The Jewish Palate: The Jews of Japan

160 Years after the first synagogue was built in Yokohama, Chef Dennis Wasko offers a look into the food and culture of the Jews of Japan.

sushi 311 (photo credit: E. Wanetik)
sushi 311
(photo credit: E. Wanetik)
Jews have not been in Japan for very long.  The first confirmed contact between the Japanese and Jews was during the 16th century when Dutch and Portuguese merchants and travelers visited Japan.  Many of these early travelers were Sephardic Jews. The first Jewish settlement in Japan did not occur until the 1850’s after Japan’s “closed-door” foreign policy was finally lifted following the Convention of Kanagawa.
In 1861, 50 Jewish families settled in Yokohama and built Japan’s first synagogue.  After the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, this community moved to the port city of Kobe where it still exists today.  During the 1880’s, 100 Jewish families settled in the port city of Nagasaki.  They built the Beth Israel Synagogue in 1894.  The community thrived until Russo-Japanese War in the early 20th century.  After its decline, the community’s Torah scroll was given to the community of Kobe.  During the first half of the 20th century the Kobe community continued to grow, attracting settlers from Russia, Iraq, Syria, and Central Europe.  At the same time a Jewish community developed in Tokyo comprised of immigrants from the United States and Western Europe.  The Tokyo community is now Japan’s largest boasting approximately 600 families.
Despite being a member of the Axis powers during World War II, Japan was considered to be a safe place for Jews fleeing from the horrors of the Holocaust.  In fact, in 1938, a resolution was passed by a high government council prohibiting the expulsion of Jews from Japan.  Jews fleeing from Poland found an advocate in the Japanese Consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara.  Ignoring official orders, Sugihara issued visas for fleeing Jews, sending them to Japan and the Dutch West Indies (controlled by Japan)   He is credited with saving 6,000 lives.  Throughout the war, the Japanese government resisted German calls to institute Anti-Semitic policies and to exterminate the Jews living in the Shanghai Ghetto in Japanese controlled China. 
After World War II, many of the Jews who found refuge in Japan and Japanese controlled lands left for the United States and Israel.  The Jewish population of Japan shrunk, but there are still small though vibrant Jewish communities in Japan today.  The largest community is in Tokyo, and the other Jewish center is in Kobe.  There are also, at any given time, countless Jewish members of the United States Armed Forces stationed in Japan at the permanent US military bases.  There are two major synagogues in Japan, the Beth David Synagogue in Tokyo and the Ohel Shlomo Synagogue in Kobe.
On March 11, 2011 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck northern Japan followed by a devastating Tsunami.  It is feared that at least 10,000 people perished.  The Jewish communities of Tokyo and Kobe were spared the brunt of the destruction, but still face the unknown consequences of the worst nuclear disaster to face Japan since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The Jewish communities of Japan have pulled together to help those less fortunate who have lost everything.  The Tokyo community has set up a bank account for wire transfer donations:
Mizuho Bank, Aoyama Branch (Branch #211)
Savings Account ("Futsu" in Japanese) #2049749
Bank Address:  3-6-12, Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0061, Japan
Please help to support their efforts.
It is difficult to think about food in the face of such tragedy, but food helps us to remember and it is important to remember that there are Jews living in Japan.  Their diet blends traditional Japanese cuisine with Ashkenazi and Sephardic influences.  The following recipe for Teriyaki Steak is classic Japanese while appealing to the soul of Jews around the world.

Grilled Teriyaki Steak
Serves 2 or 1 of your Yeshiva buddies!
½ cup Japanese soy sauce
½ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup rice vinegar
2 ¼ inch thick slices fresh ginger
¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 well-marbled, double-cut Rib Eye Steak
For the teriyaki sauce:
1.    In a small saucepan combine the soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, ginger, and pepper.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and allow to simmer for 10 – 15 minutes or until the sauce thickens and coats the back of a spoon.  Remove the ginger and discard.
2.    Grill the steak for 5-7 minutes on each side for medium rare, basting it with the teriyaki sauce during the last minutes of cooking.  When finished, allow the steak to rest for 5 minutes.
3.    Slice the steak against the grain and arrange on a serving plate.  Drizzle more of the teriyaki sauce over the steak and serve with rice or Japanese noodles.