Trying to bridge a cultural gap “as wide as the Grand Canyon” between Japanese and Jews, a leading Tokyo publishing house and the Simon Wiesenthal Center recently conducts an unprecedented seminar on the Holocaust.
The three-day session in the Japanese capital last week was organized by the respected Bungei Shunju publishers for 120 of its editors and reporters.
The goals were to eliminate stereotypes and offer a kind of penance for the Holocaust-denial article carried by one of its magazines in February, according to organizers.
In using the “Grand Canyon” analogy, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center and the seminar leader, said he was challenged not only by Japanese misunderstanding of the Holocaust, but of the Jewish people in general.
Although there are only 2,000 Jews in Japan, and few Japanese have ever met a Jew, there is a thriving cottage industry in anti-Semitic books and articles in the country.
Some of the attacks hark back to medieval stereotypes, but the main emphasis is on alleged international Jewish plots to dominate and destroy the Japanese economy.
Even more ominously, the Aum Supreme Truth religious sect, accused of perpetrating poison gas attacks in Tokyo subways in March, venerates Hitler and uses his writings in its schools, the Los Angeles Times recently reported.
Cooper said even though he had been warned that there would be an excessive amount of politeness at the conference, he and his colleagues were faced by some very blunt questions.
Part of the discussion arose out of a widespread Japanese assumption that is any conflict, both sides must bear some of the blame, Cooper said.
For instance, one editor, Hiroaki Shimazu, wondered whether given their long history of victimization, the Jews themselves did not bear some of the responsibility for their fate.
Rabbi Daniel Landes, national education director for the Wiesenthal Center, responded that the assumption was similar to blaming a woman who has been raped because “she asked for it.”
Shimazu also challenged Jews and Japanese to reveal their flaws to each other as the basis for future friendship. He cited the belief of some of his countrymen that Jews consider themselves superior to others as the “chosen people.”
Cooper said the seminar confirmed his belief that Japanese attitudes toward Jews are marked by contradictions.
He recalled that during his first trip to Tokyo 10 years ago, he went to a bookstore and picked up two popular volumes, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” exposed long ago as a crude anti-Semitic forgery, and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which has sold 5 million copies in Japan.
Both books were published at the time by Bungei, which hosted and underwrote last week’s seminar.
The lead-up to the seminar began when Bungei’s glossy monthly magazine Marco Polo published a 10-page article, with an editorial endorsement, denying the existence of gas chambers and the mass killing of Jews at Auschwitz.
The Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee filed strong protests and Cooper called for an immediate — and high successful — advertising boycott of the magazine.
Within a week, Kengo Tanaka, Bungei’s president and CEO, announced that he was shutting down Marco Polo and withdrawing all unsold copies.
At the time, Tanaka acknowledged his company’s “overall lack of understanding” of the Holocaust.
He promised that “we will do everything in our power to educate ourselves and our readers in Japan about the tragic history of injustice and suffering endured by the Jewish people.”
Within a few weeks, Bungei plans to send 10 of its top executives to Los Angeles to visit the Wiesenthal Center.
Other non-Jewish groups are also making strides to promote understanding.
On June 18, the Japanese Christian Friends of Israel will open the doors of a Holocaust education center and museum in Fukuyama. The museum is believed to be the first tribute of its kind in Japan.
Dedicated to the memory of the 1.5 million child victims of the Nazi massacres, the museum will contain a photographic record of the Holocaust, along with original artifacts from concentration camps.
“We think it’s a very positive step,” said Cooper of the museum.
The group’s mission is not an easy one, he added.
“Judeo-Christian values do not have mainstream status in Japanese society,” he said.