x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Another country

World A two-decade old manga about Nazis and Jews in Japan shadows Amy Rosenberg as she walks the streets of Kobe - and examines the remnants of that city's bygone cosmopolitanism.

A two-decade old manga about Nazis and Jews in Japan shadows Amy Rosenberg as she walks the streets of Kobe - and examines the remnants of that city's bygone cosmopolitanism. One Thursday last spring, I rode the Hankyu train line from Kyoto to Kobe, arriving in the narrow port city on the southwestern coast of Japan's main island just before lunchtime. I did my best to ignore the alluring yakitori and ramen shops in the tiny alleyways surrounding Sannomiya station; I wanted to head straight up the large hill - small mountain is more like it - that rises behind Kobe's gleaming downtown, to the Ohel Shelomo Synagogue at the top. The synagogue serves Kobe's dwindling Jewish community, and I wanted to see it. I didn't know why exactly. I only knew that Adolf had led me there.

Adolf is a five-volume manga (Japanese comics) series by Osamu Tezuka, also known as Manga-no-Kamisama, or the God of Comics. Originally published in Japanese in 1985, it opens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and its story unfolds across more than 1,200 pages of tightly-packed black-and-white frames that span all the years of the Second World War (plus a coda set in the 1970s). Its narrator, the Japanese reporter Sohei Toge, travels to Berlin to cover the games and visit his younger brother, Isao, who, it turns out, is a communist engaged in anti-Nazi activities. Isao has something to give Toge: "When the public hears about this," he says, "Hitler's going to fall! This will throw the Nazi party into utter chaos!" Toge goes to Isao's apartment to learn more, but he finds only a ransacked living room, a wide-open window, and his brother's limp, bloody body in the branches of the tree below.

Eventually, Toge finds out what Isao died for - documents that prove the Jewish ancestry of Adolf Hitler - and he upends his entire existence trying to keep these documents from various pursuers: the Japanese secret police; French, Russian and American spies; and, most of all, the Nazis. (Tezuka's plot borrows from rumours, which the Nazi Party began furiously trying to stamp out as early as 1930, that Hitler was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Jewish scion who had impregnated his family's young cook, a shiksa from out of town.) For Toge, the only way to render his brother's death meaningful is to protect the papers with his life until they're delivered into the right hands and properly publicised. But his enemies hunt him relentlessly, and he becomes a marked man. No one wants to risk association with him: he loses his job, is repeatedly evicted, and cannot find new work. After five years of living this way in various cities and towns throughout the Kansai region, he ends up in Kobe.

There, he finds work in an upstart restaurant run by a Japanese woman who has mastered the preparation of German cuisine. This is not as strange as it may sound. Kobe has long been considered one of Japan's most cosmopolitan cities. From the mid-nineteenth century, after Commodore Matthew Perry's famous "opening" of Japan, until the devastating earthquake of 1995, which destroyed most of the city, it was one of Japan's busiest and most important ports. Traders from various parts of Asia and the West settled there in the late 1800s, establishing one of the few international communities Japan has known.

This intermingling has left some odd effects. Climbing the zigzagging streets up the hillside, my attention was captured by one surreal element after another. One shop had a giant crab sculpture with moving claws in place of an awning; another had a larger-than-life Hello Kitty doll outside; atop one building was a Dutch windmill; outside of another was a sculpture of twisted steel girders meant to memorialize the victims of the earthquake. Then there were the ijinkan, "foreigners' houses", gigantic structures built on the hill by turn-of-the-century settlers. Two or three stories high, they sport clapboard siding, Tudor-style wooden frames, shuttered glass windows, and spires. They look unreal next to the traditional Japanese abodes surrounding them.

Odder still was the feeling that I'd seen all this before - in Adolf. Many of Tezuka's works overflow with the exaggerations that typify manga: googly eyes, cartoony cuteness, physically impossible actions. Though these elements are present in Adolf, the work is considered Tezuka's most realistic. There's an extraordinary level of detail to many of the frames, especially the ones depicting Kobe, which Tezuka knew well, having grown up in a nearby town. There are slow, cinematic close-ups that suggest characters' inner states - 16 consecutive frames convey a young man's anger when he imagines his new stepfather making love to his mother - and equally cinematic wide-angle pans that present, for instance, Kobe's entire port from the very hill I was climbing. The city was etched on my brain with all the visual immediacy of Tezuka's illustrations alongside the psychological intimacy I had achieved with his characters who populate the place, particularly Adolf Kaufmann and Adolf Kamil.

Best friends on the verge of adolescence, Kaufmann and Kamil bond because they are both outsiders in Kobe, even though both were born and raised there. Kaufmann is a half-breed, the young son of a Nazi diplomat and a Japanese woman (who runs the restaurant where Toge works). Kamil is a Jewish German boy whose entrepreneurial parents settled in Kobe before his birth to open a bakery. Both read and speak Japanese fluently, and both consider themselves Japanese nationals, but still the kids around them taunt them with names like "Whitey". The taunts only bring them closer together, and they swear eternal loyalty to one another.

Kaufmann's father, however, learns of the friendship and forbids it. "He's German," Herr Kaufmann says, "but he comes from a different race. He and his family are members of an inferior race. Don't you ever forget that." To which Kamil responds: "Ha! Well, this isn't Germany, this is Japan! My Dad said even the Nazis can't touch us in Japan." In part to separate his son from his Jewish friend, Herr Kaufmann sends him to Berlin to attend high school at the Adolf Hitler Schule - essentially a training academy for the Third Reich. There, Kaufmann immediately excels in all subjects except one. "You're at the top of your class," the headmaster tells him. "However, we have one problem with you ... You defend Jews!" Eager to excel, the young man pores over Mein Kampf until, sweating and trembling as he reads, he shouts: "I understand, I understand! It all makes sense! I can hate Jews, I can spit on them, I can kick them around!" Kaufmann's newfound fervour, which he quickly demonstrates in a horrific betrayal of his old friend Kamil, doesn't stop him from falling in love with a Jewish girl, Elisa, nor smuggling her to safety in Kobe, nor asking Kamil to take care of her.

Is it true, what Kamil told Kauffman - that the Nazis couldn't touch the Jews in Japan? Jews have a long history there. In the mid-19th century, a group of Jewish merchants established a solid community in Yokohama, a city just south of present-day Tokyo. Around the same time, Jewish Russians fleeing pogroms settled on the other side of the country, in Nagasaki, while a handful of Jewish traders from the Middle East and Western Europe settled in Kobe. During the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, the Nagasaki group dispersed, handing its Torah over to the Kobe community. In 1923, after an earthquake in Yokohama, that city's Jews moved to Kobe; by 1936, the Kobe Jewish community, numbering about a thousand, was the largest in Japan.

It grew even larger in the ensuing years, before shrinking again after the war. In 1940, Chiune Sugihara, the vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Kuanas, famously disobeyed direct orders and issued transit visas through Japan to 6,000 Polish and Lithuanian Jews. They travelled via the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, and from there by boat to Kobe, where many of them lived for only a few weeks before moving on to the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai. Some of them managed to stay on for good, though, or, like the 500 members of Poland's Mir Yeshiva - the only European yeshiva to have survived the war - to establish temporary headquarters there. On the whole, they lived comfortably with the Japanese, whose government treated relatively well the 20,000 Jews of the Shanghai Ghetto who came under its control when it occupied China in 1937 - especially in comparison to how it treated the Chinese and Koreans around the same time. (Add to that the 30,000 or so Jews who had long lived in Harbin and other parts of Northern China, which came under Japanese rule during the war, and you've got a whole city worth of Jews the Japanese chose to protect rather than destroy.)

Of course, how long could a Jewish community thrive in a country famous for excluding foreigners, especially once places like Israel and the United States began to beckon? In the decade following the war, most of Kobe's Jews left; a few moved to Tokyo, which now hosts Japan's largest Jewish community, made up of almost 400 members. By the end of Adolf, 30 years after the war, even Kamil has left. He lives in Israel, where he's a soldier; Kaufmann, who has joined the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), hunts him down there. Tezuka is stretching things here, of course, but he isn't so much trying to draw parallels between the Nazis and the PLO as to show how twisted with hatred Kaufmann has become. He will fight Jews no matter what the context, and he will seek, until the end of his days, to destroy Adolf Kamil, first because he believes Kamil stole Elisa away from him, but also because his betrayal of Kamil has made him hate himself - and therefore hate Kamil all the more.

I finally reached the top of the hill, accompanied by my Dutch brother-in-law, an expert in the history of Darwinism in Japan. The synagogue, built in 1970 to land sold to the congregation by a descendant of Asia's famous Sassoon family, is a plain, low building made of grey bricks and white stucco. Inside we met Rabbi Robert Yerechmiel Strausberg, a Californian who had been recruited several years earlier to lead the Kansai region congregation. Tall and thin, with a reddish-blond beard and the air of someone very busy, Strausberg sat down across from us in the middle of a long table. He quickly dispatched all of my questions about Jewish life in Kobe: fewer than 200 people in the congregation; very few Japanese, only those who have married into the community and converted; one remaining Second World War refugee, an old, old lady - and then took over the interviewing. Taken by surprise, I talked too much. Who are you? A journalist from New York. Are you Jewish? Yes. Well, my mother was raised Protestant, but she converted when she married my father, and there's a good deal of speculation that her family was Jewish to begin with and hid their religion when they arrived in New York from Lithuania. Hmmm. And is this your husband? My brother-in-law. He's married to my Japanese sister; it's a long story. My husband is walking around the neighborhood with our two-and-a-half-year-old son. Is he Jewish? Hindu, actually. Are you raising your son Jewish? No, not exactly.

I asked him if he'd ever heard of Adolf; he hadn't. He'd never even heard of Osamu Tezuka. I was disappointed. Reading Adolf had given me, as a Jew, a sense of connection to the Japanese. This is hard to define, but I suppose that after learning that my kind had a history in Kobe, had once been sheltered there, I felt less foreign in a foreign land. I knew this was problematic, not least because I am not a practising Jew. But Hitler didn't distinguish between the secular and the observant, and it seemed to me that Adolf was a gift from Japan to its Jews, an acknowledgment of their suffering. It seemed downright irresponsible to be Jewish in Japan and not know about it.

I suppose, though, that Rabbi Strausberg didn't have time to read manga. His focus was on the business of being Jewish. He was interested in us if we were interested in Judaism; less so if we were interested in the history of Jews in Japan. And, though he kindly gave us a quick tour and invited us - me, my Dutch brother-in-law, my Japanese sister, my Indian husband, my biracial son - to Shabbat dinner the following night, I got the sense that he wanted us out of his hair so he could tend to his shrinking congregation.

It was a relief to leave the synagogue and climb back down the hill. We passed by Kobe's mosque on the way down, not far from a Jain temple. When we reached the bottom, we made our way to Juchheim, a German bakery that has been in Kobe, making its famous, log-shaped cakes, since 1921. We bought a few cakes to take back to Kyoto with us, and we never did return for Friday-night services. Amy Rosenberg is a writer living in New York.