Shinzo Abe boosted Japan’s ties to Jews, Israel

Will Japan’s next leader echo these warm views on the Jews and Israel?

JAPAN’S FORMER prime minister Shinzo Abe visits the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam in 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS/CRIS TOALA OLIVARES)
JAPAN’S FORMER prime minister Shinzo Abe visits the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam in 2014.
In February 2014, more than 300 copies of Anne Frank’s diary and other books pertaining to the Holocaust were vandalized in Tokyo public libraries. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga described the antisemitic incident – a rarity in Japan – as “extremely regrettable and shameful.”
The following month, while in the Netherlands for a G7 summit, then-prime minister Shinzo Abe visited the Anne Frank House museum, making him one of the most prominent world leaders to have ever done so. Abe, who read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank during his childhood, remarked that he wished to “reiterate lasting and profound friendship between Japan and the Jewish people around the world.”
This is a sentiment that was reflected throughout his tenure as the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history, since 2012, and an earlier stint in 2006-2007.
Abe, who stepped down as prime minister on September 17 for health reasons, is a true friend of the Jewish people and Israel. His actions and his words have consistently demonstrated that he understands Jews, he respects Jews, and he sees great importance in the bond between the Jewish and Japanese peoples.
During his time in office Abe also visited Yad Vashem in Israel, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the former home of Sugihara Chiune, “the Japanese Schindler,” in Kaunas, Lithuania.
Abe’s administration made a concerted effort to publicize the story of Sugihara, a diplomat who served as an imperial consul for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania during World War II, and helped some 6,000 Jews escape German-occupied Poland and Lithuania.
“The courageous and humanitarian action of Mr. Sugihara provides us with guidance as to how we should survive in this world,” Abe said while in Kaunas.
While addressing journalists after his tour of Yad Vashem, Abe declared, “Today I find myself [fully] determined. Ha-sho’a le’olam lo od. The Holocaust, never again.” His speech signaled his firm understanding of hardships that Jews have endured over generations, and the significance of the dream that had been realized in Israel.
“I felt great solemnity in the face of your forefathers, who overcame profound grief to found the nation of Israel,” he said.
HISTORY AND remembrance, however, were not the only aspects of Abe’s approach to Israel. He also realized the untapped potential for Japan-Israel relations, and that his administration needed to act on it.
When Abe was reelected as prime minister at the end of 2012, Japanese investment in Israel totaled about $20 million. By 2019, investments had surged to over $6 billion. The number of Japanese businesses in Israel also increased three-fold. And now, in 2020, with the disastrous economic fallout of COVID-19, there have been 18 new investment deals by Japanese financiers, adding another $853 million.
This remarkable growth was stimulated by two official visits, in 2015 and 2018, during which Abe encouraged senior Japanese industry leaders to do more business in the “Start-Up Nation.” Up until that point investors had been skittish to bet on Israel, holding fears of upsetting Arab oil suppliers. Abe’s message was clear, he saw “no reason for Japan, which positions ‘innovation’ as the engine of economic growth, not to cooperate with Israel, which produces innovative technologies.”
In 2019, my organization, the American Jewish Committee, recognized Abe’s vision in practice by presenting him with the Light Unto the Nations Award, the AJC’s highest honor bestowed on world leaders who exhibit leadership in the defense of democratic values and friendship with the Jewish people. During the presentation ceremony, Abe expressed pride in his administration’s successes, stating, “My cabinet, since its inception, has developed great relations with the United States, the Jewish community, and Israel.”
Abe, who met with AJC delegations six times in Tokyo, and addressed the 2015 AJC Global Forum, also met with other Jewish organizations and leaders while in office. He went above and beyond previous Japanese prime ministers in his dedicated outreach.
Will Japan’s next leader echo these warm views on the Jews and Israel?
It’s likely. Last week, Yoshihide Suga was elected president of the Liberal Democratic Party and took over as prime minister. During his campaign for premiership, Suga stated that he plans to carry on many of Abe’s policies, particularly in international affairs. If the flood of Japanese investments into Israel and enthusiastic engagement with Jewish organizations continue, it will confirm that Abe’s groundwork has been rock-solid. Prime Minister Suga will almost certainly build upon it.
Thanks to Shinzo Abe’s vision and efforts, the future of Japanese-Jewish relations is bright.
The writer is assistant director of the American Jewish Committee Asia Pacific Institute.