Seek and Save
The guests crowded the beautifully set tables in Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz’s tiny Jerusalem apartment. After celebratory l’chaims and impassioned singing, the world renown sage, the dean of the Holy City’s Mirrer yeshiva, stood up to speak. The festive atmosphere immediately turned solemn. There was silence. “My dear Reb Avraham,” the rabbi began warmly, “may you merit to grow in Torah and yiras Shamayim, in line with the aspirations of your pure heart. May you become a true son of Avraham Avinu [Abraham our forefather], after whom you are now named.”
The blessing was one that might be bestowed upon a lad at his bar mitzvah, when, as an adult, his life starts anew. Indeed, a new life, complete with a new name, was beginning for Avraham Kotsuji – at the age of sixty. His story, of how a Japanese college professor became an Orthodox Jew, is perhaps one of the most unusual human dramas of World War II. “We will never forget what you did for us when we were in Japan,” the sage continued. “Nor how you risked your life to save us. The merit of that mesirus nefesh [self-sacrafice] is what stood in your stead and led you to seek shelter under the wings of the Shechina [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 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 and the Shinto’s main house of worship was located there. Quite naturally, Setzuso’s father hoped that he would follow the family tradition and also study for the priesthood. Divine Providence, it seems, had other plans. Ones that would impact the lives of thousands and continue to do so til this very day.
When Setzuso was thirteen, he visited an antique bookshop and discovered a Tanach (complete Hebrew Bible) which had been translated into Japanese. It was the first time he learned about monotheism. Thirstily, he devoured the sacred work. In time he began to embrace the belief in a single G-d as Truth. Gradually he veered away from his polytheistic heritage. After marrying, Setzuso’s search for Truth brought him to America, where he began to study Tanach and Hebrew at a university. When he eventually returned to Japan with a doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic studies, Setzuso continued to broaden his knowledge in these fields.
In 1937, Setzuso published his first book in Japanese on Hebrew language and grammar. He also founded the Tanach and Hebrew Department at Tokyo University. The department attracted many non- Jewish students and, quite rapidly, Professor Kotsuji gained acclaim in Japan as a scholar and thinker of repute. Soon thereafter he became highly esteemed in government circles, where he made many friends. The professor would eventually put those connections to good use in the saving of many lives. At that time, a number of Japanese researchers were publishing studies that linked their nation to the Ten Lost Tribes. Though erroneous, the 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 never actually met Torah-observant Jews. His first encounter with such individuals would come 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 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 Rav (spiritual leader), Rabbi Moshe Aharon Kiskilov.
Prof. Kotsuji’s friendship and admiration for Jewry peaked in 1941, when the Jewish refugees of the Holocaust began to stream to Japan in search of a haven. When the Mirrer Yeshivah, one of the most prominent bastions of higher Jewish learning in pre-Holocaust Europe, arrived in the Japanese city of Kobe, Prof. Kotsuji saw an opportunity to finally familiarize himself with the Torah world. In Kobe, he became very close with the academy’s roshei yeshivah (deans) and talmidim (students), whose refinement and nobility of spirit, he would later relate, had a profound impact on him.
The Jewish refugees’ entry permits to Japan were in actuality only transfer visas, which expired within two weeks of their arrival. Although the Japanese authorities extended these visas a number of times, after a while there pressure was exerted upon the yeshiva to leave Japan and continue to their “destination” – which was, of course, non-existent and would have meant certain death. For purely humanitarian reasons, Prof. Kotsuji became involved in the refugees’ plight and made vigorous efforts to have their visas extended. Toward this goal, 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, Prof. Kotsuji, in an effort to preserve lives, bribed the officials with large sums of money, which he borrowed from his wealthy brother-in-law. He repaid the debt 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 then under Japanese rule. As more and more Jewish refugees streamed into Japan, anti-Semitic sentiments skyrocketed. Germany, at the time Japan’s ally, attempted to persuade Japan to expel its Jews. Poisonous anti-Semitic propaganda flooded the Japanese media and revolting caricatures of Jews were regularly plastered throughout Japanese newspapers.
In 1941, on the eve of Japan’s war against the United States, Japan and Germany became closer still. And anti-Semitism in Japan, a country which had barely any Jews, intensified to the point that high ranking Japanese leaders publicly blamed the Jews for both World Wars, claiming that wherever Jews go, they spread havoc. Prof. Kotsuji countered these accusations by waging a vigorous and brave battle against anti-Semitic incitement. Determined to halt it, and to portray the Jews to the Japanese in a positive light, he published a book, titled “The True Character of the Jewish Nation”. In it he exploded all of the German myths and lies about the Jews, and portrayed the Jewish Nation as highly ethical and as the Chosen Nation to whom G-d bequeathed the true faith.
Prof. Kotsuji also began traveling throughout Japan, delivering lectures in which he praised the Jewish Nation and again 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 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 Rabbe, Rabbi Shimon Kalisch, 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 direct 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 indeed banished the Jewish refugees to Shanghai, Prof. Kotsuji 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 fine attributes of the Jewish Nation.
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 refused to stop speaking out against the Nazis. When the publisher of his forthcoming book asked him to delete the denouncements of the Nazis, Prof. Kotsuji refused.
Prof. Kotsuji was warned by many that he was risking his life by publishing such material and delivering his lectures. But the courageous professor paid no attention. 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. Prof. Kotsuji was accused of encouraging that plot and of abetting Japan’s enemies, the Jews. 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 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 suddenly appeared at the prison where the professor was being held. The colonel was startled to see 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 the Divine, and induced him to conclude that the Creator protects those who defend Jewry.
When the war ended, the Jewish refugees, who by then 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 Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), a project which enabled him to better understand the relationship between the Divine and the Jewish Nation. During that period, Prof. Kotsuji continued to correspond with his friends from the Kobe period – the talmidei chachamim (scholars) of the Mirrer Yeshivah. When he felt that he was ready to accept himself the beauty and depth of Jewish observance and belief, he informed those friends that he would be coming to Jerusalem to convert.
In 1959, sixty-year-old Professor Setzuso Kotsuji converted to Judaism. He was renamed Avraham ben Avraham Kotsuji and warmly welcomed to the Jewish faith by his friends from the Mirrer yeshiva, which he was responsible for preserving and which today with its Jerusalem and Brooklyn campuses is again among Judaism’s most prominent institutions of higher learning. Professor Avraham Kotsuji spent the final years of his life in Brooklyn’s fervently-Orthodox community. The heads of the Mirrer Yeshivah formed a special committee that rallied to his aid and raised money to support and care for all of his needs.
Avraham ben Avraham Kotsuji returned his soul to the Creator on the 5th of Cheshvan, 5734/1974. His casket, in accordance with his will, was brought to Jerusalem, where he was buried atop Har HaMenuchos. His funeral was attended by a large throng of the worlds’s most prominent rabbinical authorities, communal leaders and students of the Mirrer Yeshivah. May his name be forever remembered and blessed.
D. Sofer is a writer for the Monsey, New York-based weekly, Yated Neeman.