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Asian Persuasion: Lost Tribes of Israel Found in Japan?

Certain members of my extended family have what my mother affectionately refers to as, "the almond shaped eyes." Their features are so distinctive that they are often mistaken as Asian. People are always surprised to learn that no, they're not … Read More

By / December 20, 2007

Certain members of my extended family have what my mother affectionately refers to as, "the almond shaped eyes." Their features are so distinctive that they are often mistaken as Asian. People are always surprised to learn that no, they're not Asian at all–in fact, they're Jewish. My mother, ham that she is, laughs it all off with the explanation that, "somewhere along the way, someone must have hooked up with an Asian person." It's funny to imagine a freethinking (read: horny) ancestor of ours with a penchant for lovers of the Asian persuasion, but perhaps there's more to this bedtime story. A few months ago I stumbled upon this YouTube video, which depicts an annual Japanese pilgrimage to Israel:

In and of itself, I find the video to be mind-boggling, amusing, touching, and bizarre. Japanese Jews in Israel, marching down Ben Yehuda street in kimonos, waving Japanese and Israeli flags and singing "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem." Does it get any weirder than that? Well, yes–perhaps it does.

Recently, a couple of fascinating posts about a certain lost tribe (or two, or ten) have appeared on the ol' Internets. The knowledge of a Jewish migration into Asia is nothing new, but these particular posts purport that the Japanese are actually a part of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Published in response to an episode of Nippon TV’s Mino Monta's Japanese Mystery, they present research that has drawn mysterious parallels between Japanese and Jewish history and culture. You can watch some of the clips from the show here.

Israeli officials publicly acknowledge the mysterious similarities between Judaism and Japan. Recently, in March of 2007, Rabbi Avichail of the Israeli Investigative Body Amishav, which searches for descendants of the Lost Tribes, arrived in Japan. Although they only stayed for a short amount of time, the investigative body concluded that “There is no doubt that there is some kind of strong connection between Judaism and Japan. More research is needed to determine the details.”

The connections are very interesting.

For example, the Japanese Shintoist Holy day of July 17th is the Yamaboko Junko, or “Going atop the Mountain to lay to rest the Shrine”. In the old testament, July 17th is the day Noah’s Ark rested atop Mount Ararat. The word “Essa”, which is a carrying chant chanted by the holders of the Omikoshi, or portable shrine, is a word which really has no meaning in Japanese but means “Carry” in Hebrew.

One of Japan’s largest festivals, the Gion Festival, is believed by many, including the Gion Festival officials, to be the same as Ancient Israel’s Zion Festival. The month long festival is almost identical in each event, date, etc. The artwork depicted on the portable shrines in the festival are from ancient Japan, but are renderings of landscapes in the middle east – camels walking the desert, pyramids, Baghdad Palaces, and most surprising is a grand picture of Rebecca offering water to Isaac which is confirmed to be a rendition of Genesis 24 in the Old Testament.

Also explored are some striking similarities between the Japanese and Hebrew languages. Allegedly, there are about 500 Hebrew and Japanese words that are nearly identical, including Kaku (to write), Toru (to pick something up), and Hakushu (to clap). Whether these linguistic similarities are merely coincidental remains to be seen.

The idea that the ancient, immigrant Hata clan, which was active during the Yamato period (disputed dates range from 250 – 710 A.D.), were among the Lost Tribes of Israel is not widely accepted, but it does have its champions. A number of scholars have recognized this theory, and it's a central tenet of certain Japanese "New Religions" (although doctrines based largely on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion discredit some of them entirely).

It's not far-fetched to imagine ancient Jews traveling east from Asia Minor and winding up in Japan, but who they were, when they arrived, how deep they lay their roots, and the legacy they left behind has yet to be determined.

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