One might expect to hear “Eli, Eli” at the March of the Living ceremony on Yom Ha’Shoah. One might not expect to hear it performed by a Japanese choir, in perfect Hebrew. Singing this tribute to Hannah Senesh, Japan’s Hashalom Choir was the only non-Israeli choir on the stage that day—a stage they shared with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Meir Lau, and among other Israeli artists, the legendary Shlomo Artzi.
The Japanese delegation of 20 wasn’t the only non-Jewish group marching alongside Holocaust survivors and Jewish community groups from nearly 50 countries. According to March of the Living Chairman Shmuel Rosenman, over 10 percent of the 15,000 participants in this year’s march were non-Jews. Yet among the gentiles who march, the Japanese tell a unique story.
Japan is home to just 500 Jews and two synagogues, and produced one Righteous Among the Nations—Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s World War II-era ambassador to Lithuania, who saved some 10,000 Jews in 1940 by providing them with transit visas. Yet Japan’s Christian community has felt a deep connection to Israel for decades, as Reverend Makoto Otsuka, the Japanese delegation leader told me in fluent Hebrew. Sixty-nine-year-old Otsuka studied at Ulpan Zion in Jerusalem 40 years ago. Today he is director general of Japan’s Holocaust Education Center, which organized the choir.
Reverend Otsuka was born in Kyoto in 1949, and studied under the late Ōtsuki Takeji, the founder of one of Japan’s largest churches. In 1946, after what he described as an encounter with God, Takeji founded Beit Shalom, a fervently pro-Israel evangelical church group based in Kyoto. Also known as Japan Christian Friends of Israel, Beit Shalom has approximately 10,000 members. In 1971, Otsuka visited Israel for the first time with a choir from Beit Shalom. After performing at an old age home in Netanya, a man approached the choir members and asked them if they had read his daughter’s diary. The man was Otto Frank.
“That was my first introduction to the Holocaust,” Otsuka told me. The two men kept in touch until Frank’s death in 1980, said Otsuka, still speaking in Hebrew, which he has a firmer grasp on than English. Over the years, Frank expressed his wish that Otsuka and Beit Shalom spread awareness of the Holocaust in Japan.
In 1995, Otsuka established his Holocaust Education Center in Fukuyama City with the financial support of Beit Shalom. It was the first center of its kind in Japan, where the national memory of World War II is centered on its peoples’ own tragedy, when the country was ravaged by the world’s first atomic bomb. “In the Japanese schools they don’t learn about the Holocaust,” lamented Otsuka. “It’s less than one page in the history books about World War II.”
Situated just 60 miles from Hiroshima, the center is dedicated to the 1.5 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust. According to Otsuka’s estimates, over 163,000 Japanese school children have learned about those children and what happened to them at his center. He also offers Hebrew classes there.
Beit Shalom is not to be confused with the Makuya, another ardently pro-Israel Japanese Christian group, founded in Tokyo in 1948. The exact number of Makuya members is unknown, but estimates are in the hundreds of thousands, and there are at least 20 branches around the world.
“We are Christian people who understand that the Bible came from the Hebrew people, from the Jewish people,” said Akio Yoshida, the deputy director of the Holocaust Education Center, explaining Japanese Christians’ affinity for Israel.
Unlike Otsuka, Yoshida can read Hebrew, but cannot really understand it. “I need the nekuda” to pronounce it properly, he tells me, referring to the dots and lines that serve as Hebrew vowels. Yoshida studied Hebrew at his seminary in Kyoto, where the Bible was taught in Hebrew. Most Christian seminaries in Japan, he said, offer Hebrew classes to learn more about the Bible. He also knows a few words: “Shalom, Ma Nishma, Shmi Akio”—Hello, how are you, my name is Akio.
While anti-Semitism is not much of an issue in Japan, Otsuka and Yoshida both believe that spreading Holocaust awareness here—particularly to children—is as crucial as it is anywhere. Otsuka sees his center as an investment in tolerance, compassion, and peace. The wider Japanese population, he said, “isn’t very familiar with Israel or with Jews. And I really hope that changes. … B’ezrat Hashem, they will learn more about the Holocaust. My dream is that 1.5 million Japanese students will visit us and change Japan.”
Yardena Schwartz is an award-winning freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer. Her reporting has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, The New York Review of Books, and The Economist, among other publications. She is writing a book about the 1929 Hebron massacre and its reverberations today, under contract with Union Square & Co., a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble.