for your new job as a teacher in a university.

    If you are interested in Japan, especially in the situation of left wing of our country, please ask me to teach you.

I give you my card, please call me, in anytime.

Thank you for your kind teaching.

Good buy

… Dear our teacher …

   When I heard that a teacher in charge is you, I surprised, but I’m very happy. Because I like you very much!

   By the way. Were you came Canada, weren’t you? I heard that Canada is very beautiful country. There are few nature. There are not few nature in Tokyo, in Yokohama too. I have not visited foreign country yet. But someday I would like to go Canada.

   By the way, I went to movies on Saturday with my mother. We saw “Platoon”. We think we must not make war.

See you next day!=======================================================



“Frisbee Boy” emblazoned on one the attaché case of  a straight-looking conservative blue-suited businessman

T-SHIRTS on adults

Love Makes You Rounded Person

-Peanut Boy (with a picture of a nerd/Charlie Brown-type)

An Office and a Gentlemen


Beauty Shop name = “Hair and Make!”

Kitchen Store = “Home’s Kitchen Underwear”

                          “Peyton Place”

                          “Cecile Beaton”

                          “Way Out” … motte = Way Out But Classic

ITARIAN Restaurant

MISHIMA – the video/movie suddenly was not in the store – we had taken it out previously but gone! No explanation  head and shoulders up (afraid of mass seppuko?)


In a restaurant, if you order, “A regular salad”, you will get no response … but, if you say,

Regurar sarade, please” you will be understood.

CHRISTMAS is everywhere, with people singing “Jingaru Beru”endlessly  – the trimmings, the presents, the parties but….

At exactly 7:00 pm December 25th, everything comes down and Valentine trimmings and decorations go up

A single woman is compared to Christmas cake on the 26th of December.


Toto is a bus company in Japan.  When I said the name, a students laughed because ‘Toto’ is a toilet/plumbing company; she works “to To-to”….


Mishima – the video/movie – – we had taken it out the previous week but now gone!

When we asked for it, the clerk had a blank look; hands and shoulders up (trans = duh!)

Are they afraid of a rash of mass seppuku (hara kiri/disembowelment)?


People don’t look or stare – not even at a crying child (rare) or a crazy person (even rarer)…

However, they really do look but without moving a muscle and show no reaction, whatsoever

Eg. the homeless in Ikebukero

There are no handicapped people to be seen anywhere.

A friend’s business associate told us that his wife never goes out.  She is at home, full-time, with their blind son.

At one station, I did see a group of physically and mentally handicapped people, finally. Perhaps there was an institution nearby. But not one Japanese person acknowledged the fact. They rushed by as if they would get infected.


The teachers were taken through the bowels of the hotel to the party upstairs.  It was to prevent fraternizing and socializing with our students.  We’re forbidden, by contract, even if they are adults and often quite a bit older.  I suggested to Kobayashi-san that we should do it more boy/girl, etc.  There were guards, 2-way radios, stations being manned.  We could have had fun but they insisted on regimented fun.

Here’s the written agenda: 

9:32 – laugh

10:05 – clap

10:15 – applause

10:16 – applause again

People were getting emotional but it was so awkward.

We had flamenco dancers and an opera singer.  Apparently, last year, there were strippers on ice skates on an indoor skating rink.  The shatcho (CEO) was subdued.  He had on a shiny, lurex-type suit with wide blue velvet lapels.  There was some sort of ribbon decoration award below his left-hand side chest. We had decided that it was an agricultural prize of some sort.  (They’re such cows – especially her, the “Killer”, busting out of her kimono.)

Awards were being awarded with Wagnerian music in the background.  It was ‘tacky Bar Mitzvah-collides-with-the-Far-East’)

At one point, they asked the salaried monkeys (the teachers) to get on stage and sing White Christmas, while holding mini flashlights while 900 camera flashes went off.  It was meant to be the photo-op for the students to take home to put in their albums.  No emotional connection or involvement but they’ll always have that memory of being at a real, Western, Christmas gaijin party.

At the end we were literally herded off stage with guards surrounding, making sure no one strays off.

ASA Language School  there is a huge turnover of the ‘Front Companions’ … you have to look good and be young.


– at the Ana Hotel – a dining hall the size of a stadium; quietly elegant

-close to 100 people – 8-course Japanese/Chinese meal

-at our table, the men were on one side, the girls/ladies on the other so I rearranged them boy/girl/boy/girl; they were mortified and excited

-one guy started the process – a CPA!! Letting his hair down. His life is so restricted otherwise.

-the girls were all giggley and silly – they were grown-up mature women

-all glitzy with their furs, lace and rhinestones – farpitzed!!!

-taking pictures, trying to touch and hug – had been drinking.

Sachiko Uchida – a little lady, 55, crinkles her nose and laughs until she cries.  She lives alone.

Q (from a student):  Do you like koala bears?

A (from me): I think they look like Nakasone (the prime minister at the time).

Instantly they laughed then thought this was inappropriate and so they had to put their hands to their mouths to cover up the laughter.


-rooms by the minute

-some are discreetly hidden but some are built like Spanish haciendas or white Swiss Alp castles, or even Gingerbread house

-they have a side door and driveway where you can just drive through and get into the hotel without being seen.


– most schools have uniforms – blue or black – same shoes, same school bags, even their carry-all bags for personals

-HUGE, heavy leather school bags on the backs of little kids

-hats for summer – wear shorts – not bundled up in ‘cool’ weather – dress lightly by our standards = to toughen up

-little tiny kids starting nursery wear the exact same thing as their classmates = little hats, shorts, school bags, etc.

-out of school:  seemingly out of uniform – no, young kids look the same (as all over the world)

– boys very affected – slouched 

sarari men – will notice that even work colleagues have the same type of outfit eg. the same style of raincoat but a slightly different colour

-men go out drinking at night and most women stay at home (although a few more are working after marriage) – these women waste away – no social mixing but more and more are having a life outside the home – those with more money play tennis, join a health club…


– pictures of girls (like baseball cards) are strung up all over the inside – stating ‘particulars’ of each girl, etc. — also with a disclaimer that it’s not guaranteed the picture is accurate.

MEN – pee; pick their noses but won’t blow their noses; and spit.

WOMEN – shriek and giggle and scream KAWAI!!!!!! (CUTE!!!!!!!)

-school girls have a special shake of the hand = elbows in, wrist up and waving

-little (and older) girls will stay outside the train window, on the platform and will keep standing there, saying goodbye until the train leaves, sometimes even running along with the train and still waving

-grown up women = wear frills and bows and lace and frills and more bows…like kewpie dolls

Fashions are so cute, to the point of being nauseating.

Black is the colour

BASIC COLOURS– black, blue, grey and white

Walking along, saw some teenagers camped out along the walls of a department store when I passed by at 10:00 pm – all getting ready to settle in for the night, obviously waiting in line for tickets that were being sold the next day.  All were clean and neat and brought their own cardboard boxes with plastic bags inside to be used as garbage pails

APPLIANCES – hot pink or purple with a picture of Snoopy, Strawberry Shortcake – compact, neat, fold up, in and out of the way.

PACKAGINGof goods/presents = work of art, from the smallest trinket up.

DELIVERY & SERVICE – punctual! And if anything is missing, it is fixed and rectified immediately – friend had a wall until delivered…one nail was missing. The next day, two men arrived with the nail, bowing and apologizing.

TRANSPORTATION – punctual; colour coordinated; stop at exactly the place it is supposed to stop.

Am I still in Kansas City, Toto? A Japanese student teacher at NLRI came up to me and asked me if I were going to the Hanukkah party.  I looked around to see who she was talking to, pointing to my nose – in true Japanese fashion – asking her if she meant me.  She had been in Israel 7 years before and was, presently, in an Ulpan programme in Tokyo. She would be making aliya to Israel and will be teaching Japanese.  I asked her if she was Jewish and why? No real answer given.


Construction companies cover cars on the streets if they are close to the site and will get dirty.

I’m standing in the shower. I start to soap down when I catch something out of the corner of my eye. I look down and see an insect – a beetle? a cockroach? – at least a foot long! I grabbed the shower head. It was me against this creature.  He’s fighting, doing the breast stroke, the back stroke, anything to save himself.  Periodically, I was able to pound him with my shower weapon but movement was awfully restricted, considering I was standing with my western and overweight body in a Japanese sized shower stall.  Beetle = 1, Me = 0.  

Walking home one night, I felt something on my neck. As I reached to see what it was, I caught a ‘thing’ in my hand and without thinking, I look down. It was that ‘creature’ I had tried to kill in my shower. I gave out a gevalt right there on the street! This is why the Japanese are uncomfortable with us. BTW: There is never a threat from a mugger — no matter what time — only these alien flying cockroaches. In time, they became part of the landscape, to be tolerated. 

BESHO ONSEN– cold! Owner wearing a sweater with ‘Lindbergh Sports’ emblazoned on the front; I wanted to buy it.

Language – change even one sound or one inflection and there is no way they know what you’re talking about.

VOLCANO eruption – all left, left their cars with the keys inside for the rescuers; banks of phones set up for the victims.

Met the head sensei on the train, She kept repeating Shinjuku the whole time (that’s where I worked with her) because she knew no English. It was sweet that she wanted to make some connection.

BOWING – ostrich; degrees; getting up; at a urinal

JAPANESE ENGLISH – v becomes b; r = l; s = sh

My name, Lindenberg became Rindenbagu ….

SOUNDS – when men are contemplating something or avoiding whatever it is that is making them uncomfortable, they tilt their head and suck in through their teeth, emitting an sissssssing noise.

My Japanese language teachers despair of me and laugh when they turn to ask me something.

On the outside, the Japanese are robots —  first nationalistic; then for the company then family

SUMO WRESTLING — I wanted to visit a sumo dojo and somehow got to see a sumo initiation. It was fascinating. Imagine men, each the size of a car, delicately going through the moves, accepting their belts. Everybody ignored me. I think it was because they didn’t know what to do so it was easier. And I left peacefully anyway. 

ALWAYS ASKED TO GO SOMEWHERE — Because I was a gaijin — revered and honoured — people invited me everywhere. Imagine walking in with a ‘foreigner’ by your side. It was a kind of trophy. Good for them, good for me because I got to experience the cultural side of Japan that was never seen by tourists. 

TOILETS vs SQUATTING – Japanese used to squat over the hole … now if you go into a public toilet there is a picture of how to use the new Western toilet…one picture shows the ‘forbidden’ red x over a stick person standing on top of a toilet seat…


  I lived and taught in Japan for over five years.  The cultural encounters will never leave me.  Unlike most of the so-called English instructors, I came as a certified and experienced teacher and so I worked in the more academic schools.  

One day, as happened on a regular basis, I was reminded of our distinct and different outlooks. The previous day’s assignment was “My Dream House.”  My students were asked to write a one-page essay on the topic, along with a floor plan depicting this fantasy. As well, they were expected to get up in front of the class and describe it, in their own words. “Go wild!”  I told them.  I even gave them my own example of a dream home: 20 rooms, pools, tennis courts, everything one could imagine. One by one, they got up and regaled us with what they thought was the ultimate in luxury. In actuality, each one described a dwelling not that much different from what they had already had.  At most they envisioned a 6-room house. Only one person had a pool. I was amazed. Then the last student got up and started to describe something that was closer to the North American fantasy. Until his closing statement:  

“I would have to give away my small dog and get a larger dog to fit in with this house.”

It dawned on me how markedly opposite was this society.  Their perception of space and its utility was so markedly opposite to our western notion and that despite their technological advances, their lives could only accommodate a lifestyle suited to their environment.  Their weltanschauung was, out of necessity, about accommodation, not excess.  They were not poor, by a long stretch.  And yet, they were always aware of their place within their society.  A lesson for us all. 

*    *    *



Early settlements

It was not until 1853, with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry following the Convention of Kanagawa ending Japan’s “closed-door” foreign policy that Jewish families began to settle in Japan. The first recorded Jewish settlers arrived at Yokohama in 1861. By 1895 this community, which by then consisted of about 50 families, established the first synagogue in Japan. Part of this community would later move to Kobe after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923.

Another early Jewish settlement was one established in the 1880s in Nagasaki, a large Japanese port city opened to foreign trade by the Portuguese. This community was larger than the one in Yokohama, consisting of more than 100 families. It was here that the Beth Israel Synagogue was created in 1894. The settlement would continually grow and remain active until it eventually declined by the Russo-Japanese War in the early 20th century. The community’s Torah scroll would eventually be passed down to the Jews of Kobe, a group formed of freed Russian Jewish war prisoners that had participated in the Czar‘s army and the Russian Revolution of 1905.

Nazi Alliance

On December 6, 1938, Five ministers council (Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, Army Minister Seishirō Itagaki, Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai, Foreign Minister Hachirō Arita and Finance Minister Shigeaki Ikeda), which was the highest decision making council, made a decision of prohibiting the expulsion of the Jews in Japan.

During World War II, Japan was regarded as a safe refuge from the Holocaust, despite being a part of the Axis and an ally of Germany. Jews trying to escape German-occupied Poland could not pass the blockades near the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean Sea and were forced to go through the neutral country of Lithuania (which was occupied by belligerents in June 1940, starting with the Soviet Union, then Germany, and then the Soviet Union again).

During World War II, Japan was regarded as a safe refuge from the Holocaust, despite being a part of the Axis and an ally of Germany. Jews trying to escape German-occupied Poland could not pass the blockades near the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean Sea and were forced to go through the neutral country of Lithuania (which was occupied by belligerents in June 1940, starting with the Soviet Union, then Germany, and then the Soviet Union again).

Of those who arrived, many (around 5,000) were sent to the Dutch West Indies with Japanese visas issued by Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania. Sugihara ignored his orders and gave thousands of Jews entry visas to Japan, risking his career and saving more than 6,000 lives. Sugihara is said to have cooperated with Polish intelligence, as part of a bigger Japanese-Polish cooperative plan.[6] They managed to flee across the vast territory of Russia by train to Vladivostok and then by boat to Kobe in Japan. The refugees, 2,185 in number, arrived in Japan from August 1940 to June 1941. Tadeusz Romer, the Polish ambassador in Tokyo, had managed to get transit visas in Japan, asylum visas to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Burma, immigration certificates to Palestine, and immigrant visas to the United States and some Latin American countries. Most Jews were permitted and encouraged to move on from Japan to the Shanghai Ghetto, China, under Japanese occupation for the duration of World War II. Finally, Tadeusz Romer arrived in Shanghai on November 1, 1941, to continue the action for Jewish refugees.[7] Among those saved in the Shanghai Ghetto were leaders and students of Mir yeshiva, the only European yeshiva to survive the Holocaust. They, some 400 in number, fled from Mir to Vilna with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, and then to Keidan, Lithuania. In late 1940, they obtained visas from Chiune Sugihara, to travel from Keidan, then Lithuanian SSR, via Siberia and Vladivostok to Kobe, Japan.[8] By November 1941 the Japanese moved this group and most of others on to the Shanghai Ghetto in order to consolidate the Jews under their control.[9]

Throughout the war, the Japanese government continually rejected requests from the German government to establish anti-Semitic policies. Towards the end, Nazi representatives pressured the Japanese army to devise a plan to exterminate Shanghai’s Jewish population, and this pressure eventually became known to the Jewish community’s leadership. However, the Japanese had no intention of further provoking the anger of the Allies, and thus delayed the German request for a time, eventually rejecting it entirely.

One famous Orthodox Jewish institution that was saved this way was the Lithuanian Haredi Mir yeshiva. The Japanese government and people offered the Jews temporary shelter, medical services, food, transportation, and gifts, but preferred that they move on to reside in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

At war’s end, about half of the Jews who had been in Japanese-controlled territories later moved on to the Western hemisphere (such as the United States and Canada) and the remainder moved to other parts of the world, mainly to Israel.

Since the 1920s there have been occasional events and statements reflecting antisemitism in Japan,[10] generally promoted by fringe elements and tabloid newspapers.

Jews and Judaism in modern Japan

After World War II, a large portion of the few Jews that were in Japan left, many going to what would become Israel. Some of those who remained married locals and were assimilated into Japanese society.

The Israeli Embassy and its staff is based in Tokyo. Presently, there are several hundred Jewish families living in Tokyo, and a small number of Jewish families in and around Kobe. A small number of Jewish expatriates of other countries live throughout Japan, temporarily, for business, research, a gap year, or a variety of other purposes. There are always Jewish members of the United States Armed Forces serving on Okinawa and in the other American military bases throughout Japan.

There are community centers serving Jewish communities in Tokyo and Kobe. The Chabad-Lubavitch organization has one official center in Tokyo, and an additional Chabad house — each one claiming to be the ‘official’ rabbi.

NB: *There are various sources — both academic and anecdotal — on Jews and Japan.