For some time now, I’ve been singing the Israeli national anthem with less fervor than in the past. Indeed, despite the Zionist zeal that brought me to Israel nearly five decades ago and which will undoubtedly keep me rooted to this country forever, I may have become a bit jaded. And so have many of my friends.
Small wonder, then, that when a group of us spent an evening with members of the Japanese Makuya in Jerusalem, we could barely hold back our tears. For when they sang “Zion, Zion, Zion” under the Israeli flag, their enthusiasm and shouts of joy could have raised the roof. With a collective lump in our throats, my friends and I were carried back to a simpler time, when it had all seemed only a matter of survival – and Israel had somehow survived.
The Makuya movement was born in May of 1948, the same month and year in which Israel declared its independence. But the Makuya don’t believe in coincidence. In fact, they consider the establishment of the modern State of Israel and the reunification of Jerusalem 19 years later to be the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, miraculous works of God.
Often called New Zionism, the Makuya movement was founded by a successful Japanese businessman, the late professor Abraham Ikuro Teshima. Professor Teshima was a deeply religious Christian who had early on become disenchanted with the established Church and its western trappings. But he hadn’t yet heard the Divine voice. That would come later, a few years after World War II.
Following the Japanese defeat, Teshima tried to help his starving countrymen by producing bread out of seaweed. But it tasted awful, and the factories closed down. Then an American army camp near his home decided to expand. Teshima heard the news from his son, who reported with sorrow that the Americans were planning to close his elementary school and take over the property on which it stood.
Teshima immediately organized a large protest that greatly angered the Americans. When a friend warned Teshima of his imminent arrest, he went into hiding in the wilderness. It was while he was in the volcanic Aso Mountains that he had a personal encounter with God, and heard a phrase from the book of Amos: “I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.”
Now he understood that the Japanese famine was not physical, but spiritual. He realized that the Japanese had to return to the basics, to the source – to God. When he was able to safely return home, he closed his business and began teaching the Bible. He had only a handful of students in the beginning. But it was a start, and soon afterwards he founded the Makuya.
Teshima maintained that in order to grasp the spirit of the Bible, it was essential to reach a deeper understanding of the Jewish faith, its people, language and history. Unfortunately, his burning desire to visit Israel was delayed for many years, until Japan and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1961.
As luck would have it, however, in 1954 Teshima met his first Israeli – while riding on a Japanese train. He thought the people next to him might be speaking Hebrew and when he inquired, in English, he learned that they were from Israel. One of them was Professor Israel Slomnitzki, on a mission from the Israeli Agriculture Ministry. The two struck up an immediate friendship, corresponded for years, and in 1961 Slomnitzki invited Teshima to visit his homeland.
Once here, Teshima was unhappy that so many of Israel’s holy sites were covered up with churches. But he was delighted to meet pioneers, thrilled at their effort to create a viable state, and convinced that the soul of Judaism was alive and well. So taken was Teshima with the Jewish state that he returned a number of times, bringing some of his disciples along.
Soon Makuya members had begun studying Hebrew at the ulpan in Kibbutz Hefziba. Many ulpan graduates have gone on to schools of higher learning in Israel: to date 1,060 students have attended classes or graduated from Bar Ilan University and the Hebrew University, the Technion, and the universities in Haifa and Beersheba. They learn archaeology, Bible and Jewish thought as well as music and other subjects, and their mastery of Hebrew is amazing.
And the Makuya movement is growing fast. They prefer not to give an exact number, citing David’s sinful census of his fighting men (2 Shmuel 24:2). But over 300,000 Japanese subscribe to the Makuya newsletter. Thousands of Makuya have already been on pilgrimages to Israel, with thousands more planning to come.
Four students (out of the 35 currently in Israel) live at the Jerusalem Makuya Center, along with its new director Asher Seito Kimura, his wife Tzofiya and their children. Each Makuya member has a Hebrew name, taken by or given to him or her upon arrival in Israel. They chat easily about their faith, which is based heavily on the Old Testament and doesn’t contain even a hint of proselytism. But none of the Makuya will discuss politics. They will talk with feeling, however, about their position on Israel. Every Makuya, they say proudly, identifies with — and wholeheartedly supports — the State of Israel.
Outward manifestations of support began in 1967, before the onset of the Six Day War, when Teshima set up the “Israel Emergency Relief Committee of Japan.” He flew to Israel with relief goods as soon as the war broke out, and not long afterwards he entered reunited Jerusalem to pray at the Western Wall.
Six years later, Israel was attacked by the combined forces of Egypt and Syria. A threatened oil boycott had caused Japan to reverse its normally neutral position and adopt a blatantly pro-Arab stand.
“Israel cannot, indeed must not, be forsaken in her time of need,” declared Teshima. Although gravely ill, he organized a large pro-Israel demonstration in downtown Tokyo. It extended over two kilometers and more than 3,000 men, women and children sang joyful Hebrew songs as they danced in the streets. Teshima, who had put his heart and soul into the demonstration, insisted on participating despite the bitter winter cold. He died three weeks later, at the age of 63.
No leader has taken Teshima’s place, but the Makuya follow in his path. They planted several forests in Teshima’s honor, and every few years, Makuya members come to Israel in large numbers to celebrate Independence Day.
Makuya, in Hebrew, translates as “tent of meeting” – the Hebrew ohel moed or the place where man encounters God. Teshima taught that you can find God anywhere, and that it is not necessary to pray in a church. Therefore Makuya worship in houses where they also read the Bible, and study its lessons.
Like Teshima himself, a Makuya minister is called a teacher, and he is well versed in the Bible and other sources. Often he has a regular job and leads his congregation only on the weekends. The Makuya object to institutionalized Christianity and there is no central Makuya religious authority, although a committee of district representatives meets every few months to discuss the movement. Baptism is spiritual — a coming of age ceremony when boys and girls reach the age of 13 and accept adult responsibilities. It takes place on Mount Aso, where Teshima had his encounter with the Lord.
Asher, who completed archaeological studies here in 2005, is responsible for those Japanese students and foreign workers in Israel who belong to the Makuya movement (not all of the Japanese in Israel are Makuya, he reminded me). He also receives guests and delegations from Japan, organizes cultural evenings for Israelis and trips for Makuya members, and leads prayers on the Sabbath.
Each of the Makuya with whom I spoke emphasized that the Israelis they meet take them into their hearts. Said one: “We feel like Israelis, like we are at home.”
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.