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Anti-Semitism in Japan: It’s a Mystery and a Dangerous Absurdity

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History has taught us to associate anti-Semitism with threats, discrimination or violence against the Jewish people. Throughout the ages--from the Crusades to the Inquisition, and the 20th-Century Nazi Holocaust--Jews have been the targets of well-organized hate campaigns, often designed by charismatic leaders who ignited deep-seated religious, cultural and political prejudices of the masses.

But how to account for serious anti-Semitism in a country with virtually no Jews or history of physical abuse against the 400 or so Jewish inhabitants? How to explain the scapegoating of Jews for real and imagined problems in a society that venerates cultural achievement, pursuit of knowledge and a 99% literacy rate?

Yet Japan, a nation of 120 million citizens that has emerged in the 1980s as the economic power--has experienced an explosion of popular anti-Semitic works in the past three years that have gone virtually unchallenged by Japanese intelligentsia, the government or the media. Last year alone more than 1% of all books sold in Japan had themes blaming international Jewish conspiracies for a variety of the world’s ills, from the overvalued yen to an alleged cover-up of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. One author, Masami Uno, who professes to be a fundamentalist Christian minister, has sold more than 1.5 million volumes of his works, including “If You Understand the Jew--You Will Understand the World,” and “If You Understand the Jew--You Will Understand Japan.”

About 90 other titles have “educated” their average readers--middle-and high-ranking company employees--further about Jews. A new hard-cover bestseller that I bought in Tokyo’s largest bookstore is by an outspoken anti-nuclear critic, Takashi Hirose. He reveals to his readers that industrialist Armand Hammer is actually a pro-Israel agent who heads up a “shadow network” that worked to hush up the extent of the Chernobyl nuclear accident even as he conspired to cash in on the catastrophe by manipulating international food supplies, which--you guessed it--are also controlled by Jews. Another popular book erroneously reveals who the “Jews” are in America who control so much of the world’s wealth: the Rockefellers, Du Ponts, Morgans and Mellons! Jews, Japanese readers are told, are plotting an economic collapse for 1990 designed to cripple Japan’s economic ascendancy. Other Jews are said to be plotting World War III because they believe that it will hasten the coming of the Messiah.

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Why the Jews? Clearly, extremists in the Arab world who have been promoting these transmuted classic Christian and czarist anti-Semitic themes abroad serve as a source of inspiration and information; there is an overwhelming fear of a potential Arab-inspired oil boycott. But while this may explain Japan’s almost slavish adherence to the Arab boycott of Israel and perhaps partly account for the presence of these themes, it cannot explain their popularity.

Everyone I spoke to in Japan had his own theory. A Foreign Ministry official dismissed the anti-Semitic thrust of these books, asserting that many Japanese look for “conspiracies” to explain past events and to project future scenarios. Further, some academicians and media experts sought to reassure me that Japanese readers are well-educated and very cynical and “surely dismiss these ridiculous notions even as they toss the used paperbacks into the garbage.”

But others aren’t so sure. They see anti-Semitism as a function of deteriorating relations with America and resurgent Japanese nationalism. “You can’t automatically dismiss these books,” said one member of Tokyo’s Jewish community. “Japan is a democracy, and one cannot discount the potential impact that popularly circulated ideas can have on public opinion and policy.”

Clearly, continued silence on this problem will affect Japan in numerous ways.

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First, it cannot fail to have an adverse effect on Japan’s image in the United States. Numerous trade delegations here have heard complaints from American politicians whose Jewish constituents are befuddled and angered by this unexpected source of Jew-baiting.

Second, this all comes at a rather indelicate time for the government of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, which has embarked on a more aggressive and hands-on approach to foreign relations. This month Israel will host, for the first time ever, a senior Japanese official, Foreign Minister Sosuke Uno. He is visiting countries in the Middle East to urge Arabs and Israelis to move toward peace. A noble goal, yet Japan’s silence on the anti-Semitism question sends the wrong signal to hard-line Arab rejectionists like Syria’s Defense Minister Mustafa Talas, who authored and published numerous anti-Semitic books--including a recent translation of Henry Ford’s notorious “The International Jew.”

But perhaps the greatest effect will be on the Japanese people themselves. Prof. Takeshi Muramatsu, a noted literary critic who has written about the roots of 20th-Century anti-Semitism in Japan, has these words for his countrymen: “This country was, of course, an ally of Nazi Germany during the last war, and as a result even now is regarded with suspicion by many in the international community. These anti-Japanese feelings will only be fanned by the publication of such irresponsible writings. As long as many Japanese continue to harbor absurd views of the Jewish people, there is no way the world is going to be seen ‘clearly’ by us . . . can we afford not to?”


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