Jews in Manga and Anime

I’m Jewish. I’m not religious, but I like being Jewish. It’s an interesting culture to be around and there’s always food. It’s always fun to share Judaism with others because most Jewish people don’t care about converting anyone, but non-Jewish people don’t know that much about the religion or the culture.

Look familiar?

There are Jews all around the world, from Europe to Africa, the Americas and even Asia, but it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of Jews in Japan. In fact, I’m pretty damn sure there’s almost no Jews. Probably just a few tiny pocket communities and an Israeli consulate somewhere. As a result, Jews and Jewish culture don’t get much attention in manga or anime unless some mangaka decides that the Kabbalistic tree of life looks pretty spiffy and mystical and sticks it in as a background illustration. (*COUGHCOUGHCOUGH*CLAMP*COUGHCOUGH*) Considering how Kabbalah is supposed to be for married men over the age of 40, it doesn’t exactly count as an accurate portrayal of anything Jewish.

That being said: Jews are (somehow) present in a few manga and anime.

The most prevalent of these manga has to be Adolf by Osamu Tezuka, which makes a lot of sense considering the topic is World War II-era Japan and Europe. Although I have not read the series (yet, mostly because when it came out I couldn’t get it for fear my mom would see it and not be happy), I do know that it deals with Jewish children and families and even with Adolf Hilter’s Jewish heritage.

Adolf, in fact, seems to set the trend for Jews being portrayed in anime and manga because there are at least two different anime adaptions of Anne Frank’s Diary. Understandable, since Anne Frank’s Diary is famous all around the world. I can see why people would like Anne Frank’s Diary in anime form. It is very dramatic and very true to her age. I first read it when I was close to her age, how she felt about her situation was very relatable.

The third manga/anime, and probably the most popular one at the moment is Black Lagoon which has Benny, a lax American Jew, as a side character. Unlike the previous examples, Benny is a modern Jew with different feelings about things like the Holocaust than the Jews in Adolf and Anne Frank’s Diary had. He even talks about this in a certain story arc involving some nutty neo-Nazi’s looking for sunken WWII treasure in a U-Boat. I can relate to Benny a lot, actually. He feels pretty much the same way about the Holocaust as I do.  That threw me for a loop when I first saw the aforementioned story arc.

It’s not that I wish for more Jews in manga; we’ve got plenty of other representations in various media. I know why there aren’t very many, but I do like to ponder if there are more Jews in manga or anime that we don’t know about. Are there any fictional manga Jews out there that I’m missing?

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “Jews in Manga and Anime

  1. I don’t think any of the characters are Jewish, but the manga O-Parts Hunter uses that tree of life image as a big plot point from around volume 9.

    • I haven’t read O-Parts Hunter, so I really don’t know if they are Jewish or not, but hot damn do mangaka like to use the Tree of Life. I can’t tell you how freaked out I used to get by seeing Hebrew in my manga. I totally thought these manga people were weird. (Now I know better.)

  2. At a Jewish wedding, I was once handed a music book and instructed to “read it like you would a manga.”

    I guess if Harold Bloom organizes his index of literature according to the Jewish alphabet, and in music, Madonna infamously attempts Kabbalistic themes, then little wonder that the Tree of Life is present in places such as Neon Genesis Evangelion as well. Its use is incoherent and terribly researched, to be sure, but mangaka seem to have a poor track record where the details of historically non-Japanese religions are concerned.

  3. Sara K.

    Jews had been moving to Japan ever since the end of the time of isolation. The first historically significant interaction between Japanese and Jewish society was during the Russo-Japanese war. Japan needed funds, but most of the international financial community didn’t want to deal with them … until Jacob Schiff, a Jew, got involved. The Japanese were both grateful for his assistance and impressed with Jewish financial power.

    During WWII, the Japanese were obviously allies with the Nazis, yet they treated the Jews in Japan comparatively well. Some Jews fled Europe to Japan with both Japanese and Jewish-in-Japan help. The most famous is Sugihara Sempo, who saved about 6,000 Jews by granting visas to enter Japan. A large Jewish community also existed in Shanghai, which during the time was controlled by Japan.

    When my mother went to Japan back in the 1970s, a Japanese group called the Makuya hosted her. They offer free lodging to any Jew who visits Japan (or at least they did … that was a while ago).

    As for manga, Adolf is the only example I could think of (and it was also one of the first manga I read). If I really stretch the definition of ‘Jew’, I could also make a case for Red River. Come to think of it, it’s strange that manga such as ‘From Eroica with Love,’ and ‘Area 88’ don’t mention Jews, since they both occasionally focus on Middle East politics and/or Europe’s WWII legacy (Nazis definitely are discussed in ‘From Eroica with Love’).

    • Sara K.

      I knew I was overlooking something … the main character in Area 88 flies an Israeli fighter plane. It’s not quite the same as having a Jewish character, but there might be some minor character I’m also overlooking.

    • Oh, I figured there were a number of Jews in Japan, just considering the way Jews tend to get around, but I’m still pretty certain that there is not a large community there. Not large enough to be noticed by the general population at least. Plus, my rabbi visited Japan a few years ago and pretty much told me so. Interestingly enough, he found a community of Japanese Christians who were able to sing in Hebrew. I’d also heard a little bit about the Japanese harboring Jews during WWII and I had a relative who lived in the Shanghai ghetto as well.

      To be honest, I think the Japanese are really only vaguely aware of Jews in general. They aren’t a significant population within Japan or in neighboring countries, so how would they be able to tell a Christian Westerner from a Jewish one when they write about Westerners? It’s probably just glossed over because they simply don’t think of it. (Considering most Japanese people aren’t very religious themselves, I’m not surprised they don’t think about it.) That’s probably why Red River doesn’t really have any Jews (they would have been Hebrews back then, technically), though I am a little surprised Eroica doesn’t eventually have a Jewish character in it. It seems like the perfect place to insert one. Oh well.

      • Sara K.

        “To be honest, I think the Japanese are really only vaguely aware of Jews in general. They aren’t a significant population within Japan or in neighboring countries, so how would they be able to tell a Christian Westerner from a Jewish one when they write about Westerners? It’s probably just glossed over because they simply don’t think of it.”

        I agree. After all, it’s not like Westerners don’t do the same. For example, Westerners generally don’t try to distinguish Hakka from other Han Chinese, even though they are a distinct culture and some of modern China’s most famous people are Hakka (I don’t think calling the Hakka ‘the Jews of China’ is appropriate, but I can see the parallels which tempt some people to make the comparison).

        • I would go a step further and say that a lot of Westerners don’t even bother to distinguish between non-European ethnic groups. Some just assume that all African people come from Kenya or something and all Asian people come from China. It sucks, but that’s just how it is. It’s easier on the mind to compartmentalize groups of people like that, I guess. I won’t pretend that I’m not any different when I can’t tell where a person’s from, but I try to ask them eventually.

  4. Ahavah

    Okay, I’m an Ashkenaz Orthodox Jewish otaku, and this topic has interested me for quite some time, so forgive me if I write a bit much. I’ll try to break it up:

    1. ADOLF!!! It’s a great series, and it portrays Jews in a good light. First, a bit of personal family history: my maternal grandfather, from a Hasidic family in Poland, escaped the Holocaust via a visa to Japan and later settled with the Mirrer Yeshiva (formally of Lithuania) in Japanese-Controlled Shang-Hai, so this story is near and dear to my heart.

    My Zaidy lived in Kobe for a couple weeks before going to Shanghai, and as Tezuka accurately portrays, there was a significant Jewish community in Kobe, Japan, who worked tirelessly to save their bethren in Europe during the Holocaust. There is *still* a Jewish community there, though much smaller and mostly Sephardic (from Middle Eastern orugin, as opposed to Ashkenazic European origin).

    In Adolf, Tezuka shows not only the destructive ideologies of the Nazis, but how Jews (including the entire Mirrer Yeshiva, which is kind of a Harvard of the Yeshiva world), were saved through the collaborative efforts of the Kobe Jewish community and Japan. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but the manga ends with a spectacular mano-a-mano battle between an Israeli soldier and an escaped Nazi hiding in the Middle East. Your mom might love it! (I sure did)!

    2. Other depictions of Jews and Judaism in manga and anime are few and far between. I know a bunch of Jewish fans who want to claim Cowboy Bebop’s Spike Spiegal because his name *sounds* Jewish, but the creators insisted that they picked the name “Spiegal” because they thought it sounded cool, without anythought as to what his ethnicity or religion is. Oh, well.

    Fritz Lang, the real life German-Jewish filmaker of “Metropolis” fame has a huge cameo in the FullMetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shambala movie. I’ve read that the depictions of him was very inaccurate, and I don’t know enough about him to confirm or deny that assesment.

    3. Kabbalah being misinterpreted in any secular media (or being turned into a cult of its own right): UGH!!! As you’ve correctly stated, Kabbalah and the Zohar are relegated to learned middle-aged men in Ashkenazic tradition. Take all you see with a grain of Kosher salt (which is huge! Ever seen Kosher Salt? ;) )

    Although I noticed a kabbalistic interpretation of G-d’s Hebrew name using gemmatria (a Torah mathimatical code, which makes sense since each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value; example Aleph=1) in the Zombie Loan manga by Peach-Pit which really impressed me. *shrugs* but I’m still taking that salt with me, as last I checked, Orthodoxy has nothing to say about Zombies, even in Kabbalah. ;)

    Thanks for bringing up this topic. It’s making me want to pick up Black Lagoon to check out Benny!

    Oh, and for anyone interested; there is definately a Chabad in Tokyo (the Hasidic Lubabivitch group that sets up outposts all over the world). I checked out their website once, and they have up-to-date info about Synagouges and Kosher food in Japan. They also sell Kosher Bento lunches! I’d love to get a chance to visit them someday :)

    • Thanks for all your insight! I’ve never met an Orthodox otaku before! I belong to a conservative synagogue, but I’m not much of a practicing Jew because I don’t feel the need for organized prayer. My family’s Ashkenazi too, from Austria and Hungary originally.

      My mom is actually quite sensitive to those kinds of things. While Tezuka is great, she doesn’t understand manga very well and I wouldn’t want to push it because she’s actually a Holocaust survivor herself. She can be very sensitive some times. I think I mentioned previously in the comments that I had other relatives who escaped from Austria and lived in the Shanghai ghetto. I’ve only just started hearing about some of the stuff Jews did in Japan in WWII, but it seems like there might be more Jews there then than there is now.

      I’ve had many people talking to me on Twitter about anime characters with Jewish-sounding names, which has irritated me quite frankly. I’ve met plenty of people with “Jewish” last names who aren’t Jewish and a lot of Jewish-sounding names are just plain German. Unless their first name is Shlomo, I do not assume. I didn’t know about Fritz Lang’s “cameo”, though. I will have check that out because I feel like if they’re portraying a real-historical figure, he’s Jewish whether they say he is or not.

      I don’t really care about Kabbalah being practiced incorrectly, but it is a little weird to see it pop up in anime and manga when you know it has nothing to do with anything. The tree of life is definitely not a concept most Jews understand, let alone most non-Jews. Like I said, it’s just “mystic” and “spiritual” enough to use when things are getting all supernatural. But oh man… I haven’t talked about the gemmatria in years. (I used to go to a private Jewish school.) And they put it in ZOMBIE LOAN? I wouldn’t have seen that coming. But yeah, I think there aren’t any zombies in any Jewish texts… that would be kind of weird.

      I think you will enjoy Black Lagoon if you don’t mind the sometimes crazy violence and the warped mindsets you come across. Benny’s Jewish-ness isn’t a real focus, but I feel he’s a pretty accurate portrayal of most American Jews.

      And finally: a Chabad in Tokyo? I am so not surprised! They’re everywhere! Although the Kosher bento sounds intriguingly delicious.

  5. MB

    I believe Cameron Bloom in the original Mobile Suit Gundam was jewish, and if so was the only jew in the entire franchise.

    also Tsugumi Rosenmeier in Genesis of Aquarion

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  8. David

    Fritz Lang from the Full Metal Alchemist Movie, Conqueror of Shambala, was in real life only Jewish by a mother who converted to Catholicism. He was never a practicing Jew. But, since his mother was born into a Jewish family, that was good enough for the Nazis, so he had to flee for his life. I don’t remember what he called himself in the movie, but the bit about his wife becoming interested with Nazism was true, which they do mention in the movie. So, we really can’t say that the Fuhrer (of Full Metal Alchemist) isn’t really Jewish, since his our world counterpart wasn’t a practicing one.

    Of course, Benny does say he is Jewish. However, I was under the impression that actually was an English dub insert. Does anyone know if that’s true or not?

    I find it interesting no one has mentioned the Goldsmiths and the Goldschmidts from Blood Plus. No, they don’t say they are Jewish; however, they are based of the Rothschild family (which, for those who don’t know, were and are an influential European family that is Jewish). The progenitor of the family had five sons: Amschel, Salomon, Nathan, Jakob, and Karlmann. For Blood Plus fans, the five Chevalier to Diva are Amshel, Solomon, Nathan, James, and Karl. Of those, Amshel and Solomon are the most likely to be Jewish, as they are related to Joel (they are Goldsmiths, which is a branch off of the Goldschmidt family). Oh, and Rothschild means Red Shield, which is the name of Joel Goldschmidt’s organization. Like I said, they ultimately don’t say a word about it; however, it’s supportable.

    Someone mentioned Tsugumi Rosenmeyer from Aquarion. There really isn’t much support for that, other than the last name. That’s like saying that both Nina Einstein and Gino Weinberg from Code Geass are Jewish: They choose Nina’s name because of the nuclear connection, and besides I don’t want that character to be a member of the tribe.

    Spike Spiegel is supposed to be based of a Japanese guy. There are Japanese Jews (I’ve met one :D), but Spike isn’t likely to be one. Still, he does look Jewish to most Western viewers, has a obviously Jewish last name, and uses a Jericho 941, which is, btw, an Israeli gun. So, it’s actually a pretty understandable assumption. Of course, they should have made him Jewish: I’m a little nervous about Keanu Reeves playing him in the Live Action, if they do get around to making it. Maybe a talented Jewish actor should be picked, instead.

    The interesting thing about Cowboy Bebop is that they have their paranormal guest on a t.v. show named Yuri Geller. It’s the Nazca lines episode, where Ed is introduced. Uri Geller is a real Jew, and a magician. On that note, Yurigera (or something to that regard) is the Japanese name for the Pokemon Kadabra, and considering Kadabra holds the trademark spoon associated with Yuri Geller, it’s most likely a reference, if you want to count it. So, add Kadabra to the list.

    In Ghost Stories, they do make Leo Jewish; though, he is the neb archetype. For those not associated with Ghost Stories, it’s the dubbing company throwing away the script, and changing the serious children’s anime to something adult and comical. It’s worth watching; but, it’s not actually Japanese people making Leo Jewish, but American voice actors.

    One last person I kind of feel like bringing up is Lavi from D. Gray Man. We don’t know his past, or his real name (it’s probably not Lavi); however, Lavi is a name in Hebrew, and I do know a fair amount of Jews with red hair. Lavi is another word in Hebrew for Lion (usually it’s Aryeh), and King David, a supposed red-head, was from Judah, whose symbol was the Lion. Also, he used a hammer, which makes me think of Judah the Maccabbee (Maccabbee, being Hebrew for Hammer). Probably a string of coincidences, I know. And Lavi is also the name of the girl from Last Exile, so it’s possible that it’s just random. But, she also has that red hair.

    • Benny from Black Lagoon is actually Jewish. It’s one of the few claims that is totally supported by the source material. I watched the show subbed and he was still Jewish and he talked about how he felt about the Nazis during an episode that involved some artwork stolen by Nazis and Neo Nazis who were trying to reclaim it.

      As for the others…I’m afraid your claims that these characters are Jewish are just as shaky as those you doubted. It doesn’t seem like any of the ones you mentioned are specifically created as Jews. It’s all too vague to tell if they’re SUPPOSED to be Jewish or just characters based on other people who just happen to be Jewish (but that’s not an important part of the character.)

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