A brief history of the Jewish community in Tokyo

Some of my happiest memories from my childhood growing up in Tokyo were of Shabbat morning services at the Jewish Community Center (JCC). The four or five years I spent going to the JCC starting from sometime in 1980 when I was 5 years old, until the summer of 1985 when our family moved to Palo Alto, California, has stayed with me to this day. What follows is a brief history of this particular community, largely pieced together from personal recollections and various online resources, including the amazing online archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).

Even though Tokyo now has the biggest population of Jews (and foreigners generally) in Japan, there were few Jews and little organized Jewish life in Tokyo until after World War II. Two historical developments acutely increased Jewish presence in Tokyo: the American occupation of Japan and the Chinese Civil War.

The American occupation of Japan following the end of World War II led to a large number of American servicemen living in Japan. By late 1945, 430,000 of General MacArthur’s troops were garrisoned across Japan, two-thirds of them flooding the Tokyo-Yokohama area. Even after the American occupation ended, the Korean War kept many American soldiers in the country. Within the GIs were a small number of Jews, together with Jewish chaplains to cater to their spiritual needs.

The Chinese Civil war, which started almost as soon as WW II was over, ended with the victory of the Red Army led by Mao Zedong in 1949. Since the early 20th century, there had been Russian Jews who has escaped to China, primarily in Harbin, fleeing from pogroms and the Bolshevik revolution. Although many of them went on to greener pastures from there, a significant number stayed in China through the close of World War II. However, Mao’s victory proved to be the final straw and essentially all of the remaining Russian Jews left China at that point. Some went to the U.S., some went to the newly emerging State of Israel, and some went further east to Japan and settled in Tokyo.

The Tokyo JCC was originally established as an informal social club in 1951 that catered primarily to the Russian Jews newly transplanted from China. The organization became affiliated with the World Jewish Congress in March 1953, and a few months later in May, a permanent community center was opened in the presence of Prince Mikasa, brother of then-Emperor Hirohito, a scholar of Middle Eastern Studies and Semitic languages and a known philo-Semite. A fascinating account by a visiting American of a 1953 Hannukah party in Tokyo, providing a snapshot of the local Jewish “scene” at the time, including Prince Mikasa and the Russian Jews from Harbin, can be found here. While the “Russian” club had some instructional programming for children, much of the religious program, including services, were provide mainly by the Jewish Chaplains serving the U.S. armed forces. The JCC only became a full-service religious institution in 1968, when a synagogue and a mikva were added to the existing facilities, with Rabbi Marvin Tokayer serving as full-time rabbi.

The original JCC was located in a Japanese-style villa compound whose previous occupant was an American general. My family started coming to the JCC in 1980, just before the compound was torn down. I have only a vague recollection of the original mansion as I only spent a few months there when I was all of 5 years old. However, my father remembers it fondly, describing it as “what a British gentleman’s club would have looked like had it been built in Japan”. There was large graveled approach/driveway to the entrance of the main building, which was a massive wooden construction built in a Japanese/Western fusion style. This building housed large rooms with dark wooden paneling and Asian/Japanese design motifs. The grounds also had a garden and a pool, as well as a separate house that served as the rabbi’s residence. After this compound was torn down, half the land was sold to endow a modern 3-story brick-façade building built on the remaining lot. The new building included a reconstruction of two rooms from the old mansion, a pool, a kitchen, function rooms, offices, classrooms, a synagogue, and a rabbi’s residence. However, the rabbi’s residence became an apartment within the building and the garden was lost.

This building is what I remember best. The old Russians who still formed much of the JCC leadership back then were still there, together with the various young Americans, Europeans and Israelis who ended up in Tokyo for a variety of reasons: to study Japanese, train in martial arts, live it up as an expat banker, or teach English. There were very few other kids who came for Shabbat, but despite the lack of playmates, my brother and I thought that the visits were great fun. With the exception of the reading of the weekly Torah portion, we were free to play throughout the building. We could play with a pool table or a checkers set in the game room, or we could make pillow forts with sofa cushions in the library. The emergency stairwells, the unused social hall, the empty Sunday school classrooms, the pool area and dressing rooms, and even the spooky unlit mikva room (if someone forgot to lock the door) became places to explore.

The Tokyo Jewish community has kept on changing and evolving. I was back in the same building again as an adult for almost two years again in the late 90’s when I became one of the expat regulars that I dutifully ignored as a child. While the building stayed the same, the people were almost completely different. The turnover in the community was always strong, with the vast majority of the expats never staying more than a few years. There were a small handful of old regulars among the members and the staff, but the old Harbin Russians were gone without a trace.

In addtion, while the Tokyo JCC was a singular source of organized Jewish life in Tokyo for almost 50 years since its founding, community organization has since fragmented. Two separate Chabad Houses (link and link) began operations in 1999 and 2000, respectively, and the diverting of the small number of Orthodox members allowed the less traditional members to press for the religious services at the JCC to become more progressive. While the services in the synagogue were traditionally run in an Orthodox-friendly style, with men’s, women’s and mixed seating, and only men being called up to the bimah, the services at the JCC are now fully egalitarian. In addition, the “new” JCC building that I grew up in was torn down and a yet newer building was opened in 2009. One can only wonder what changes the next 50 years will bring.

*A request to the readers: I’m looking for photographs of the original 1953-1980 compound. As far as Google can tell me, there are none to be found online. If any of the readers have photographs from that time, please email me a copy to ken.hartman [at] gmail [dot] com and I will be happy to post them in this article.


About the Author
Grew up biracial (white/Asian) and tricultural (American/Japanese/Jewish), mostly in Tokyo and Palo Alto. Made Aliyah in October 2011 along with his loving wife and two adorable daughters. Passionate about intellectual property (he's a registered U.S. patent agent working at AC Entis IP), the Israeli tech scene and Israel-Japan relations.