In 2005 Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized the Kuki-Mizo, a Tibeto-Burmese people in northern India, as one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Since then there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the issuing of visas by Israel to these people but on Christmas eve 2012 the Israeli government decided to let them emigrate. These people have been renamed as Bnei Meneshe (בני מנשה, the Children of Menasseh) recognizing them as being descendants of the tribe of Menasseh. The subject of the Lost Tribes of Israel are a matter of historical debate. Traditionally these Tribes were dispersed by the Assyrians after the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel in 720 BC. There are no records in history for whole tribes being dispersed, only portions of tribes are recorded as being sent to specific locations.
Nonetheless these legends have persisted throughout the centuries. There have been many scholars, adventurers and religious leaders who have claimed to have found the Lost Tribes and even several nations who claim descent from the Kingdom of Israel. These include several peoples such as the Kurds, the British and South American Indians. However, the most interesting claim, from my point of view, comes from Japan. Although it is nigh impossible for such a claim to be true it is interesting purely for the certain similarities between these two most distant cultures that provoked such claims.
One of first people to establish such a link was the 16th century Jesuit missionary João Rodriguez who claimed that the Japanese and Chinese were the Lost Tribes. He would later go back on this theory in his book Historia da Igreja do Japão which claimed that the Japanese were actually descended from the Koreans. This would not deter others from trying to establish links. In the 19th century a Scottish, former herring farmer turned missionary called Nicholas McLeod, claimed in his publication, Epitome of the ancient history of Japan, that the Japanese aristocracy and priestly caste were descendants of the Lost Tribe and that the legend of Emperor Jimmu (the first Emperor according to legend) was an adaption of the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Such theories, written by missionaries, have a tendency to ignore Japanese social structures and acted as more of an attempt to explain the advanced state of the Japanese or Chinese civilizations. In the 19th century in particular it was used as a convenient explanation for Japan’s rapid modernization from a feudal nation to a rival of the Western powers.
These theories were always largely ignored by the Japanese themselves until relatively recently when Japanese Christians looked into it. Their arguments are more convincing but are more interesting if viewed as anthropological coincidence. Arimasa Kubo, a Japanese Christian and Biblical scholar, points to an interesting ceremony at a Shinto shrine in Nagano prefecture. The shrine in question is Suwa-Taisha which has a unique ceremony that takes place on the 15th April every year. The shrine sits in front of a mountain called Moriya. During the festival to honour the god of Moriya a boy is taken up the mountain and tied to a post. A priest symbolically prepares to sacrifice the boy until a messenger (another priest) comes to tell him to stop. After this a deer is sacrificed in the boys place. Kubo draws parallels between this and the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis down to the name of the mountain (in Genesis this takes place on Mt Moriah). Kubo also points to the fact that animal sacrifice, let alone human sacrifice, is not a particularly Shinto practice. This does not of course present any proof of Jewish influences in Japanese folk religion but the similarities are more interesting for that. At this time I have not managed to find out the origins of this unusual ritual aside from those who claim it comes from Judaism (none of them academics).
Recently there have been attempts to find similarities with the Hebrew and Japanese languages. Joseph Eidelberg, a Jewish former engineer, claimed to have found links between the two languages. In his book The Japanese and the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel Eidelberg claims some words in ancient Japanese such as “agata-nushi” (県主) meaning “territorial leader” have similarities with Hebrew words for the same thing, “aguda-nasi” (אגודה נשיא). Eidelberg’s book goes on to list thousands of words that he claims are rooted in Hebrew. Some of these seem quite stretched but others do have a similarity.
Dr. Eiji Kawamorita, a hebraic scholar took a view that was a combination of Kubo and Eidelberg and became interested in a traditional Bon dance from Kumamoto prefecture called Naniya Doyara. Kawamorita claimed that the song to accompany the dance contained many non-Japanese words that sounded close to the Hebrew word hallelujah and the name of God Yahweh.
With the exception of Kawamorita, it is important to note that none of the above people are actually academics and their theories are the private speculation of people whose minds have already been made up on the issue. Nonetheless they point to interesting anomalies in Japanese tradition and legends and language. From the unique rituals at Suwa-Taisha shrine, the Naniya Doyara, or certain linguistic similarities. From the point of view of the language it is much more likely that this could have come from the Nestorian Christians who we know reached as far as China after their expulsion from the Roman Empire. The Nestorians used Aramaic in their liturgy which is a dialect of Hebrew. It is possible that a community of Nestorians reached Japan and were gradually assimilated into certain communities which in turn picked up some of their language and traditions.
In a related note. In northern Japan, near the town of Aomori there is a small crucifix that marks the grave, where local legend has it that Jesus was buried. This belongs to a folk tale that after the crucifixion and Resurrection Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven but went east and settled outside Aomori where he lived out the rest of his days as a rice farmer. There is even a local family which claims descent from Jesus. The origin of this story came in the 1930s with the discovery of what purported to be ancient Hebrew documents that detailed Jesus’ life and death in Japan. These documents have conveniently disappeared and there are currently no plans to excavate the grave itself. For more information see the BBC article The Japanese Jesus Trail by Duncan Bartlett