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A Prince Among the Jews

Japan’s Imperial Prince Takahito Mikasa—scholar, patron, pacifist, Hebrew-speaker—turns 100 today

Menachem Butler
December 02, 2015
The Japan Times, Courtesy Rabbi Marvin Tokayer
The Japan Times, Courtesy Rabbi Marvin Tokayer
The Japan Times, Courtesy Rabbi Marvin Tokayer
The Japan Times, Courtesy Rabbi Marvin Tokayer

Prince Takahito Mikasa, the oldest living member of the Imperial House of Japan and uncle of the current emperor of Japan, turns 100 today, Dec. 2, 2015. At the age of 20, Prince Mikasa received authorization from his older brother, Emperor Hirohito, to form a new branch of the Imperial Family, essentially emancipating him from the formal duties of the court. (The Imperial House of Japan is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world.) Since then, Prince Mikasa has immersed himself in scholarly works related to Near Eastern civilization, in the course of which he became a frequent visitor to Jewish communal events in Tokyo and reportedly learned to speak perfect Hebrew. (No celebrations are planned for his centennial, “due to concern with his age.”)

While serving as a junior cavalry officer in the Japanese army during World War II, Prince Mikasa was posted to China, where—as Masao Mori wrote in the preface to a 1991 Festschrift for the prince—he encountered (and was impressed by) the “zeal and devotion of the Christian missionaries from the West, who worked deep in the isolated regions of China,” as well as “the rigorous military discipline shown by the Communist army of China and their intense passion for the revolutionary cause. Since then, Prince Mikasa became extremely interested in the source of such devoted passions.”

Prince Mikasa’s interest in devotion never waned. His Imperial Highness, the honorific commonly used to refer to Prince Mikasa, became a frequent visitor to Jewish communal events around Tokyo over the past half-century. In a 1953 essay, prominent American Reform Rabbi Arnold J. Wolf remembers how Prince Mikasa delivered remarks at a Hanukkah reception at the Allied Forces’ Tokyo Chapel Center, attacking those who believe the “superstitious belief of many Japanese in the audience that their people was descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. He deplored the theories,” Wolf continues, “common here, that the Japanese and the Jews have some mystical affinity or spiritual identity apparent only to the initiated. The real relationship of the two peoples, more contrapuntal than identical, he considered to be more profound.” Prince Mikasa continued and “spoke of himself, also unexpected and frankly for one upon whose words millions hang. He said that after the Western powers defeated Japan (he spoke of this more openly than I had ever heard any Japanese do), he had had the on, the obligation, to Westernize himself. He had gone on to learn Western culture. And, he said, in the six years of his study, he discovered one supreme fact; that the Jews were the key to Western civilization. The truth incarnated in Judaism, a truth of being rather than of theory, is the central meaning of history. … History had brought him—Prince Mikasa—to the Jew, he said, and Judaism had brought him back to himself. For the Jew is not only the father of the West, he is the scion of the Orient. He is the holy bridge (a traditional and poignant Japanese symbol) between East and West. Through understanding Judaism, the Prince regained a sense of his dignity as a member of his people; he was again proud to be Japanese.”

Prince Takahito Mikasa. (Wikipedia)
Prince Takahito Mikasa. (Wikipedia)

A decade later, Newsweek’s then Tokyo bureau chief Bernard Krisher, the only Western journalist to interview Hirohito, interviewed Professor Kiyoshi Ohata about his disciple, Prince Mikasa. Ohata took Krisher to his library and reached for a book on the shelf and pulled down a 1956 volume, Emperors, Graves, and the Common People: The Dawn of the Orient. Ohata explained that Prince Mikasa shares some of his own autobiographical details in it, where he wrote: “When I went to Nanking as a staff officer, I had completely lost faith in the ‘sacred war’ and the only thing I wanted was peace. … I was astonished at the real truth of the so-called ‘sacred war.’ There is no need for listing the abominable atrocities committed against the innocent Chinese people. Under the masquerade of ‘just war,’ looting, violence, arson, and rape were committed.” After the conclusion of the war, wrote Prince Mikasa, “I felt great doubts about my future. While many were put into jail as war criminals or dragged before war crime tribunals, I was liberated from the ‘jail without bars,’ if I may so very frankly say of the abnormal Imperial family system.”

According to a document only discovered in 1994, Prince Mikasa delivered a 1944 speech to some Japanese soldiers in Nanking, China, and while copies of his speech were later destroyed by military authorities, one remaining copy was discovered in the National Library of Japan by a Kobe University professor. In the speech, Prince Mikasa, at the time 27 years old, criticized the Imperial Japanese Army for its behavior in China, noting that “a dictionary says that butchery is brutal killing. It has nothing to do with how many people were killed. I was greatly shocked when I heard an officer say, ‘The best education for newly recruited soldiers is to have them do bayonet practice by using living prisoners of war as targets,’ ” reported The Japan Times in July 1994. After the document was discovered in 1994, Prince Mikasa told an interviewer that he delivered the speech “out of a desperate desire to bring the war to a close,” and while he never explicitly told his older brother Emperor Hirohito about the speech, he shared of his China experience in “bits and pieces.”

Ohata told Krisher on that visit that Prince Mikasa even “considered for a time giving up his royal title and becoming a commoner, but in the end he felt he could do more good by retaining his status.” According to Ohata, Prince Mikasa entered Tokyo University in 1947 and studied in the department of European history until 1950. “The prince, at first, was not interested in Hebraic studies. His initial interest was in the Reformation. He was aware that Communism came out of the Christian world. He felt he wanted to begin with the Reformation. After a year, he came to my office one day, unannounced, and asked how he could best pursue the study of the Reformation. I told His Highness that to study the Reformation, he must learn more about Christianity, the history of early Christianity and the history of the Hebrew religion.” It was also with Professor Ohata, noted a later biographer, that Prince Mikasa “studied the original texts of the Old Testament and ancient Hebrew history.”

‘History had brought him—Prince Mikasa—to the Jew, he said, and Judaism had brought him back to himself.’

According to Professor Ohata, Prince Mikasa then decided to study Hebrew for the rest of his life and maintained a particular interest in the biblical prophets of Israel. As one student who attended the Hebrew study gatherings with Prince Mikasa and Uri Epstein, an Israeli student doing research on Japanese music, described the scene: “We sat on the traditional Japanese straw mats that covered the floor, sipped green Japanese tea, and conversed in Hebrew. The group displayed surprising ability, and for two hours discussed in Hebrew a variety of topics of interest to educated Japanese, ranging from Bible translations to the world’s largest ship, which the Japanese were proud to have recently built. The prince expressed his views on the tense international situation in perfect Hebrew.” However, Prince Mikasa never got involved in political discourse and insisted that his interest in the study of Hebrew was purely academic, even writing in his autobiography, “the reason I studied Oriental archaeology was to seek out from the ruins of the Middle East and the Near East, the origin of mankind and civilization, the outlines of man and state, and to think over what man should be.”

In 1954, Prince Mikasa established the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan, with a founding group of 64 members. Over the subsequent decades, he participated in and sponsored many archaeological digs. In 1956, he participated in a joint University of Tokyo Iran-Iraq Archaeological Expedition and was present for the groundbreaking ceremony at the Telul eth-Thalathat excavations. This was the first Japanese archaeological mission in the Middle East. After the successful launch and expansion of the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan, Prince Mikasa became determined to establish the Middle Eastern Culture Center in Japan, “to house a collection of research materials, namely, archaeological relics, artifacts and literature, and provide academic facilities for researchers.” Founded in 1975, over the past four decades the Center has conducted research activities abroad, including excavations in North East Africa to discover Islamic city ruins in al-Fustat near Cairo, and in the Sinai Peninsula where the port of al-Tur was discovered.

In July 1968, the International Association for the History of Religions hosted their bi-decade conference in Jerusalem on the topic of “Types of Redemption.” Though Prince Mikasa did not attend in person, he served as honorary president of the gathering and sent opening remarks that were shared at the conference. He wrote:

It is a privilege and honor for me to send a word of greeting to you all assembled at the westernmost end of Asia from its easternmost extremity on this happy occasion of the opening of the Jerusalem Conference of the International Association for the History of Religions. While greatly regretting that I am unable personally to be with you and participate in the present Conference, I am most appreciative of your kindest thought in appointing me as its Honorary President, for which I wish to express my heartfelt gratitude. No less than ten years have already passed since the International Congress of the IAHR was first held in Asia, and that at no place other than Tokyo where I live. Ever since then, the IAHR, as I understand, has been pursuing a plan for “its extension in the East.” It has succeeded in organizing the A.A. Group, and the scholars in the countries of Asia and Africa have come to co-operate with one another in their works and activities. This Jerusalem Conference, too, is one of the important programs of the plan. I take this opportunity of offering my warmest congratulations and appreciation to… At the same time, I would like to express my grateful thanks to Prof. [Gershom] Scholem and Prof. [R.J.Zwi] Werblowsky of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who have so successfully carried through the great task of making all arrangements to organize the present conference.

In 1975, Prince Mikasa was an honorary visiting professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and as Sasha Abramsky recently recalled in his House of Twenty Thousand Books, Prince Mikasa delivered a lecture at UCL’s Institute of Jewish Studies, and Chimen Abramsky arranged a small party in his honor. Among the scholars in attendance at the reception were Arnaldo Momigliano, Raphael Loewe, Michael Loewe, Yishai (Yeshayahu) Shachar, Ephraim Wiesenberg, Ben Segal, and Ada Rapoport-Albert. As Sasha Abramsky described the scene, Prince Mikasa “was surrounded by bodyguards who had the physique of sumo wrestlers, colleagues recall. After the lecture was over, Chimen ceremoniously ushered the Emperor’s brother into the eating area and then proceeded to offer him Mimi’s fishcakes and sandwiches. The archives are silent as to the royal personage’s reaction,” though Ada Rapoport-Albert remembers how “the prince gazed at them with curiosity.”

Prince Mikasa’s scholarly research includes those addresses delivered in academic settings and his scholarly research and support of excavations. According to his biographer, Prince Mikasa “has written many articles to enhance the general public’s understanding of the Near and Middle East, and, for such purposes, his particular attention was paid to interested contents and simple, plain Japanese.” In 1955 he broadcast a series called The Light of Ancient Culture, and in 1957 he undertook a three-month television series for NTV under the title of The Journey to the Ancient Orient. He has also given numerous public lectures throughout Japan.

Upon receiving the Ataturk World Peace Prize in 1989 from the Republic of Turkey, Prince Mikasa said:

In modern times, many of the Middle Eastern countries have suffered under the oppression of European colonial rule, but in time these countries regained their national sovereignty and have shown significant progress in economy, science and technology. Japan must promote economic and cultural exchanges with these nations based upon peace, equality and reciprocity, as well as special relationship of Japan being an integral part of the Oriental world. A true world peace will happen only when the ills of poverty are eradicated and the days of past glory are revived in the Middle Eastern countries.


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Menachem Butler, an associate editor at Tablet Magazine, is the program fellow for Jewish Law Projects at the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at the Harvard Law School, and a co-editor at the Seforim blog. Follow him on Twitter @MyShtender.

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