Celebrating Israel’s 70 years of diplomatic relations with Japan, Haifa’s Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art recently launched “Time Tunnel—Japan and the Jews,” a major art exhibit displaying the work of five leading Japanese artists with a focus on the Holocaust.
The exhibit, which will be open to the public for the next six months, is heavily inspired by the well-documented humanitarian actions of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat based in Lithuania during WWII. Without permission from his superiors, Sugihara issued thousands of transit visas for European Jews to Japan, thereby saving more than 6,000 people during the height of the Holocaust. In 1984, Yad Vashem recognized Sugihara as a “Righteous Among the Nations.” On a personal note, Chiune is truly a hero. My father, HaRav Moshe Dovid Maruch, zt’l, a brilliant talmid of the Mirrer Yeshiva, was one of the precious lives saved by Sugihara’s heroic and courageous act.
Intrigued upon hearing about the exhibit, I reached out to Etty Glass Gissis, the museum curator, for the story behind Time Tunnel. It is my pleasure to share her thoughts and insights in this column.
Rochelle Maruch Miller: What is the importance of the exhibit and the emphasis on Sugihara?
Etty Glass Gissis: The narrative of the Sugihara rescue isn’t well known, neither in Israel nor in Japan. Many people know the story of [Oscar] Schindler, but few know the story of “Sugihara’s children,” those people he saved. It was very important for us to launch this exhibit while the survivors are still with us. The survivors, and their descendants, were involved in the main installation of the exhibit. [Author’s note: That central piece is a work developed by renowned artist Tatsuo Miyajima titled “Sea of Time.” It welcomed contributions from more than 300 people, mainly those saved by Sugihara and their family members, to convey a message of the power of tolerance and mutual understanding as human values, providing a visual counterbalance to the hatred of the other that motivated the Nazis.]
RMM: What was the inspiration for Time Tunnel?
EGG: The inspiration was a single photo in a book on the history of Japanese photography, which I read over a year ago. In the book I found a photo reproduction from the series “Wandering Jew.” I was amazed to discover that such a series truly exists and began tracking other photos from it. On this occasion, I encountered beautiful photos that beyond their historical importance hold great artistic value.
The 30s and 40s were the beginning of artistic photography in Japan and we, the Jews, are part of it. Of course, I have started to research the story behind this series and realized that it was directly connected to the narrative of rescue that took place by the Japanese Vice Consul Chiune Sugihara in summer 1940. All the photographs in the series are of Jewish refugees who reached Japan thanks to the transfer visas issued by Sugihara and were taken by six Japanese photographers of the Tampei Photography Club group that arrived in Kobe city especially for this purpose. I decided to exhibit these photos but since 2022 marks the 70th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between Israel and Japan, I decided to broaden the concept of the exhibition to include works of art that refer to the narrative of extermination as well.
RMM: My father, HaRav Moshe Dovid Maruch, zt’l, was one of the Mirrer Yeshiva Torah scholars who was saved by Sugihara. What aspects of Time Tunnel would I find particularly meaningful?
EGG: I believe you will find the entire exhibition extremely meaningful.
RMM: What is the focus of the exhibition?
EGG: The exhibition focuses on the meeting point between Israel and Japan as seen through the modern and contemporary Japanese works of art, which refers to the Jewish narrative of rescue and extermination. At the center of the story of extermination are the works of the artists Tatsuo Miyajima (installation and photography) and Yuki Onodera (photography). The exhibition creates a tunnel that connects between time and cultures, here and there, from then to now, which are expressed in the connection between the contemporary art and the old photographs and in the connections between us, alive today, and the history which is an important part of our identity. The works convey a universal message of humanity, tolerance, and understanding of difference, and this is the central point of connection of these contemporary artists to the Jewish narrative.
The exhibition continues with three journeys between Israel and Japan: the journeys of the collector and museum founder Felix Tikotin, the journey of the artist Tetsuya Noda, and the journey of the artist Meirav Davish Ben Moshe. Three journeys, at different times, connecting the Jewish and Israeli experiences with Japanese culture and art. The exhibition creates a tunnel that connects between time and cultures, here and there, from then to now, which are expressed in the connection between the contemporary art and the old photographs and in the connection between us, alive today, and the history which is an important part of our identity.
RMM: How were the Jews perceived by the Japanese?
EGG: The Japanese did not know much about Jews. The first Jews settled in Japan only in the middle of the 19th century. They came from all over Asia, Europe, and the United States, and settled there for commercial interests. In Japan, unlike in Europe, Jews lived as a segregated community and did not integrate into society, so the foolish claim of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world received little attention and anti-Semitism was a minor phenomenon. From the Japanese point of view, the Jews were socially perceived as part of the foreigners who lived there, and religiously Judaism was considered to be Christian, and therefore did not stand out.
RMM: How do contemporary Japanese artists capture and convey the Jewish narrative?
EGG: I will refer to the artist exhibiting at the exhibitions. The most significant connection between Japan and the Jews is the two horrific world major events of the atomic bomb and the Holocaust. As a nation that still processes her position during the war, Japanese artists seek to convey a message of humanity, tolerance, and understanding of difference, and this is the central point of connection of these contemporary Japanese artists to the Jewish narrative.
RMM: How do the works convey the message of humanity?
EGG: The work “Time Train to the Holocaust” was first exhibited in the German town of Recklinghausen, known for its coal mining industry and transportation by train to all parts of the country. In this installation, Tatsuo Miyajima refers to the historical narrative according to which the trains that used to carry coal also led Jews to their deaths during the war. From this town and from other towns, Jews were transported by trains, like coal, on a long and terrifying journey to their deaths in the Auschwitz extermination camp. The blue LED lights represent the still-living Jews through the backward countdown from 9 to 1. The train carrying the numbers continues its journey non-stop, similar to the journey to eternity.
The artist Miyajima explains: “I am aware that the words ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Auschwitz’ have tremendous significance and effect. I dared to use them in the title of the work, inspired by the American writer Susan Sontag.” Sontag argued that contemporary photography is defined through its title, and with its help, one can understand the artist’s intentions. Through titles, one can understand the artist’s intentions. Miyajima specifies: “If Picasso had not called his work ‘Guernica,’ would we have stopped to think about what happened at Guernica? No matter how long he would have tried to define it as a metaphor, after fifty years, what will remain of the installation are its photograph (documentation) and title.” Miyajima sees great importance in our responsibility as adults to pass on to the younger generation to prevent the next Holocaust.
More information on the exhibit can be found at tmja.org.il/eng. n
Rochelle Maruch Miller is a contributing editor for the Five Towns Jewish Times. She is a journalist, creative media consultant, lecturer, and educator, and writes for magazines, newspapers, websites, and private clients. She welcomes your comments at Rochellemiller04@aol.com. Read more of Rochelle Miller’s articles at 5TJT.com.