The State of Yiddish Studies in Japanese Universities

Yuu Nishimura


Over the winter, Cecile Kuznitz told us about a recent trip to Japan, where she had been invited to give several lectures about her research on the history of YIVO. Along with Professor Kalman Weiser, Kuznitz participated in two daylong workshops at the universities of Kyoto and Tokyo entitled “Yiddishism and the Creation of the Yiddish Nation,” organized by Dr. Yuu Nishimura, currently a postdoctoral researcher at Kanazawa University. We were interested to learn more about the current state of Yiddish Studies in Japanese universities, so Kuznitz introduced us to Nishimura, who was kind enough to write this piece for us on the state of Yiddish language learning in Japan, her own research, the workshop she organized and the interest in Yiddish topics among scholars and students in a range of fields at Kyoto and Tokyo universities. You can read the electronic publication of the talks given at the workshops here. Readers may also be interested in this recent article from the Forverts by Satoko Kamoshida, whose work is mentioned below, about the students studying Yiddish in her course at the Tokyo University for Foreign Languages.

In his article “Yiddish Studies from a New Perspective,” Mikhail Krutikov argues for the necessity of intellectual exchange between the various corners of the Yiddish Studies world in order to spark new directions within the field as well as to pool existing resources. He expressed hopes, which we share, that In geveb can play a “mediating role in facilitating” the exchange of ideas across the geographic and linguistic spread of the field. It is with this goal in mind that we are excited to share the following piece.

The State of Yiddish Studies in Japanese Universities

At Kyoto University, where I completed my undergraduate and graduate studies, there are no Yiddish courses. I myself learned Yiddish from Prof. Masahiko Nishi at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, who specializes in comparative literature and is one of the pioneers of Yiddish Studies in Japan. His lecture on Yiddish was not an official program offered by the University, but rather a voluntary one. In 1994 he also initiated a monthly collegium for Yiddish learning, which has been active until now and has had participation from researchers interested in Yiddish for diverse reasons connected with their own research fields, such as German or Polish literature and Jewish history.

More recently, Osaka University has begun to offer a Yiddish class occasionally as part of a “European languages” lecture series that is open to both undergraduate and graduate students. The lecturer is Dr. Mitsuharu Akao specializing in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish literature. The class is attended on average by five to ten students. Six students participated last year; two of them are interested in contemporary Israeli issues and one is a graduate student specializing in Vienna’s art history.

As for Tokyo, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS) occasionally offers a short-term intensive Yiddish course. The current lecturer of Yiddish at TUFS is Dr. Satoko Kamoshida, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Tokyo (she published a book on private Yiddish publication in contemporary Israel based on her Ph.D. dissertation). She told me that twenty-eight students attended her class last year. Their majors were mostly either Polish or German Studies.

As should be clear from what is described above, Yiddish Studies does not hold regular courses in universities in Japan, although there have consistently been students and researchers interested in Yiddish who, by learning it, try to expand their knowledge or research fields. There is just a handful of professors and postdoctoral researchers currently working on Yiddish. In addition to those mentioned above, I know just a few people specializing in literature—originally German or Polish literature and now Yiddish literature as well—and also a few researchers of Jewish history, including myself, who work with a good amount of Yiddish materials. Though one of the two scholars who introduced Yiddish in Japan for the first time was a linguist (Prof. Katsuhiko Tanaka; the other is a scholar of German literature Kazuo Ueda, the author of Yiddish-Japanese dictionaries and Yiddish textbooks), I haven’t heard of any other Japanese linguists working on Yiddish, aside from Kamoshida whom I have just mentioned. I also do not know any graduate students working specifically on Yiddish at the moment.

Organizing the Workshops on Yiddishism

My own research field is the modern history of Yiddish-speaking Jews. My special concern is in issues of ethnicity, identity, language and nationalism, etc. My doctoral research was on the Jewish Labor Bund. Much of my focus was on its aspect as a national movement, namely, its struggle for national rights for Jewish workers and to establish a Yiddish cultural system. The latter was represented by the TSYSHO school movement in interwar Poland, and this was one of the main topics in my thesis. While the Bundists were never happy to be seen as “nationalist,” their cultural activities were clearly in line with the Yiddishist national movement. I tried to clarify the Bundist cultural and educational activities, and then contextualize the Bundist movement within Yiddishism in general and evaluate its contribution to the latter. I am currently thinking about tracing the Yiddish school movement and its activists including Bundists beyond the realm of interwar Poland.

Since researching the Bund and TSYSHO movements in the context of Yiddishism has been my concern, and I was at the same time so impressed with recent scholarship on Yiddishism, it was a kind of natural choice to make Yiddishism the main theme of a proposed academic event. Prof. Mari Nomura at Kanazawa University, who currently hosts me as a postdoctoral researcher, gave me an opportunity to organize an academic event using funding she received from JSPS (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science). She is one of a few Japanese researchers on the history of Jews in Central Eastern Europe, and encouraged me to select a topic of my choice to contribute to the development of Jewish Studies in Japan. I thought focusing on Yiddishism was meaningful not only for my own research interest but also for Jewish Studies in Japan in general, for the reasons I will soon mention. In discussion with Prof. Nomura, both of us wanted to hear about the history of YIVO, which can be seen as the highest achievement of Yiddishism. Over email I corresponded with Prof. Cecile E. Kuznitz, the author of the YIVO and the Creation of Modern Yiddish Culture, and Prof. Kalman Weiser, whose work Jewish People, Yiddish Nation vividly describes the struggle of the Yiddishist intellectual Noah Prylucki. Both of them kindly accepted our offer to participate in the workshop.

The workshop was planned for two days: one day at the University of Tokyo and another at Kyoto University. Tokyo and Kyoto are two of the academic centers in Japan and many scholars including those working on Jewish history and culture are in or close to either city. We planed slightly different contents for the workshops in Tokyo and Kyoto. In Tokyo the theme was “Yiddishism: Ideas and Movements,” and we asked Cecile and Kalman to give talks on the early history of YIVO and Prylucki’s idea of Yiddishism. Prof. Tsurumi Taro of the University of Tokyo and Prof. Haruka Miyazaki of Hokkaido University of Education were discussants; Prof. Taro specializes in Russian Zionism and Prof. Miyazaki’s main focus is on the political ideology of Roman Dmowski and Jewish intellectuals in interwar Poland such as Apolinary Hartglas and Emanuel Ringelblum. In Kyoto, the workshop’s theme was “Vilna, the Capital of Yiddishland.” In Kyoto, in addition to the main lectures, Dr. Moriyasu Tanaka (post-doctoral researcher at JSPS) gave a short paper on Vilna’s Jewish writers, writing either in Yiddish or Polish, as well as on the relations—or lack thereof—between writers working in the two languages. There was also a musical performance by Klezmer band Orkester Dreydel composed of clarinetist Hinoue Chitoshi, a vigorous promoter of klezmer and Yiddish culture in Japan, and accordionist Kotaro Hata.

Turning back to the main theme of the workshop, there were two chief reasons for choosing to focus on Yiddishism. Firstly, it was, I thought, in line with the development of Jewish Studies in Japan. Modern Jewish history in Europe has attracted researchers in Japan for a long time and a decent amount has been written on such topics as emancipation, counter-emancipation and antisemitism in Western Europe. More recently, the scope of interest has been expanding to include Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia. This has been driven both by the personal initiatives of some capable researchers—including the discussants at the workshop—and also by the scholarly achievements of people such as Prof. Ueda and Prof. Nishi, who I’ve mentioned earlier, which have made Yiddish language and culture more approachable. In spite of this, Yiddishism continues to be less discussed in Japan compared to Zionism, for example. I thought this situation needed to be changed. Not only because Yiddishism was relevant to the language and culture of Jews in Eastern Europe but also because it has vital importance in understanding the modernity of Eastern European Jews. Yiddishism reflects the dramatic social changes that occurred among Jews, such as secularization, modernization, and the emergence of modern political movements that defined Jews as a nation and called for national rights. Additionally, I thought simply that the history of YIVO and the stories of Yiddishists working for it would be of interest to Japanese researchers working on Jewish subjects, as many of them have visited (or at least know of) YIVO in New York City at some point of their research.

While believing that a workshop on Yiddishism could deepen our understanding of Jewish history, I did not want this workshop to be only for researchers and students of Jewish Studies. I think that Yiddishism, a national movement to establish a national cultural system based on Yiddish – or the Yiddish nation – without territorial sovereignty, is an intriguing subject in a comparative-historical point of view. In Japan there are a number of researchers working on the history of Central and Eastern Europe in general, and also on nationalism and ethnicity issues there in particular. I hoped to have these researchers in audience, sharing with them something about Jews in the country of their main focus, and hearing what they think in a comparative point of view.

The aims and goals of the workshop were thus twofold: Expanding and deepening our understanding of Jewish history, particularly of the modern history of Jews in Eastern Europe, and casting a somewhat different light on the history of the countries where they lived, including Poland, Lithuania and Russia, especially in view of nationalism and national movements.

Reflections on the Workshops

Considering both of these aims, I think the workshop was successful. In Tokyo, most of the participants were researchers and students working on Jewish history, along with a few scholars specializing in other fields such as the history of Germany, Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. The main subjects of those doing research on Jewish topics—many of them younger, including graduate students—were diverse: The Mussar movement, Jewish emigration from Russia, German Jewish youth movements, Jews in Argentina, American Jewish history, etc. They are certainly serious researchers, but given the limited opportunities to learn about a range of Jewish subjects, I suspect it may easily happen that some of them focus on specific topics without learning about broader issues surrounding them. Thus I was glad, for example, when I heard from a graduate student working on the Mussar movement that she gained a fresh image of Lithuania as a center of secular Yiddish culture from the workshop. Of course, all of these participants asked questions and made comments that were connected with their own research subjects, such as about interaction between Vilna’s YIVO and the counterpart in Argentina.

For me the most interesting discussions were, as I expected, those with comparative perspectives: Prof. Tsurumi, as discussant, offered some questions to Prof. Kuznitz about Yiddishists’ views on diversity within Jewish community, on secularization and on identity by referring to the views of Japanese folklorist Kunio Yanagita (1875–1962) and his peers, as well as those of Russian liberal Zionists, his main subject. Questions from Prof. Miyazaki, the discussant for Prof. Wieser’s paper, included a comparison between Yiddish as a would-be national language in the minds of Yiddishists and Esperanto as an international language. From the audience, a professor of Czech history offered questions and comments concerning similarities and differences between the Czech nation-building movement and Yiddishism in terms of aspiration for establishing monolingual cultural system, as well as of idealization and reconstruction of “folk” culture. A doctoral student investigating the challenges of people in Silesia just after WWI to create local collective identity or a community of “Silesians” told me after the workshop that the Yiddishist efforts to create a national identity and community, which he had not known about, were intriguing for his own research theme.

At the workshop in Kyoto there were fewer specialists on Jewish Studies and more researchers on German literature and philosophy, as well as the history of Lithuania, Russia, England, and Austro-Hungary. Questions and discussion on this day were also active. It was especially nice that researchers on Lithuanian history attended. The talks in Kyoto illuminated the historically multiethnic character of the city that is now the capital of Lithuania and also shed light on the cultural diversity of every place that composes Yiddishland. This approach was completely fresh compared to more common, nationally-based historiography.

In general, in view of the aims and goals, I felt a very positive response to the workshop, and am further convinced that Yiddishism was a worthy theme in these respects. It was wonderful that the lectures were so thoughtfully composed; by listening to all of them, we gained a clear picture of Yiddishism and Jewish society in that time and place, together with the many historical changes that faced Yiddishists.

Though recruiting people for Yiddish Studies was not necessarily an aim of the workshop, the monthly collegium of Yiddish reading gained a new member after the workshop, whose interest in Yiddish was peaked by the talks on Yiddish Vilna. This is rather unexpected but, of course, a great pleasure for me.

Yiddish Studies Beyond Borders

While I consider myself part of and connected to the field of Yiddish Studies, it is hard to say whether I feel connected to scholars in this field working in other countries. I feel connected to them only in the sense that a researcher in any field finds themself connected to other researchers when they, for example, read and cite the work of other researchers, or occasionally meet. A nice thing is that, as Mikhail Krutikov points to in the article cited in the introduction, access to Yiddish materials is getting easier thanks to the recent development of digital libraries and archives. I myself owe so much to the digital libraries of the Yiddish Book Center, the Historical Jewish Press, the Centralna Biblioteka Judaistyczna, etc. Yiddish materials are more accessible to a broader audience, including us in Asian countries. This is a great advance that the pioneers of Yiddish Studies in Japan, whom I mentioned in the text and who traveled long distances to libraries to see and get copies from original Yiddish texts, could not have imagined. The material basis is favorable, so I hope connecting readers and scholars to Yiddish Studies will be the next step here in Japan, as well.

I think workshops like the one I organized can help to connect people working on Yiddish across differences in language and location. But, since opportunities to have these sort of events are rare, probably standing forums like In geveb are more important, as a mediator in the sense that Krutikov calls for. I want to promote such forums in Japan together with digital libraries and archives, generally they are not yet well-known.

Jinta-la-Mvta: Japanese Experimental Chindon-Klezmer Folk band, performs “Papirosn” by Herman Yablokoff.

Nishimura, Yuu. “The State of Yiddish Studies in Japanese Universities.” In geveb, May 2017:
Nishimura, Yuu. “The State of Yiddish Studies in Japanese Universities.” In geveb (May 2017): Accessed May 24, 2018.


Yuu Nishimura

Yuu Nishimura is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow of the Japan Society of the Promotion of Science (JSPS), hosted at Kanazawa University, Japan.