Japan and Jewish Refugees during World War II _ Lieutenant General Kiichiro Higuchi (1888 – 1970)

Lieutenant General Kiichiro Higuchi (1888 – 1970)

Higuchi learned the Russian language during his study at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. He later studied at the Japanese Army Staff College. Due to his Russian language knowledge, he was sent to Vladivostok and Manchuria (Manshukuo) after finishing his studies. He was also sent to Poland as a military attaché in 1925. As a member of a military delegation he stayed for a short period in Germany in 1937.

Higuchi was the commander of the Japanese occupied Chinese Harbin Special Branch in 1937-1938. In March 1938, 18 Jewish people fled from Nazi Germany to cross the border from Optor (today’s Zabaykalsk) in Russia to Manshukuo. Higuchi with the help of Mr. Matsuoka (then the president of the South Manchuria Railway and later the Minister of Foreign affairs in 1940-1941, arrested as an allegedly A-Class war criminal after the war but died in prison before the Tokyo Tribunal) organized a special train to transport the Jewish people to Shanghai, where concessions of Japan, France, the UK and the US existed. Under Higuchi’s command food, clothes, and medicine were provided. Visas were also arranged for the refugees. The number of Jewish refugees steadily increased: 245 refugees in 1938, 551 in 1939, and 3574 in 1940. However, no official documents recording the exact numbers are extant. Some said that the total number was around 20,000.

Since Japan and Germany were allied at the time, Germany protested this action and a serious diplomatic issue  ̶  called the Optor incidence  ̶  ensued between Japan and Germany. There was also criticism of Higuchi within the Japanese military. Higuchi insisted on his opinion to the Chief of Staff, Hideki Tojo, who was responsible for Manchukuo at the time, and Tojo agreed with Higuchi. Responding to the repeated German protests, Tojo merely said that these actions were undertaken out of serious humanitarian concerns.

Later on, Higuchi was the Commanding Officer of the Fifth Area Army, which was in charge of the northern territories of Japan, and the war ended. Japan capitulated on 15 August 1945. However, Russia started to invade some of the Kuril Islands. The Battle of Shumshu took place from 18 to 23 August 1945. Higuchi ordered to fight against Russia. It is said that Russia might also have invaded Hokkaido if the battle of Shumshu had not taken place.

Stalin listed Higuchi on the war criminals’ list for the Tokyo Tribunal. However, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) caught the news and took immediate action to rescue Higuchi. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, refused the request of Stalin to extradite Higuchi.


Nakanishi, Terumasa: Higuchi Kiichirou – Yudaja jin kyushutsu, Kisuka tekkyo, Senshu no tatakai … 「3tsuno Kiseki」wo okoshita Otoko, in: Rekishi Kaidou, April 2012. https://shuchi.php.co.jp/article/918

American Jewish Japan Society: Jewish-Japanese Relations. https://www.ajjsociety.org/americanjewishjapanhistory

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