Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Jews in the Japanese Mind:
The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype. By David G. Goodman and Masanori Miyazawa

Free Press. 360 pp. $24.95

Given the lack of Jews in Japan, “Japanese anti-Semitism” and “Japanese philo-Semitism” may sound like the oxymorons in a koan , the baffling, “sound-of-one-hand-clapping” type of riddle that Japan’s ancient Zen masters posed to their disciples. But the Japanese seem to have developed a horror and fascination with the Jews on a par with the strongest European traditions, and a surprising number of Japanese seem to enter political, economic, and intellectual life with Jews on the brain. 

I discovered this shortly after starting work in Tokyo. With the Gulf War renewing Japanese interest in Israel, my company’s employee union sponsored a lecture with the provocative title “The Jewish Mind and the Japanese Mind.” As it turned out, the featured speaker, Jack Halpern, has made this topic part of his stock-in-trade of an active lecturing schedule and a substantial output of Japanese-language books; as the son of Holocaust survivors, and a former Brooklyn yeshivah student and Israeli Kibbutznik, the twenty-year resident of Japan is well known for his efforts to bridge the Jewish and Japanese cultures. What made this particular gathering weirdly impressive was that most of the employees in attendance already had a tremendous respect for “the Jews” in an abstract sense. Moreover, as Halpern himself implicitly acknowledged in his speech, they were there with a very specific question in mind: What must we Japanese do to achieve the same level of international adaptability and business acumen as you Jews?

About four months later, I was introduced to the nasty side of the Japanese fascination with Jews. A coworker took me to a private estate for an exhibition of netsuke , the elaborately hand-carved traditional miniatures. Sipping tea in the rear garden, as the zithery sounds of a koto floated in the background, my coworker and I discussed the exhibition and the state of the art business with an organizer of the exhibition-who promptly blamed “that cabal of Jews who’ve bought up the stockmarket on the cheap” for the nation’s economic strain then beginning to tell in sluggish fine-art sales.

These two images-of Jews as a race of exemplary, internationalist cultural and business leaders, and of Jews as a malevolent, grasping menace to Japan-have continued to pop up in their media as the Japanese flail about for a way to get their economy out of irons and their society back on an even keel. Occasionally, the images actually appear linked in the same “expose.” But why the Jews?

Jews in the Japanese Mind offers some highly insightful, if disturbing, answers. David Goodman, a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Illinois, and Masanori Miyazawa, a professor of history at Doshisha Women’s College in Kyoto, have produced a work of cultural history that is meticulously researched, lucidly written, and scrupulously forthright.

Both Japanese anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism, the authors argue, spring from Japan’s strong feelings of “insecurity and anomie” in the modern world. Compounding the problem is the reluctance of many Japanese to come to grips with the powerful xenophobic chauvinism that has long been intertwined with their sense of ethnic nationalism. Japan has had next to no Jewish population, but for over a century these cultural demons have driven the “various constituencies [that] have used images of the Jews for their particular purposes.”

The result of this obsession with the Jews, Goodman and Miyazawa contend, is a nation that is morally, intellectually, and politically “hobbled” in the international arena. One symptom of this obsession is the ready consumption by many Japanese of vast amounts of foreign misinformation about Jews. But the Japanese have also been extraordinarily adept at inventing their own quack theories about the Jews. The authors emphasize that disabusing the Japanese of their illusory notions first requires recognizing “the diversity, continuity, intensity, and specific content of Japanese interest in the Jews.”

Scholars such as Robert Wistrich have characterized the anti-Semitic phenomenon in America, Europe, and the Middle East as a “miasma of nightmarish paranoia, millennial fantasy, homicidal hatred, and sheer political cynicism.” Though actual violence has never been an element, Japanese anti-Semitism largely fits this formula.

Goodman and Miyazawa point out that “nightmarish paranoia” about Japan’s supposed vulnerability to foreign subjugation has repeatedly emerged from the shadows in Japanese history, often with colossal vigor. This alarmist mindset has its roots in the wide assortment of anti-foreigner, anti-Christian polemics that appeared during Japan’s wary reopening to the West in the mid-nineteenth century. The authors also provocatively observe that a tendency toward “millennial fantasy” among some Japanese frequently encourages paranoid thinking. Typically, the combination of these two elements yields a profusion of anti-Semitism. Paradoxically, though, the same combination has yielded the singular philo-Semitic tradition in Japan as well.

Their exposure to Western anti-Jewish stereotypes notwithstanding, a number of turn-of-the-century Japanese converts were determined to forge a Christianity with a uniquely Japanese identity, and promulgated a uniquely daft form of philo-Semitism. In extravagant interpretations of Scripture and archeological evidence, these clergymen found confirmation of their “millennial fantasy” that the Jews and the Japanese were a fraternal “holy people” with a shared mission to usher in Christ’s second coming. (Several present-day quasi-Christian sects in Japan echo this doctrine.) On an entirely different level, historical developments, particularly financier Jacob Schiff’s fervent fundraising on behalf of Japan during the Russo-Japanese War, contributed to a fascination with what seemed to be the Jews’ astounding business talents and powerful worldwide networks.

Virulent anti-Semitism regained its momentum, however, in a vicious xenophobic form with the translation and dissemination of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Japanese army officers after World War I. The grotesque appeal of this book has never waned in Japan, and for the last ten years variations on its themes have topped Japanese best-seller lists. As Goodman and Miyazawa point out, early editions of The Protocols had a phenomenal effect on vast segments of Japan’s intelligentsia: on the one hand, they stoked the paranoia of ultranationalist right-wingers; and, perhaps more ominously for the fate of pluralism and freedom of conscience in pre-World War II Japan, the book transformed many fervent Marxist activists and philo-Semitic Christian thinkers into rabid anti-Semites and added them to the ranks of the right-wingers.

Goodman and Miyazawa agree that “sheer political cynicism” underlay Imperial Japan’s use of this groundswell of anti-Semitism as its armies bid for mastery of Asia. As far as the Japanese government was concerned, “The real significance of anti-Semitism . . . was its usefulness in formulating and maintaining Japanese nationalist ideology and not in facilitating the persecution of Jews.” By no means were Japan’s leaders prosecuting the war to satisfy any “homicidal hatred” of the Jews, regardless of the Nazi-inspired propaganda they actively employed. On the contrary, the Japanese made strenuous efforts to coax Jews in Asia into joining the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere as willing subjects. Part of the government’s aim in this instance was to prove to a domestic audience that the “Imperial Way of Universal Brotherhood” had inexorable appeal (to anyone without Anglo-Saxon bloodlines). Japanese leaders also staked their hopes, as Hebrew University historian Ben-Ami Shillony has noted in The Jews and the Japanese , on the chimerical Schiff-era notion that Asian Jewry could potentially offer Japan a wealth of connections to global trade and finance.

The wrenching national trauma accompanying Japan’s defeat and occupation in 1945 not only enlarged the range of images of Jews in Japan but also added to the dimensions of their use in ways that still exert a profound effect on Japanese political and cultural life. On the one hand, revelation of the Holocaust stripped away much of the anti-Semitic imagery that had surrounded Jews in the Japanese mind. For “the first time the Japanese truly encountered the Jews as historical beings . . . achiev[ing] an unprecedented level of understanding and a degree of sympathy with the Jews that compares well with European countries.” On the other hand, many Japanese eagerly seized on Holocaust-related themes of victimization and brutalization “as a means to obscure their wartime role and exculpate themselves” by posing as comrades in suffering with the Jews. One example of this tendency toward “obfuscation and denial” is the ongoing Japanese effort to equate the atomic bombings with the Holocaust.

Goodman and Miyazawa go on to explore the anti-Zionism embraced by Japan’s deluded left in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the concomitant moral blindness that led mainstream politicians, obsessed with the economy, to dance to OPEC’s anti-Israel tune even as late as the Gulf War. The authors also perceptively place the recent resurrection of what Judaica scholar Yoshito Takigawa terms “page-three, crime story-style” anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the context of a resurgent nationalism and frustrating “rich corporation-poor worker” conditions that have prevailed in Japan since the 1980s.

This generally excellent volume does have one possibly important shortcoming. Goodman and Miyazawa describe anti-Semitism as “an eruption of the darkness in modern Japanese history . . . a malign version of the basic patterns of Japanese culture.” At a cultural level, however, this does not seem to account for the volte-face of hundreds of prewar intellectuals from Marxism and philo-Semitism to nationalistic anti-Semitism. How is it that patently inconsistent stereotypes of Jews are often juxtaposed in the same writings? What the authors ought to have done is depart from a historical examination of what the Jews are in the Japanese mind and offer some analysis of why the Japanese mind might function as it does in relation to the Jews.

Japanese political scientist Masao Maruyama (briefly cited by Goodman and Miyazawa) offers some helpful insights in his landmark treatise Nihon no Shiso (Japanese Thought). Maruyama asserts that the Japanese intellect is a voluminous repository of ideas and traditions (both indigenous and imported) in which everything is maintained and expressed in the form it was initially received; the validity of one concept is never tested against another, and no idea or tradition hybridizes with another. The prewar changeover from Marxism to nationalism, in his view, exemplifies not only how the Japanese mind maintains a host of unadulterated philosophies, but also how unpredictably each can emerge or recede.

Jews in the Japanese Mind hints, then, at a deeper volatility in Japan’s culture, one with important implications for America’s relations with Japan. Undoubtedly, as the political analysts Richard Samuels and Michael Green suggest, “it is in the interest of the United States to appreciate that the debate between insularity and integration will continue to grip Japan.” But appreciation will not be enough. As Goodman and Miyazawa indicate, if the U.S. really wants to “encourage and stimulate Japan’s transformation,” it has to both understand and refuse to condone the dark places in the Japanese mind.

Daniel L. Alexander is a Research Associate at the Human Resources Policy Institute, Boston University School of Management. He was previously a personnel administrator for a major Japanese corporation.