Leah R. Lightman

Davening Kabbalos Shabbos at the Kosel two weeks ago on a Friday evening, I became distracted.  Standing behind me was a woman singing ever so softly in a sweet melodious voice in an unfamiliar language.  Every ten or so words, one heard “Jerusalem.”  Once my own davening concluded, I glanced backwards and lo and behold, I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing – a petite, middle aged Japanese woman whose eyes were closed, tears were trickling down her angelic face which was lifted up towards heaven.  She sang continuously and whenever she said “Jerusalem,” she smiled and redoubled her efforts in praying.

Interestingly, there were about another 50 or so Japanese women scattered throughout the Kosel’s women’s section, each standing independently and praying fervently.  Then I remembered researching about the “Makuya” – tabernacle in Japan – nearly 25 years ago when I first saw 3 busloads of Japanese tourists touring Jerusalem and the country.  In fact, a friend and I danced with the Makuya women on the Kosel plaza in February 1995.  They are a fascinating people who are deeply devoted to Israel.

Named for the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting where Moshe encountered G-d during our people’s travels through the desert (Exodus 29: 42-43), the Makuya is a New Zionist Judeo-Christian non-evangelical movement which was founded by Ikuro Teshima in 1948.  Today, it is based at the Tokyo Bible Seminary.

The Makuya’s nearly 100,000 followers follow four basic tenets:

> Total devotion to G-d in everyday living;

> Diligent, consistent and heartfelt prayer;

> Zeal in interacting with G-d and human beings; and

> Unconditional love for Israel

When travelling, Makuya members may wear turquoise blue vests with white sailboats emblazoned on the back to signify their belief that they are descended from the lost tribe of Zevulun, which according to Jewish tradition, lived along Israel’s seashore and engaged in commerce.  Makuya followers aspire neither to convert to Judaism nor to proselytize among the Jews; they simply have embraced the Makuya religion for themselves.

These Japanese people pray for the Jewish Messiah to arrive because they believe that the Messiah of the Makuya and other religions will follow.  Unlike some pro-Israel Christian groups, the Makuya adhere to their beliefs “lishmah,” for their own sake, without any hidden agenda.  They wish to help effect the redemption of the world, which they believe is linked to the wellbeing of the Jews and the State of Israel.

What made Ikuro Teshima, a prominent businessman and descendant of Japanese warriors, establish the Makuya?

In May 1948, Teshima experienced a moment of epiphany while meditating at the base of Mount Aso, Japan’s largest volcano.  He claimed that a voice called out to him with the prophecy of Amos (8:11):  “Behold, the days are coming, said the Lord G-d, that I will send a famine to the land.  It will not be a famine for bread or a thirst for water; rather, it will be to hear the words of G-d.”  Teshima was convinced that the G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov was beseeching him to bring G-d’s message and the communal spirituality of Judaism to the spiritually starved people of Japan in the aftermath of World War II and its devastation.

Not even two weeks later, when the State of Israel was established, Teshima needed no further proof that G-d’s revelation to him, practically simultaneous as Israel was being born, was linked with the destiny of the Jewish people.  He subsequently adopted the name Avraham and founded the Makuya.  Later, the Makuya established the Makuya Bible Seminary in Tokyo.  They adopted the seven-arm Menorah as their symbol rather than the cross; they saw the latter as associated with pain and suffering.

Emphasizing the spiritual significance of the Old Testament, the Hebrew language, the land of Israel and the history of the Jewish people, they study the Old Testament, Talmud, selected works of Chassidic philosophy and other Jewish texts.   Their custom is to add Biblical names to their Japanese names.  They wrote the first Japanese-Hebrew dictionary (which has over 8,000 words and expressions) and compiled a book of Hebrew songs with musical notations for scores of Israeli melodies, together with the Japanese transliteration of the Hebrew words.  The Makuya have translated the Mishnah into Japanese, as well as the book G-d in Search of Man by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom Teshima considered to be his teacher along with the late Pinchas HaCohen Peli (1930-1989), an Israeli Modern Orthodox rabbi, essayist, poet, and scholar of Judaism and Jewish philosophy at Ben Gurion University.

The Makuya’s love for Israel is unlimited.  They make regular pilgrimages to Israel and send their children to study at Israeli universities.  Some have even learned Tanach in Hebrew.   The Times of Israel wrote a stunning piece on “Israel’s Most Unwavering Supporters” the full story here.

Teshima instilled in Makuya adherents’ unconditional love for and commitment to Israel.  During the Six Day War in 1967, he sent a telegram to Japanese students studying in Israel, urging them, “Stay as long as you can and help Israel.”  Many students volunteered.  Following the war, he said, “Israel was the birthplace of the Bible and the homeland of our redeemer.  Without Israel, we could have neither salvation nor redemption.  In fulfillment of the Bible’s prophecy, Jerusalem was restored after 2000 years.”

Teshima’s devotion to Israel stands in marked contrast to Japan’s infamous anti-Semitism.  He was able to visit Israel in 1971 only after Japan established diplomatic relations with Israel.  The 1973 Yom Kippur War brought into focus Japan’s dependence on Arab countries for oil which exacerbated anti-Israel feelings.  Ill at the time with terminal cirrhosis, Teshima organized a march with 3,000 Makuya followers through the streets of Tokyo to marshal support for Israel.  Three weeks later, he collapsed and died.

Teshima’s successor and son-in-law, Dr. Akiva Djindo, upheld Teshima’s commitment.  A physicist who received his PhD from the University of California at Berkley, Djindo told Israel’s President Chaim Herzog in 1991 that he hastened to Israel immediately after the Gulf War erupted because “we of the Makuya derive our spiritual sustenance from your faith and hope…You will continue to be a light onto the nations.”

This phenomenon of Japanese philo-Semitism is fascinating and leaves one pondering from where it stems.  One theory maintains that the Japanese people – or at least the imperial family – descend from the 10 lost tribes of Israel.  According to Japanese legend, the Hebrew letters that spell the name of G-d are written on the four corners of the imperial mirror.

Whereas Japan was allied with Nazi Germany during World War II, it defied German pressure to enact anti-Jewish legislation.  The Fugu Plan, a plan to resettle Jews to Manchuria, was discussed often and widely yet never materialized.  Despite orders to the contrary, in 1941, Seno Sugihara, Japan’s consul general in Kovno, Lithuania, issued thousands of visas to Jews who were seeking to flee the Nazis.  Thanks to Sugihara’s munificence, the Mirrer Yeshiva survived.  Also, in 1942, Mitsugi Shibata, Japan’s consul general in Shanghai, learned that local Germans were plotting to kill 18,000 Jews.  Shibata warned the community and, through contacts in the foreign ministry, squelched the plan.

In The Japanese and the Jews, Hebrew University’s Ben-Ami Shillony discusses several similarities between Jews and Japanese.  Both regard themselves as the “chosen people.”  While there are differences between Judaism and Shinto, both are life-affirming religions that do not view suffering favorably.

It is astonishing that Jews constitute only .0016% of the population in Japan.  Yet the Makuya champion Judaism and Israel.

Clearly, they can be counted among the Chasidei Umos HaOlam – the righteous of this world.

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