The synagogue a few blocks from where I live looks at first, with it Paladian architecture and stained glass windows, like a former Catholic church. But on closer inspection the Star of David and other Jewish motifs give it away. Another incongruity the night I went there to hear a Rabbi from New York speak back in 1986 was the number of Asians in attendance, some of them wearing yarmulkes. The speaker was Marvin Tokayer, who had served as a rabbi to the Jewish community in Tokyo after the war. He was speaking about something that I, along with most people, had never heard about before—a plan by the Japanese during WWII, called “the Fugu Plan.”
My collaborator, the movie director the late Denis Sanders, and I were there to assess the prospects for a documentary on the Fugu Plan. Denis was an Academy Award winning documentarian, and a Jew from a family that dated back to the expulsion from Spain; so who could know better. As it happened we never got very far on that project. Denis died less than a year later. I had Tokayer’s book, but I had to move on to other projects and activities. It sat on my shelf for years, but my interest was rekindled when I stumbled on some Jewish motifs on buildings in Shanghai a few years ago. Shanghai had a large refugee Jewish community up to the Communist revolution, and thousands of that community came from, of all places, Japan.
If that sound like a strange set up, it is nothing compared to the saga of the Jews of Eastern Europe in the days leading up to, and during, WWII, a story as strange as the plan named after a puffer fish that is a sushi delicacy, but if not prepared correctly, can kill you. First of all, the Japanese were allies of Nazi Germany, and we know how the Nazis felt about Jews. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the Japanese motives derived from a feelings of pro-Semitism. Rather, the authors of the Fugu Plan were rather calculating and self-interested in rescuing some East European Jews from almost certain extermination at the hands of the Himmler crowd. It was called the Fugu Plan, named after the puffer fish that is a delicacy in Japan, but must be prepared with great care not to cut a organ that contains a deadly poison. People die every year from badly prepared fugu sushi.
Much of the prevailing Japanese attitude about Jews had been shaped by that nasty piece of work of fiction masquerading as fact authored by the Russian Secret Police, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion . This virulently anti-Semitic volume of purported minutes of Zionists plotting to control world finance, and other machinations, was the result of the blame Russians placed on the Jews for the Bolshevik Revolution. It continues to shape hatred for Jews and was influential in Japanese attitudes. Ironically, it was a Jewish financier, Jacob Schiff, of New York, who helped finance the Japanese victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war because he hated the Russians for their pogroms against the Jews.
That thickens the plot a good deal. Schiff was a hero to some of the Japanese high military command. So the Japanese figured that good connections with international Jewish money was a good thing. In addition, they were interested in getting Jewish intellectuals, particularly scientists, into their good favor. In fact, they planned to establish their own Jewish colony in their newly-acquired territory in Manchukuo in northern China.
So, how to get the Jews out of the clutches of their allies, the Nazis? As it happened the Japanese hand a consulate in Lithuania and their consul there figured out that, of all places, the Dutch Colony of Curacao did not require an entry visa, so they stamped the Jewish travel documents with their “no visa required” and a transit visa through Japan. (Maybe that’s what the American-Japanese who were interned during the war should have done.) Most were trained to Vladivostok and shipped to Osaka and some other Japanese cities. There were perhaps as many as 10,000 Jews escaped this way. Later, many were shipped to Shanghai after the Japanese conquered it, joining, not always amicably, a community of Russian Jews who settled in that city after escaping the Bolsheviks in 1917.
Not much came of the objectives of the Fugu Plan, many of the refuges were poor, and many not well-educated. In any case, the Japanese decided to attack Pearl Harbor, and the rest, as they say, “is history.” But it might have been very different history (rather than a movie, which nobody would have believed). Those intrepid Nazis even sent a representative to Japan to try to get the Japanese to kill the Jews for them, but nothing came of that (perhaps they Japanese Army was too busy exterminating 300,000 Chinese in the Rape of Nanking).
It is said that war is just an extension of politics, and politics makes strange “bedfellows.” It would be hard to find a stranger story than this one.*
©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.5.2006)
*But see No. 33.5 for a candidate.