The Jewish people have a surprisingly long history in Japan. Here is a summary of services available to Jewish travelers in Tokyo and some background on Jewish history in Japan.
Monument for Chiune Sugihara in Vilnius Sakura Garden: Donatas81 / Shutterstock.com
- The Jewish Community Center/Synagogue in Tokyo offers Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma'ariv and a Saturday morning Shachrit service followed by kiddush and lunch.
- There are two Chabad Houses in Tokyo that welcome travelers.
- There are several kosher restaurants in Tokyo.
- Travelers interested in learning about Sugihara Chiune, who saved several thousand Jews from the Holocaust, can visit the Chiune Sugihara Memorial in Gifu Prefecture.
- See below for full details and a brief history of the Jews in Japan.
- The Jewish population of Tokyo is thought to number a few thousand people, but exact figures are hard to come by. These people range from families who have lived in Japan for several generations to businesspeople, military members and English teachers only spending a few years in Japan.
Jewish Facilities in Tokyo
- The Jewish Community of Japan
With a membership of around 100 families, the Jewish Community of Japan, represents the Jewish people residing in and around Tokyo. It's in Hiroo, which is roughly between Roppongi and Ebisu. They offer Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma'ariv followed by dinner and a Saturday morning Shachrit service followed by kiddush and lunch. Visitors are welcome and it is necessary to make advance reservations by Thursday evening.
- Chabad House Tokyo, Mendi
This Chabad House offers Friday/Saturday Shabbat services followed by meals. Visitors are welcome. It is located in Sengakuji, about 5min from Sengakuji Station.
- Chabad House Tokyo, Binyamin
This Chabad House offers Friday/Saturday Shabbat services and meals. Visitors are welcome. It's in Omori, which is a bit south of Shinagawa.
- David's Deli
Located in Mita, this popular kosher restaurant serves a wide variety of Jewish and Isreali food.
Jewish History in Japan
It is speculated that the first Jews arrived in Japan with Spanish and Portuguese traders in the 16th century. It is believed that they were descended from Jews who fled persecution on the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century. Some of these Jews settled in Goa but then become victims of the Goa Inquisition, prompting them to board ships bound for Japan. Needless to say, records on these early Jews in Japan and scarce and inexact.
When Japan was finally opened to the world in the late 1850s, Jews started to enter Japan, mostly from countries in the Middle East and South Asia. Early Jewish communities were first formed in Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. Later, Jews started to arrive from Russia and China.
During WWII, Japan was considered a safe haven for Jews, despite Japan being a member of the Axis. Many made the arduous trek across Eastern Europe and the Russia to arrive in Kobe from Vladivostok. One Japanese citizen in particular, Sugihara Chiune, who was working at the time as the Japanese consul in Lithuania, saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust by issuing them transit visa. For more on his story, see the following.
After WWII, many of the Jews in Japan made their way to Israel or the United States. However, the Kobe community remains, alongside the new Tokyo community.
During WWII, the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Sugihara Chiune, saved an estimated 6,000 Jews from the Holocaust. Most of these were Polish or Lithuanian Jews. He did so by issuing them with Japanese transit visas, knowing that most would not actually transit Japan but remain in Japan until the end of the war. He apparently arranged with Russia to allow them to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He issued visas to thousands of Jews, despite many not fulfilling the requirements to receive visas, and in direct contravention of his orders from Tokyo. These Jews made their way to Kobe, after crossing Russia via the Trans-Siberian and then sailing from Vladivostok to Kobe.
For those who would like to learn more about this incredible man, you can visit the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, in Gifu, about 2.5 hours north of Nagoya, which is about 2 hours west of Tokyo by shinkansen. Here is the Japanese-language site for the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall. Here is the TripAdvisor page on the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall.
For More Information:
- For those who want to learn more about the Jewish experience in Japan and the rest of Asia, I strongly recommend two books by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who served for eight years as rabbi for the Jewish Community of Japan in Tokyo. Here are the books:
- The Fugu Plan
- Pepper, Silk & Ivory: Amazing Stories about Jews and the Far East
Tokyo Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Tokyo guide
- Check Tokyo accommodation availability and pricing on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Tokyo
- You can buy a Japan SIM card online for collection on arrival at Tokyo Narita or Haneda airports. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Compare airline flight prices and timings for the best Japan flight deals.
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's why it's worth it
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Tokyo much easier - here's how
- Get essential travel insurance for Tokyo – World Nomads is well-regarded (and here's why)