Last month, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Committee for Yiddish presented a lecture by Yoshiji Hirose, a Japanese professor of English literature and translator of Yiddish into Japanese.
Hirose, the author of several books about Yiddish, including The Symbolic Meaning of Yiddish and In Love with the Yiddish Language and the Yiddish World, began his love affair with Yiddish and Jewish culture when he was a graduate school student and discovered the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
In town to deliver a lecture about Setsuzo Kotsuji, a Japanese Hebrew scholar who saved thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution, Hirose spoke to The CJN about Kotsuji’s legacy, as well as his own work as a Jewish studies and Yiddish language scholar.
Can you tell me about Setsuzo Kotsuji and what he did to help Jews flee Nazi persecution during the Second World War?
Setsuzo Kotsuji was an unknown Japanese Schindler, I should say, because Chiune Sugihara was a very well-known figure as a Japanese Schindler. He was a second one who helped a lot of Jews who came to Japan.
The visas issued by Mr. Sugihara were just valid for only 10 days so that there was no way to go out from Japan within 10 days at the time in the 1940s. Dr. Kotsuji helped them to go out from Japan, but during the time, some of them stayed several months. Also, the Jewish communities in the Kobe helped them.
It wasn’t enough, because they needed official permits to stay there, so Dr. Kotsuji worked for them and negotiated with the foreign ministry and local authorities in Kobe, and finally he got the permissions for all of them so they safely could get out from Japan to America, Canada and other worlds.
How many did he help?
According to his papers, he helped about 4,600. So many people. You can imagine how many people are descendants now.
There is a push to get him recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem.
Yes, I was invited to talk with the Israeli ambassador in Tokyo and she told me that Israel is interested in recommending him to Yad Vashem as a righteous man. They are collecting materials and documents to prove how he helped so many people at the risk of his life, and not only his, but also his family’s lives. I’m helping them to collect documents and maybe some survivors may have some documents to prove that. It has to be very cautiously examined because it has to be very official. They are working on it and I’m very happy to hear that as a Japanese person.
You don’t often hear about Japanese men who have studied about Judaism and Yiddish. How did you first become interested in this?
Forty years ago, before you were born, I had an assignment in graduate school to write a paper on Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Nobel Prize winner, a Jewish writer and quite well-known. One of his works was published in 1978. At the time, it was the starting point for me to study Jewish literature in English. It was translated. He wrote most of his works in Yiddish. In 1978, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature … and it was translated to English.
When I received the book, from the first page, I was very, very inspired and I was deeply impressed by the work. I can’t explain why I was so impressed.
I found some similarities between Jewish culture and Japanese culture.
One of your books is called In Love with the Yiddish Language and the Yiddish World. Can you give me an example of what it was that made you fall in love with Yiddish?
(In Japanese and Jewish culture,) there is a very close relationship between parents and children, such a strong bond between them and also respect for ancestors and a very strong sense of religiosity, and also we tend to pay much respect to traditions. A good example is Fiddler on the Roof. That is very, very popular and has been performed in Japan hundreds of times. Everyone knows Fiddler on the Roof. We can feel that kind of a close relationship between father and daughters. So many Japanese… believe that this was written by a Japanese writer because, even though the costumes are different, the essence of it is just like ours.
‘thanks to Yiddish studies and the Yiddish language, I can feel closer to the Jewish culture’
Maybe that was a good reason why I started studying the Yiddish language, and once I started studying – I don’t know how many people study it here in Canada, but Yiddish is not very popular, of course, in my country. There are maybe five to 10 scholars studying the Yiddish language, but there are no native Yiddish speakers in my country.
I have been doing Yiddish studies for over 30 years and, thanks to Yiddish studies and the Yiddish language, I can feel closer to the Jewish culture. When I talk with modern Jewish people, they do not speak Yiddish, but still they feel also and can respond to my attachment to the Yiddish language. This is the key for me to be familiar with the Jewish people here, not only on the American continent, but in European countries, so that whenever I speak about Yiddish language, they automatically change their attitude towards me.
English is not enough. If I speak to them in English, well, everyone speaks English. When I learned Yiddish in New York in New York University, I visited a house of a rabbi there and I asked over the intercom if the rabbi was there and told them I was from Japan, so on and so forth. But the answer was, “The rabbi is not here today.” I changed my language from English to Yiddish and all of a sudden the rabbi was there! Shalom aleichem!
I’m also interested in the young Jewish people here in Canada and what interests they have about their ancestors’ language. Modern Hebrew is quite different from Yiddish…. Yiddish is something special. It must sound strange for you to hear about Jewish tradition from a Japanese man!
There are quite a few Japanese professors who are interested in Jewish American literature in English. But without Yiddish, it is almost impossible for Japanese people to come closer to the world of the Jewish heart or Jewish religion. That’s my opinion. I often talk about the importance of the Yiddish language in Japan and in America and Canada. In Canada, there are still many Yiddish speakers. I can learn a lot from them too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.