Hidden History

How Japan Tried to Save Thousands of Jews from the Holocaust6 min read

The plan for a Jewish settlement in Japanese-occupied China – Kevin McGeary

A number of events have happened in the last few years to suggest that we might be returning to the 1930s, the last great period of darkness in Western political history. Yet a little-known tale from World War II involves a dispute between Japan and Germany, two of the 20th century’s biggest partners in war crime. Japan’s campaign to populate Manchuria with Jewish refugees, many of whom were fleeing the Nazis, was marketed as a humanitarian project, but many of the officials behind it would be executed as war criminals after Japan’s 1945 surrender. Its backstory is even more bizarre than the premise suggests.

Yoshisuke Aikawa, who is today best-known as the founder of Nissan
Portrait of Aikawa Yoshisuke (鮎川義介, 1880 – 1967), National Diet Library

From the mid-19th century, a large number of Jews fleeing the Czars’ pogroms in Russia came to China and eventually settled in Harbin. By the early 1920s, the city’s Jewish population had reached 20,000, accounting for five percent of the total population. The settlers excelled in the fields of finance, business, law, medicine and art, helping Harbin develop rapidly into a city that could compete with Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Hangzhou for economic and cultural activity. And in 1931, that territory became part of Japan’s Empire, with the invasion of Manchuria.

In 1934, entrepreneur and politician Yoshisuke Aikawa (today best known as the founder of Nissan) published an essay in The Japanese Diplomatic Periodical titled ‘Plan to Invite 50,000 German Jews to Manchuria.’ The article was well received in Japan.

Aikawa’s ambitious plan had several problems. Money was in short supply because of the worldwide economic situation; it was difficult for Japan to give incentives to its own population to emigrate there. And having broken the monopoly of Western dominance and, after stunning the world by withdrawing from the League of Nations with a defiant speech from Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, the country was something of a pariah to the West.

Yōsuke Matsuoka (public domain)

It became apparent to some that it might be a good idea for Japan to form an alliance with the Jewish people. Jewish culture had been held in particular high esteem in Japan since 1904, when American banker and tycoon Jacob Henry Schiff, incensed by Czar Nicholas’ treatment of his people, extended loans to the Empire of Japan in the amount of $200 million (approximately $32.2 billion in 2016). This provided approximately half the funds needed for Japan’s success in the Russo-Japanese War.

By this time, anti-Semitic movements in central Europe were in full swing, forcing many Jews to flee. If Japan could provide sanctuary for the numerous engineers, lawyers, accountants and bankers forced into refugee status, it would also establish its image as a humanitarian nation. That is not to say that the people behind this plan were not extremely racist. In the parlance of the day, Jews were seen as similar to Japanese fugu, or pufferfish: delightful if treated with care but highly toxic if handled unskillfully.

Norihiro Yasue (public domain)

The person in charge of what became known as the ‘Fugu Plan’ was Imperial Japanese Army Colonel Norihiro Yasue. A Russian-language specialist, Yasue was assigned as a young man to the staff of General Gregorii Semenov, an anti-Semite who distributed copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to all of his troops, along with weapons and rations. After returning to Japan in 1922, Yasue worked in the Army Intelligence Bureau, translating the Protocols into Japanese. His translation attracted the attention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he was sent in 1926 to Palestine to research the Jewish people. He became particularly interested in the emerging kibbutz movement, which he believed would be used to colonize the world.

By the 1930s, Yasue’s influence and that of his comrades had grown, particularly among those who were frustrated by Japan’s relative lack of influence in global affairs. Yasue and his “Jewish experts” met the so-called “Manchurian faction.” Yoshisuke Aikawa in particular was interested in Yasue’s ideas, and together they came up with the Fugu Plan. In 1939, Yasue recommended that Japan set up an autonomous Jewish region near Shanghai, providing a safe place for Jewish refugees to live, and granting them the autonomy to live as they desired. He also arranged for the Abraham Kaufman, who helped to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in both World Wars, to be invited to Tokyo on a formal visit.

Yasue was central to the operations of nearly every aspect of the Fugu Plan. He coordinated everything from choosing and setting up sites for settlements, transporting people to the settlements, speaking with community leaders to gain economic and moral support, and working within the bounds granted him by the Japanese government. He organized missions to Jewish communities in the United States and cultural exchanges with rabbis that stressed the similarities between Shinto and Jewish beliefs.

The population was to range from 18,000 to 600,000. Details finalized included the land size of the settlement and infrastructural arrangements, including schools and hospitals. Jews in these settlements were to be given complete freedom of religion, along with cultural and educational autonomy. While Yasue believed that the community needed complete autonomy to thrive and attract investment, it was ultimately decided that the community be closely supervised and guided.

It became known as the ‘Fugu Plan,’ after the Japanese fugu, or pufferfish: delightful if treated with care but highly toxic if handled unskillfully”

By 1942, the Fugu Plan had fallen apart. Japanese aid for Jews would not be tolerated by Nazi Germany, and attempts to shuttle refugees through Russia were halted when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. That same year, Gestapo Chief Josef Meisinger was sent to Shanghai and began preparations to exterminate the population of the Shanghai Ghetto. This never came to fruition, as the community appealed to Yasue, who revealed Meisinger’s intentions to the government in Tokyo and saw that it was prevented.

After Japan’s surrender, the protagonists behind the Fugu Plan had mixed fortunes. Yoshisuke Aikawa was arrested by American occupation authorities and incarcerated in Sugamo Prison for 20 months under suspicion of Class A war crimes. He was eventually acquitted. Though his time in prison took a toll on his business, Aikawa played a key role in post-war economic reconstruction of Japan, and purchased a commercial bank to organize loans to small companies. He died in 1967 of acute gallbladder inflammation at the age of 86.

Yosuke Matsuoka was arrested by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in 1945 and held at Sugamo Prison. He died there of natural causes on June 26, 1946, before he was tried for war crimes before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. In 1979 he was enshrined in The Yasukuni Shrine, together with 12 convicted war criminals of the Pacific War.

When the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria in August 1945, Norihiro Yasue did not attempt to flee. He arranged a formal farewell to his family, in which he announced he did not feel it would be honorable to flee from the damage he and his generation had inflicted through the war. He allowed himself to be captured by the Soviet forces and died in 1950 in a labor camp in Khabarovsk. ∎

An earlier version of this article was previously published on KevinMcGeary.com in June 2018. Header: Japanese occupation of Shanghai (from an exhibit of Shanghai’s Jewish quarter).

Kevin McGeary

Kevin McGeary is a short story writer, essayist and musician. His satirical Chinese-language songwriting has been the subject of features in China Daily and on Guangdong Television. He is currently working on a book of short stories set in present-day Shenzhen. kevinmcgeary.com