The Jewish people have a long history in Japan. Here is some information for Jewish travelers to Kyoto and a brief history of Jews in Japan.
Chiune Sugihara Memorial in Gifu Prefecture © joebrent
- The Jewish Community of Kansai Congregation Ohel Shelomoh, in Kobe (near Kyoto), holds Friday evening and Saturday morning Shabbat services, followed by Kiddush and meals. Jews from all over the world are welcome.
- 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 Kyoto is small, with around 100 members. Some are long-term expats involved in English teaching or running their own businesses, while others are students or resident artists. Chabad Kyoto offers support and services to Jewish travelers and residents of Kyoto and nearby areas.
There is a larger Jewish community in Kobe, and this community has roots that date back to the late 19th century. Thus, Jewish life in Kansai (the part of Japan which contains Kyoto) is centered in Kobe (about 28 minutes from Kyoto by shinkansen).
The Jewish Community of Kansai welcomes Jews from all over the world to its Shabbat services. Friday services begin at sundown and Saturday services begin at 10:30am. A Kiddush and meal follows each service.
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 English-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:
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability 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 Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- Get travel insurance for Japan - World Nomads is well-regarded (and here's why)