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The Japanese Convert

May 9, 2009 | by D. Sofer

One of World War II's most unusual heroes.

There were many guests crowded around beautifully set tables in Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz's small apartment, located in the Mirrer Yeshivah in Jerusalem.

Rising to speak, Rav Chaim, the Mir's illustrious rosh yeshivah, warmly called out, “Dear Reb Avraham, may you merit to grow in Torah and fear of Heaven, in line with the aspirations of your pure heart! May you become a true son of Avraham Avinu, after whom you are now named.”

This was no bar-mitzvah celebration. The celebrant was Setzuso Kotsuji, a 60-year-old Japanese professor, who had recently been circumcised upon converting to Judaism, taking on the Hebrew name "Avraham."

“We will never forget what you did for us when we were in Japan,” Rav Chaim continued, “nor how you risked your life to save us. The merit of that self-sacrifice is what stood in your stead and led you to seek shelter under the wings of the Shechina [the Divine Presence] and to become a genuine member of the Nation you helped so much.”


Setzuso Kotsuji was born in 1900 into an aristocratic Japanese family. His father, who himself
was a prominent Shinto priest, descended from a long-line of well-known priests.

Kiyoto, Setzuso's birthplace, was the center of the Shinto religion. His father hoped that Setzuso would naturally follow the family tradition and study for the priesthood.

Setzuso instead embarked on an epic search for truth. When he was 13, he visited an antique bookshop in which he discovered a Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, which had been translated into Japanese. Thirstily, he devoured that sacred work and learned about monotheism. Realizing that this was the truth, he slowly began to veer away from the polytheistic Shinto religion. In the end, he stopped attending the Shinto temple altogether and searched for someone to teach him more about Judaism.

After his marriage, Setzuso's search for the truth brought him to the United States, where he began to
study Tanach and Hebrew in an American university. When he returned to Japan with a doctorate in
Hebrew and Judaic studies, he continued to broaden his knowledge of these subjects.

In 1937, he published his first book in Japanese on Hebrew language and grammar. At that time, he also founded the Tanach and Hebrew Department at the Tokyo University. This department attracted many non-Jewish students and, quite rapidly, Professor Kotsuji gained acclaim in Japan as a scholar and thinker of repute. He was also highly esteemed in government circles, where he made many friends. He would subsequently utilize these connections to help the Jewish refugees who were to arrive to Japan. Prof. Kotsuji published other studies on Judaism, Tanach and Hebrew.

At that time, various Japanese researchers published studies which linked the Japanese nation to
the Ten Lost Tribes exiled by Sancheriv. These erroneous claims evoked a wave of interest in Judaism
among Japan's intelligentsia and Prof. Kotsuji's books became widely read.

During his studies in the United States, Prof. Kotsuji had not encountered Torah-observant Jews. He
first met such Jews in Charbin, the capital of Manchuria, where a large community of former
Russian Jews had existed since 1890. When Manchuria was conquered by Japan, the Japanese
emperor invited Prof. Kotsuji to serve as his Jewish Affairs Advisor. Prof. Kotsuji accepted this offer and moved to Charbin, where he remained for a few years. While there, the professor formed warm relationships with its Jewish community and its chief rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Aharon Kiskilov.

Prof. Kotsuji's friendship and admiration for the Jewish people reached a peak in 1941, when the Jewish refugees of the Holocaust began to stream to Japan in search of a haven.

When the Mirrer Yeshivah arrived in the Japanese city of Kobe, Prof. Kotsuji went there to familiarize
himself with the Torah world. In Kobe, he became very close with the Mir's illustrious rabbis and students, whose refinement and nobility of spirit had a profound impact on him.


The permits which the Jewish refugees had received to enter Japan were only transfer visas, meant to
expire within two weeks of their arrival there. Although the Japanese authorities extended these visas a number of times, after a while there was pressure exerted upon the yeshiva to leave Japan and continue to their “destination” -- which was, of course, non-existent since they had nowhere else to go.

For purely humanitarian reasons, Prof. Kotsuji became involved in the refugees' problems and made vigorous efforts to have their visas extended. To achieve this, he utilized his friendship with Japan's Foreign Affairs minister. When top ranking members of Kobe's police force opposed the extension of these visas, Professor Kotsuji bribed them with vast sums of money, which he borrowed from his wealthy brother-in-law, and repaid himself.

As a result of Prof. Kotsuji's intervention, the Japanese authorities agreed to extend the refugees'
visas several times, letting them stay for eight months instead of the original two-week period. Later, when the Japanese decided to banish the Jews from Japan, they did not expel them completely but
instead deported them to Shanghai, China, which was under Japanese rule.


As more and more Jewish refugees streamed into Japan, anti-Semitic sentiment increased. This was
because Germany, Japan's ally, attempted to persuade Japan to expel its Jews. This poisonous anti-Semitic propaganda flooded the Japanese media and revolting caricatures of Jews were plastered all over the Japanese newspapers. In 1941, the eve of Japan's war against the United States, Japan and Germany became even closer and anti-Semitism intensified. High-ranking Japanese leaders began to publicly blame the Jews for both World Wars, claiming that wherever Jews go, they spread havoc.

Prof. Kotsuji countered these accusations and waged a vigorous and brave battle against this anti-
Semitic incitement. Determined to portray the Jews to the Japanese in a positive light, he
published a book, called "The True Character of the Jewish Nation," in which he exploded all of the German myths and lies about the Jews, and portrayed the Jewish people as a highly ethical, righteous nation.

Prof. Kotsuji traveled throughout Japan, delivering lectures that praised the Jewish people and refuted the lies of her enemies.

Prof. Kotsuji traveled throughout Japan, delivering lectures that praised the Jewish people and refuted the lies of her enemies. He even appealed to the Japanese to assist the Jews, declaring, “Divine Providence has brought thousands of unfortunate refugees to our shores, so that we should help them and grant them a safe haven, where they will find peace and tranquility. This is our mission in life. Let us not betray it.”

Prof. Kotsuji practiced what he preached, and much of the humane treatment the Japanese accorded
the Jewish refugees may be attributed to his efforts. When a delegation comprising the leaders of the Jewish refugees, headed by the Amshinover Rebbe and Rabbi Moshe Shatzkes, met with Japanese government representatives in Tokyo, they were greatly aided by Prof. Kotsuji who acted as their mediator and translator. As a result of his intervention, the Japanese improved their attitude toward the Jewish refugees and withstood Germany's pressure to banish the Jews from Japan, at least temporarily.

In 1941, when the Japanese government changed its attitude and banished the Jewish refugees to Shanghai, he continued to maintain warm and active ties with the Jews. Even though Japan was relatively empty of Jews at that time, he still delivered lectures on the positive contributions of the Jewish people. However, such activity was particular risky since the Japanese government was led by a pro-Nazi nationalist group which wrathfully persecuted all of its opponents. But this did not deter Prof. Kotsuji, who spoke out against the Nazis nonetheless. When the publisher of his book asked him to delete the denouncements of the Nazis, Prof. Kotsuji refused.


Many warned Prof. Kotsuji that he was risking his life by publishing such material and delivering his
lectures. But the courageous professor paid no attention to them. Towards the end of 1942, the
Japanese Bureau of Investigation began to believe the German reports that Jewish subversives were planning to gain control of the world, and they accused Prof. Kotsuji of abetting Japan's enemies, the Jews.

Prof. Kotsuji was arrested and interrogated under torture. Then a miracle occurred.

Prof. Kotsuji was arrested and interrogated under torture, in which his interrogators demanded that he
reveal his role in the plot. When he said that there was no such group of Jewish subversives, and that it was all a figment of the imaginations of the anti-Semites, he was further tortured to the point that his life was in danger.

Then a miracle occurred. At the peak of the interrogation, a high-ranking Japanese colonel who knew
Prof. Kotsuji very well, visited the prison where the professor was being held. The colonel was startled to see the scholarly professor, one of Japan's most respected academics, incarcerated on blatantly false charges and locked up with criminals. Immediately, the colonel demanded that Prof. Kotsuji be released, and that all of the charges against him be dropped.

This incident heightened Prof. Kotsuji's already strong belief in God.


After the war was over, the Jewish refugees who had left the Far East remained in close contact with
Prof. Kotsuji. When the American army arrived in Japan, Prof. Kotsuji became friendly with its chaplain, the observant Rabbi Mental, who taught him more about Judaism.

A few years later, Prof. Kotsuji finished his translation of The Song of Songs, a project which enabled him to better understand the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

Prof. Kotsuji continued to correspond with his friends from the Kobe period - the sages of the Mirrer Yeshivah. When he felt that he was ready to lead a fully observant life, he informed these friends that he would be coming to Jerusalem to convert.

In1959, the 60-year-old Professor Setzuso Kotsuji was warmly welcomed to the Jewish faith by his friends from the Mir and named Avraham ben Avraham Kotsuji.

Professor Avraham Kotsuji spent the final years of his life in a religious community in Brooklyn. During that period, he was ill and penniless. The heads of the Mirrer Yeshivah formed a special committee which rallied to his aid and raised money to support him.

Professor Kotsuji passed away on the 5th of Cheshvan, 5734/1974, in the United States. In accordance
with his will, his was buried in Jerusalem's Har HaMenuchos cemetery. His funeral was attended by a large throng of leading rabbis, communal leaders and students of the Mirrer Yeshivah.

Avraham ben Avraham Kotsuji will go down in history first as one of the world's most outstanding
righteous gentiles, and then as one of Jewry's most outstanding converts. His total dedication to the Jewish people and his willingness to risk his life for them is an everlasting source of inspiration and a pure kiddush Hashem.

May his name be blessed forever.

This article originally appeared in the Yated Neeman.

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