I came across the following anecdote from the Judaism Stack Exchange: https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/5940/jewish-community-in-china-around-ww2/5942

During the questions portion of the lecture someone asked Professor Xin why the Japanese, allies of the Nazis tolerated Jewish emigration from Europe to China during WW2 if the Japanese knew of the Nazi's plans with the Jews? Professor Xin offered an anecdote about how the Japanese, who were not fully understanding of the Nazi animosity towards Jews, gathered some prominent Jews that were in the area and asked them why the Nazis hated them so much. The Jews told the japanese "it's because we are Asian". That got a laugh from the crowd, since Professor Xin had framed the lecture earlier by mentioning that Israel could geographically be considered part of Asia.

(I am not sure if the humor comes across well in writing so I will explain it:) The joke was that the Jews understood that the Japanese, the ones asking them the question, were Asian. So by linking the Jews to Asia they would be suggesting that perhaps the Nazis might have it out for the Japanese as well, and as a result the Japanese would not be so keen on helping the Nazis.

There's an answer with a citation, but it was somewhat qualified:

I can't vouch for the reliability of this source, but the story is found in Warren Kozak, The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser (HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 176-7 (cited in the Wikipedia article on the Shanghai Ghetto):

When the Germans pressed the Japanese to turn over the entire Jewish community [in Shanghai], the Japanese military governor sent for its leaders. Fearing the worst, the community sent a small delegation including the Amshinover Rebbe, Shimon [Shalom] Kalish, along with someone who could translate through English...

The Japanese governor was curious. He did not understand why these Jews were singled out from all other Europeans... Finally the governor broke his silence, speaking in Japanese with a quick, terse question, which was translated by one of his lieutenants into English. The English-Yiddish interpreter then translated it into Yiddish. "Farvoos hoben di Daitschen aich azoy feint - Why do the Germans hate you so much?" Without hesitation and knowing the fate of his community hung on his answer, Reb Kalish told the translator, "Zugim weil mir senen orientalim - Tell him the Germans hate us because we are Oriental."

The Japanese governor, whose face had been stern throughout the confrontation, broke into a slight smile. In spite of the military alliance, he did not accede to the German demand and the Shanghai Jews were never handed over.

To me, it's an amusing anecdote about how easily governments can be manipulated if you fit their ideology, and how arbitrary race is, but it sounds like the kind of thing someone would make up.

Did this exchange, or something similar to it, happen?

  • I read the title to mean "Did the Jews tell the Japanese that the Japanese were asians?" -- Not a very interesting claim... After reading the question it's clear what was meant. I hope my edit is not too awkward.
    – Flimzy
    Commented May 12, 2013 at 18:47
  • @Flimzy I'm ok with the edit.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented May 12, 2013 at 20:52
  • 3
    Please note that oriental and Asian are often conflated incorrectly. In the German context of mid-20th century the Orient would usually be understood in terms of contemporary Near-Middle East. The last stop on the orient express was Istanbul, for example. The rabbi in the anecdote is making a political point, but not about Asia. He is correctly claiming to have oriental, in other words, Middle Eastern, ancestry. Voting down until the title reflects the quote correctly.
    – denten
    Commented May 12, 2013 at 22:27
  • 3
    Aren't they Asian? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – vartec
    Commented May 13, 2013 at 16:24
  • 1
    "Orientalim" means "orientals." See my comment above.
    – denten
    Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 19:22

2 Answers 2


I have done much research into Jewish settlement in imperial Japan but I have never once seen the claim that Jews seriously proposed a link of pan-Asian brotherhood. It is true that some of the Japanese who rescued them believed in some kind of pan-ethnic brotherhood, such as Norihiro Yasue (my article outlining his ideology is on academia.edu), but this was not the explicit reason given for rescuing Jews. The actual reason for the policy was humanitarian need and the duty to grant asylum to political refugees. In the early 1930s, it seems, some Japanese officials wanted to create a Jewish colony in Manchuria to attract their money, but that ended up having little influence on the status quo that emerged when World War II and the Holocaust actually began.

Most of the visas to get to Japan were written by Chiune Sugihara and you can read about his motivations for yourself.

As for the humorous quote, Wikipedia points out that "orientalim" is not good Yiddish and it is unlikely that he actually said this, regardless of what was actually said.

  • A curiosity: the Soviet Union established the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russian Manchuria in 1934. It still exists, but is now about 1% Jewish
    – Henry
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 10:58

The Imperial and Asiatic Quarterly Review and Oriental and Colonial Record, third series, volume IV, (1897), pages 301-311, in the article The Return of the Jews to Palestine and the Zionist Movement, does refer to Jews as oriental.

...prohibited the further entry of Jews into Palestine. Attempts were then made to found colonies in America. But singularly enough, it spite of excellent reports and highflown encomiums and vast sums bestowed upon them, they soon withered and dried up. The oriental plant could not take root outside of Palestine.

Even more clearly, it is stated that in The Jews and Moors in Spain (1886)

We know that the Moors and Jews are Oriental people, and, therefore, not indigenous to the...

So Jews were recognized as originating from Asia and being oriental. Today the term "Asian" is often used in a discriminatory or exclusive way that excludes some people living in or originating from Asia, considering that Asia includes portions of Turkey, Russia, Egypt and all of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, etc, but this use of "Asian" is a modern term.

  • Off topic, but the original Moors and Berbers (before the Arab/Muslim invasions) from Mauretania and Morocco - spot the etymological links - were as western as it was possible to be in the then known world.
    – Henry
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 11:11
  • Generally, the best and easiest way to really tick off an Israeli is to remind them that Israel is in Asia. They so like to think of themselves as European, but Geography simply won't cooperate.
    – Jeffiekins
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 16:50
  • Orient just means "East", as in, they came from the East so they're Oriental. It doesn't specify how far East, just East of here.
    – Separatrix
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 9:05

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