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Japan's Anne Frank

Julian Ryall, TokyoMarch 2, 2015

Anne Frank, the young girl who kept a journal about hiding from the Nazis, captured hearts all over the world - and in Japan in particular. Seventy years after the war, she remains a touchstone for young Japanese.

Page in Anne Frank's diary, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

More than 9,000 kilometers and layers of cultural, historic and linguistic barriers separate Japan and the Netherlands, yet virtually every teenager in this country knows precisely who Anne Frank was.

Translations of the diary that the young Jewish girl kept while in hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II can be found on the bookshelves of junior and senior high schools across Japan, not to mention public libraries. Bookshops still sell a steady number of copies of "The Diary of a Young Girl" each year.

Anne's tale has been turned into Japanese-style manga comics and animated for television screens, meaning that Japanese are among the most regular visitors to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where she hid with her family before they were arrested in 1944 and transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

And, as every Japanese who has read the diary that she kept during those years knows, Anne died just weeks before the end of the conflict at the age of 15.

"After her diary was first published in Japan in 1952, Anne Frank has become the symbol of the 1.5 million Jewish children who were victims of the Holocaust," Makoto Otsuka, the founder of the Holocaust Education Center in Fukuyama City, southern Japan, told DW.

Otsuka set up the center in 1971 after a chance meeting with Otto Frank, Anne's father, that led him to carry out his own research on the Holocaust.

'Opposites attract'

"People visit our center to know more about the history of Europe between 1933 and 1945 and to know what happened to the Jewish people during that era," he said. "Our aim is to have our visitors - and especially the children - think about what we can do to create peace."

Garden at the Holocaust Education Center in Fukuyama City, Copyright: DW/J. Ryall
The tree in Japan stemmed from a chestnut outside Anne Frank's houseImage: DW/J. Ryall

The only facility of its kind in Japan, the center has a collection of artifacts donated from around the world that are used to tell the story of Europe's Jews in the early decades of the last century, as well as a section dedicated to Anne Frank. In the garden is a sapling that was planted on January 27, 2011 - International Holocaust Remembrance Day - after being grown from a cutting from the horse chestnut tree that stood outside Anne's home.

Otsuka believes the relationship between the Jewish and Japanese peoples goes back centuries, giving them a special bond.

"Although there are no historical facts to prove it, there are opinions that the Jewish people and the Japanese people have the same ancestors," he said. "Some people have found common points in Judaism and the Shinto religion, as well as in pronunciations in Hebrew and Japanese."

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and a frequent visitor to Japan, says the attraction could be something of an "opposites attract" phenomenon.

"I think that each sees the other as being unique - and not in a negative sense - while the other factor that has served to bring us closer together is the fact that Jews found a safe haven in Japan, and especially in Shanghai, during the war," he said.

Japan's Schindler

In a little-known story from the war, a Japanese vice counsel stationed at the embassy in Lithuania saved more than 6,000 Jews attempting to flee the Nazis and reach the relative safety of Japanese-held territory in the Far East.

Known as the "Japanese Schindler," after German industrialist Oskar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara defied Tokyo's orders not to issue transit visas for Jews unless they had sufficient funds and documents that would permit them to enter another country after Japan.

Shteltl of Eishyshok wall at the Holocaust Education Center in Fukuyama City, Copyright: DW/J. Ryall
The Holocaust center in Fukuyama City has collected artifacts from all over the worldImage: DW/J. Ryall

Despite their military alliance with Nazi Germany, Japan chose to turn a blind eye to Jews traveling to Japan instead of returning them to their persecutors.

Historians estimated that Sugihara worked up to 20 hours a day issuing visas until he had to leave his post on September 4, 1941, when the consulate in Kaunas was closed.

Posted to other Japanese missions in eastern Europe for the remainder of the war, Sugihara was arrested by Soviet troops at the capture of Bucharest and held in a POW camp with his family for 18 months before being repatriated to Japan. Back in Tokyo, he was asked to resign from the Foreign Ministry, apparently on the grounds of his disobedience in Lithuania.

Granted the honor of the Righteous Among the Nations by the government of Israel in 1985, Sugihara died the following year.

'The Japanese love children'

Today, Sugihara's story is taught in Japanese schools in tandem with that of Anne Frank. "Anne is a very important touchstone in terms of our educational outreach efforts in Japan," said Rabbi Cooper, whose organization has staged a series of exhibitions about the Holocaust in Japan.

And he believes there are a number of reasons why Anne's tale resonates with Japanese people.

"Like Jewish people, the Japanese love children and this is a story of a child in a terrible situation, through no fault of her own," he said. "And she shows real honesty, opening up on so many different levels, including as a teenage girl. She talks about her first kiss, about her hopes for the future." Since she never expected anyone to read her diary, it has a particular sense of authenticity, continued the rabbi.

"A lot of young Japanese people don't have much space or privacy, so there is also a parallel in the struggle to find space for themselves," Cooper added. "But mostly it's a young girl speaking without censorship of her hopes and fears, which are the same today, and despite her life hanging in the balance."