Japan and Jews – at first glance, these are two terms that have little to do with each other. But there are a number, albeit limited, of Japanese Jews and Jewish expats who are keeping their fingers crossed for jewish athletes at the Tokyo Olympics, which begin this Friday.
It is a largely unknown historical fact that the first Jewish settlers reached the land of the rising sun from Macau in Nagasaki as early as 1572: Sephardics from Spain, so-called Conversos, who had been forcibly converted under the pressure of the Inquisition. In 1586 the first Portuguese fellow sufferers followed.
By the end of the 19th century, around 60 Jewish families lived in Japan. In the course of time, as the journalist Stewart Ain describes in »Forward«, Sephardic Jews from Iraq and Syria were added, as well as Ashkenazim from Poland and Russia, who made their way to safety from the pogroms there. Despite the alliance with Nazi Germany, Japanese Jews survived the shoah period comparatively unscathed, even enjoying the protection of the Japanese government.
emigration Despite its decision to protect Jews in its own country, Japan’s government was un willing to support Jewish emigration from Germany. Except for one man who became a hero, as Ain writes: Chiune Sugihara, at that time consul of the Empire in Lithuanian Kaunas.
His superiors had repeatedly made it clear to him that he could not help any Jew escape the Shoah and only issue a visa to those who had completed a normal immigration process or had enough money to leave Japan by transit visa.
But Sugihara resisted these specific orders three times. He was convinced that without his help, the Jews were in grave danger. “I may refuse to obey my government,” Sugihara is quoted as saying. “But if I did not do this, I would not obey God.”
visas As the number of Jewish refugees from occupied Poland grew from hundreds to thousands in front of his office, Sugihara began issuing visas – handwritten. From July 18 to August 28, 1940, he sat in his office for 18 to 20 hours a day, issuing visas – as many as were usually issued in a month. When he closed the consulate on September 4, 1940, he had issued 2193 transit visas that saved 6,000 Jewish lives. Some say it was 10,000 people rescued by the fearless diplomat.
In 1985, a year before his death, Israel was the only Japanese to award Sugihara the title of “Righteous Among the Nations.” The number of descendants of those he rescued in the summer of 1940 is said to have risen to more than 100,000. Some of the approximately 2,000 Jews in Japan – including converts, because Judaism does not demand to renounce Buddhism – will therefore be able to cheer on Jewish athletes from all over the world because of Sugihara.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) has compiled a list of Jewish participants in the 2020 Summer Games (as they are also called in 2021, like the European Championships) – without claiming to be exhaustive:
Is Sue Bird one of the greatest Jewish athletes of all time? The basketball legend has won the title with the US women’s team in the past four games and thus gold. Since 1992, the U.S. athletes have not lost a game at the Olympics. For the 40-year-old, the fifth are probably also her last games. At the opening of the Olympic Games, she will be one of the two flag bearers behind whom the American team will march into the stadium. The daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, she is from Syosset, Long Island. In 2006, she received Israeli citizenship.
Rhythmic gymnastics, Israel
22-year-old Linoy Ashram is Israel’s biggest medal chance. The daughter of a Yemeni Jew and a Greek Jew, she is taking part in the Olympic Games for the first time and is the reigning European champion – the first in decades who is not from the former Soviet Union or Bulgaria.
Diego Schwartzman is the best-ranked Jewish tennis player. In 2020, he was among the top ten for the first time. Officially, Schwartzman is 1.70 meters tall, but the US Open lists him with 1.65 meters, which makes him one of the smallest top players in tennis history. With »El Peque« and »Shorty«, the 28-year-old has two nicknames thatlbe means: the short. These are Schwartzman’s first Olympic Games.
Alexandra »Alix« Klineman
Beach volleyball, USA
Alix Klineman first played indoor volleyball for Stanford University in college and after graduating in 2011. Only then did she switch to beach volleyball. “I saw the beach as a new chance and a chance to chase my dreams,” she said in 2019. The 31-year-old grew up in Southern California in a Jewish family.
Anat Lelior is Israel’s first – and only – Olympic surfer. Surfing is new as an Olympic sport. Only 20 men and 20 women take part in the premiere competition. Lelior (21) qualified as the best-placed surfer from Europe (Israel competes in European leagues). Lelior, who hails from Tel Aviv and has served in the Israeli military, began surfing at the age of five and won the Israeli National Championships at the age of twelve.
In 2017, Israel’s national baseball team — which included several American Jewish players who became Israeli citizens — surprised observers with sixth place at the World Baseball Classic, an international tournament of the best teams in the world. In 2019, Team Israel won the European Baseball Championship to qualify for the Olympic Games. Only six teams are in the tournament, so Team Israel has a chance of winning a medal.
With ten World Championship medals (seven gold medals) and seven overall World Cup titles, Jessica Fox is considered one of the greatest canoeists of all time. Her parents, Richard Fox and Myriam Jerusalmi, were also Olympic canoeists. Mother Myriam, a French-Jewish athlete, won bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Born in Marseille, Jessica Fox moved to Australia at the age of four, where her father became coach of the Australian Olympic team.
Eli Dershwitz still has something to make up for at the Olympics. At the 2016 Rio Games, the Jewish sabre fencer lost in the opening round. In 2021, he is the number 2 in the world and hopes for a medal. Dershwitz, who began fencing at the age of nine, won the NCAA Championships for Harvard in 2017 and 2018. In Tokyo, he wants to become the fifth US man to win a medal in sabre fencing. No American has ever won gold in this category.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Or »Ori« Sasson won bronze in the men’s judo heavyweight and became a national hero overnight – not only because of his abilities, but also because of his athleticism after an Egyptian opponent refused to shake his hand. Sasson spent the Corona year participating in Israel’s version of The Masked Singer — his costume was a falafel sandwich — and finished third. This year, Ori Sasson (30) will compete in the heavyweight and team competitions.
Jemima Montag’s parents, Ray and Amanda, met at the 1989 Maccabi Games, where Amanda competed in the heptathlon and Ray was a cricketer. Monday soon became one of Australia’s best walkers. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she won gold in the 20km event. Montag attributes her work ethic and resilience to her grandparents, who survived the Holocaust.
Sagi Muki made headlines when he befriended Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei, who was forced to play a match to avoid competing against an Israeli athlete. Mollaei fled Iran and was granted asylum in Germany. The story of their friendship is now becoming a TV series. The light middleweight Muki (29) has a good chance of winning a medal.
Maru Teferi, born in northwestern Ethiopia and emigrated to Israel with his Jewish family at the age of 14, is israel’s record holder over six distances, including half marathon and marathon. His fastest marathon time of 2:07:20 – run just before the pandemic in February 2020 – is only six minutes above the world record. Now the 28-year-old will participate in the Olympic Games for the second time.
Israel has another marathon athlete in Maor Tiyouri. As for Teferi, these are the second games for Tiyouri, but qualifying was much more difficult for the 30-year-old this time. For the women’s marathon, the Olympic standard – the time needed to qualify for the Games – has been lowered by 15 minutes from two hours 45 minutes to 2:29:30. For Tiyouri, this meant running 13 minutes faster than her personal best.