The Forgotten Story of … Japan’s Plan for a Jewish Settlement in China

This article was originally published on The Nanfang October 26, 2016

A number of things have happened in 2016 to suggest that we might be returning to the 1930s, the last great period of darkness in Western political history. These include Donald Trump’s vaingloriousness drawing comparisons to Mussolini; Morgan Stanley comparing the macroeconomic environments of then and now; and the increased acceptance of racist language in mainstream discourse.

Voices as diverse as SalonThe National Review, and Oliver Stone have claimed that we could be wandering into totalitarianism. Some have speculated what totalitarianism might look like in an age where data is mined cynically from devices that we use to do everything from hailing cabs, to monitoring our health, to hooking up.

Given the example of a project by one of the most monstrous regimes of the twentieth century, this future could be even more chaotic than we imagine. Totalitarianism is seldom monolithic.

There is a great novel from the mid-twentieth century that captures some unique insights into totalitarianism. Not “Brave new World” or “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, but “The Lord of the Rings”. The incompetence of Sauron’s orcs which allows Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee to enter Mordor with relative ease, shows the cynicism and paranoia at the heart of most totalitarian states.

Another tale of cynicism and ultimate failure involves a difference between two of the twentieth century’s biggest partners in war crime. Japan’s campaign to populate Manchuria with Jewish refugees, many of whom were fleeing the Nazis, was marketed as a humanitarian project, but many of the officials behind it would be executed as war criminals after Japan’s 1945 surrender. Its backstory is even more bizarre than the premise suggests.

Harbin’s Jewish Community

From the mid-nineteenth century, a large number of Jews fleeing the Tsars’ pogroms in Russia came to China and eventually settled in Harbin. By the early 1920s, the city’s Jewish population had reached 20,000 accounting for five percent of the population.

The settlers excelled in the fields of finance, business, law, medicine, and art, helping Harbin develop rapidly into a city that could compete with Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Hangzhou for economic and cultural activity.

In the summer of 1932, 21 consecutive days of torrential rain caused the Songhua River to flood, killing 250 people. Banks and businesses closed, telephone lines were cut, and refugees fled to nearby mountainous areas including Nangang and Xiangfang, sleeping among the elements, wrapping themselves in their few remaining garments, and living off whatever they could get their hands on.

Harbin after the 1932 flood

Harbin after the 1932 flood, image via ChinaNews

Because flooding ruined the harvests, food was scarce. The water was contaminated, and many died from cholera.

According to the American Public Health Association, not a single death was reported in the Jewish community. During and after the flooding, community leaders immediately organized the delivery of bread and water to families in need, and physicians made rounds by boat. Volunteers assisted the elderly and sick by bringing them food from a central soup kitchen until the water finally receded.

Avraham Kaufman, MD, the head of the Jewish clinic, led the fight against the cholera epidemic. Under his advice, community members boiled the contaminated water before using it all summer and ate only boiled and peeled vegetables and fruit. Doctors educated all community members in the best methods to prevent cholera and other diseases. The Jewish doctors used their boats to visit and treat cholera patients all over the city.

The Forgotten Story of
The Jewish pharmacy in Harbin, 1932, source Teddy Kaufman, h/t NCBI

Jewish-Japanese relations reached their lowest point when Simon Kaspéwas a musician who lived in Harbin, was kidnapped, ransomed for $100,000, starved, tortured (with methods including being kept in sub-zero temperatures, beating and having body-parts cut off) and eventually shot dead by a gang of fascist Russian criminals. The investigation into his death by Japanese authorities, who were attempting to court the White Russian community as local enforcers of their Anti-Communist sentiments, culminated in his murderers only serving a few weeks in prison due to their “patriotic” anti-communist motives.

Thousands lined the streets for Kaspéwas’ funeral to protest the injustice. This, along with the Great Depression, caused more than half of Harbin’s Jewish population to flee by the mid-1930s to Shanghai, the United States and other places that were not under Japanese control.

The Fugu Plan

In 1934, entrepreneur, politician, and Nissan-founder Yoshisuke Aikawa published an essay in The Japanese Diplomatic Periodical titled “Plan to Invite 50,000 German Jews to Manchuria”. The article was well received in Japan.

Yoshisuke Aikawa, who is today best-known as the founder of Nissan
Yoshisuke Aikawa, who is today
best-known as the founder of Nissan

This ambitious plan had several problems. Money was in short supply because of the worldwide economic situation; it was difficult for Japan to give incentive to its own population to emigrate there; and having broken the monopoly of Western dominance and, after stunning the world by withdrawing from the League of Nations with a defiant speech from Yosuke Matsuoka, the country was something of a pariah to the West.

It became apparent to some that it might be a good idea for Japan to form an alliance with the Jewish people. Jewish culture was held in particular high esteem in Japan since 1904 when American banker and tycoon Jacob Henry Schiff – incensed by Tsar Nicholas’ treatment of his people – extended loans to the Empire of Japan in the amount of $200 million (approximately $32.2 billion in 2016). This provided approximately half the funds needed for Japan’s success in the Russo-Japanese war.

Yosuke Matsuoka, whose impassioned speech to the League of Nations marked Japan's exit.
Yosuke Matsuoka, whose impassioned speech to the League of Nations marked Japan’s exit.

By this time, anti-Semitic movements in central Europe were in full swing, forcing many to flee from their homes. If Japan could provide sanctuary for the numerous engineers, lawyers, accountants and bankers forced into refugee status, it would also establish its image as a humanitarian nation.

That is not to say that the people behind this plan were not extremely racist. In the parlance of the day, Jews were seen as similar to Japanese fugu, or pufferfish: delightful if treated with care but highly toxic if handled unskillfully. The person in charge of what became known as the Fugu Plan was Imperial Japanese Army Colonel Norihiro Yasue.

A Russian-language specialist, Yasue was assigned as a young man to the staff of General Gregorii Semenov, an anti-Semite who distributed copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to all of his troops, along with weapons and rations. Yasue read and accepted the premises of the Protocols, and would allow this to guide many of his views through his later career.

After returning to Japan in 1922, Yasue worked in the Army Intelligence Bureau, translating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Japanese. His translation attracted the attention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he was sent in 1926 to Palestine to research the Jewish people. He became particularly interested in the emerging kibbutz movement, which he believed would be used to colonize the world.

By the 1930s, Yasue’s influence, and that of his comrades, grew, particularly among those who were frustrated by Japan’s relative lack of influence in global affairs. Yasue and his “Jewish experts” met the so-called “Manchurian faction,”. Yoshisuke Aikawa in particular was interested in Yasue’s ideas, and together they came up with the Fugu Plan. In 1939, Yasue recommended that Japan set up an autonomous Jewish region near Shanghai; by providing a safe place for Jewish refugees to live, and granting them the autonomy to live as they desired. He also arranged for Abraham Kaufman to be invited to Tokyo on a formal visit.

Yasue was central to the operations of nearly every aspect of the Fugu Plan. He coordinated everything from choosing and setting up sites for settlements, transporting people to the settlements, speaking with community leaders to gain economic and moral support, and working within the bounds granted him by the Japanese government. He organized missions to Jewish communities in the United States, and cultural exchanges with rabbis that stressed the similarities between Shinto and Jewish beliefs.

The population was to range from 18,000 to 600,000. Details finalized included the land size of the settlement and infrastructural arrangements including schools, and hospitals. Jews in these settlements were to be given complete freedom of religion, along with cultural and educational autonomy. While Yasue believed that the community needed complete autonomy to thrive and attract investment, it was ultimately decided that the community be closely supervised and guided.

Failure and Defeat

By 1942, the Fugu Plan had fallen apart. Japanese aid for Jews would not be tolerated by Nazi Germany, and attempts to shuttle refugees through Russia were halted when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. That same year, Gestapo chief Josef Meisinger was sent to Shanghai and began preparations to exterminate the population of the Shanghai Ghetto. This never came to fruition, as the community appealed to Yasue who revealed Meisinger’s intentions to the government in Tokyo and saw it prevented.

After Japan’s surrender, the protagonists behind the Fugu Plan had mixed fortunes. Yoshisuke Aikawa was arrested by American occupation authorities and incarcerated in Sugamo Prison for 20 months under suspicion of Class A war crimes. He was eventually acquitted.

Though his time in prison took a toll on his business, Aikawa played a key role in post-war economic reconstruction of Japan, and purchased a commercial bank to organize loans to small companies. He died in 1967 of acute gall bladder inflammation at the age of 86.

Yosuke Matsuoka was arrested by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in 1945 and held at Sugamo Prison. He died in prison of natural causes on June 26, 1946, before he was tried for war crimes before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. In 1979 he was enshrined in The Yasukuni Shrine, together with 12 convicted war criminals of the Pacific War.

When the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria in August 1945, Norihiro Yasue did not attempt to flee. He arranged a formal farewell to his family, in which he announced he did not feel it would be honorable to flee from the damage he and his generation had inflicted through the war.

He allowed himself to be captured by the Soviet forces and died in 1950 in a labor camp in Khabarovsk.

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