Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who put his family and job at risk by defying direct orders to issue thousands of hand-written transit visas to Jewish refugees fleeing Eastern Europe.
Chiune was born to a middle class family in Mino, Japan on the first day of the 20th century – 1/1/00. In elementary and high school he was a top student, and his father wanted him to become a doctor. Chiune’s own dream was to enter the foreign service, and he deliberately failed the medical school entrance exam by writing only his name on the test. Instead Chiune attended Waseda University and majored in English. He also joined a Christian fraternity to practice his English.
In 1919, Chiune passed the Foreign Ministry Scholarship exam, and served in the Japanese Imperial Army as a 2nd Lieutenant stationed in Korea. He resigned his commission in 1922 and trained for the Foreign Ministry, learning Russian and German in addition to English. He aced the qualifying exam and was sent to work in the foreign office in Harbin, China.
Chiune’s strong moral compass led him to resign his post as Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchuria because of rising Japanese violence against the Chinese (just two years later was the horrific Rape of Nanking by the Japanese Imperial Army.) Chiune returned to Japan, where he married Yukiko Kikuchi. They later had four sons.
Next Chiune went to Helsinki, Finland, where he worked as a translator for the Japanese delegation. In 1939, Chiune became vice-consul of the Japanese embassy in Kauna, Lithuania. Part of his job was to find out if Germany planned to attack the Soviet Union, and to relay any information about this to his bosses in Berlin and Tokyo.
In 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania. At that time, approximately 1/3 of Lithuanians were Jewish, many of them Torah scholars. The USSR viciously persecuted Jews, especially religious ones, and the Jews of Lithuania were desperate to escape the country – especially because Nazi Germany was occupying more and more of Eastern Europe and would soon be in Lithuania. Hundreds of them, mostly Orthodox, visited the Japanese consulate to beg for exit visas to Japan. The official Japanese policy was that candidates for visas must go through elaborate bureaucratic procedures and pay significant sums of money. Chiune contacted his superiors at the Japanese Foreign minister to ask if the rules could be relaxed to help Jewish refugees. His request was denied, as were his next two requests.
Chiune could have thrown up his hands and told the Jews there was nothing he could do for them, but instead, as he did in China, he was governed by his strong sense of right and wrong, rather than soulless bureaucrats. He ignored his orders and started issuing ten-day visas for Jews to travel through Japan on their way to safe havens like Shanghai, China, where 20,000 Jews rode out the war safely.
As word got out about the Japanese visas, Jews from all over Lithuania as well as Poland began to swarm Chiune’s office. He simply wouldn’t say no to anybody, and spent 18-20 hours a day (!) painstakingly writing visas by hand. He created a month’s supply of visas every single day from August to early September 1940, providing an escape route for thousands of Jews. On September 4, the Japanese consulate in Kauna was closed and Chiune had to leave the country. He was determined to create as many transit visas as possible, and continued doing so up until the last minute. At Kanuas Railway Station, a crowd of Jews gathered to say goodbye. Right before boarding the train, Chiune bowed deeply and cried out, “Please forgive me! I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best!” Someone in the crowd shouted, “Sugihara! We’ll never forget you! I’ll surely see you again!”
Chiune was reassigned to East Prussia, then Prague, and then Bucharest, Romania. When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1944, Chiune and his family were imprisoned in a POW camp for a year and a half. Finally they were released in 1946 and returned to Japan, but the foreign office had heard about his unauthorized visas, and he was forced to resign. At about this time, the Sugihara’s youngest son died of leukemia at age seven.
Unemployable in Japan, Chiune made use of his excellent Russian language skills and spent the next 16 years working in the Soviet Union while his wife and sons stayed in Japan. Chiune’s exceptional heroism was unknown for many years, until 1968, when he was contacted by Yehoshua Nishri, an attache working at the Israeli consulate in Tokyo. Nishri spent his youth in Poland, and heard stories of the legendary Japanese hero. Nishri made it his mission to publicize Chiune’s heroic acts, and the next year, 1969, Chiune traveled to Israel as an honored guest of the Israeli government. Jews he’d saved lobbied for him to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, and in 1984 he received the honor. At that time he was too sick to travel, so his wife and son Nobuki accepted the award on his behalf.
Chiune was asked why he risked everything to help thousands of strangers. He answered, “You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes. Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent. People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives… The spirit of humanity, philanthropy… neighborly friendship… with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation – and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”
Chiune Sugihara died in Japan on July 31, 1986. Despite being a hero in Israel, and among Jews worldwide, he was completely unknown in his own country. Even his own children didn’t know what he had done. A huge delegation from around the world attended Chiune’s funeral, and only then did he become known in Japan.
Chiune received many awards and accolades, most of them posthumous. Among them are Sugihara Streets in Vilna, Lithuania, and Jaffa and Netanya in Israel. There is a Sugihara House Museum in Kaunas, and a park in Vilna where 200 trees were planted on his 100th birthday. There is a life-sized statue of him in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, featuring a plaque with a quotation from the Talmud, “He who saves one life, saves an entire world.” In 1998, Chiune’s widow Yukiko traveled to Israel and was warmly received by survivors who’d been saved by her husband. There is a Sugihara park in Jerusalem, and he was featured on an Israeli postage stamp in 1998. The Lithuanian government declared 2020 “The Year of Chiune Sugihara.” He has been the subject of multiple works of art, including books, films and a play.
It’s estimated that over 100,000 people are alive today because of the brave actions of Chiune Sugihara.
For saving thousands of lives at high cost to himself, we honor Chiune Sugihara as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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