As of January 2012, 24, 356 people from 47 nations were recognised by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority based in Jerusalem, as Righteous Among the Nations. These people have all been recognised for their sacrifices, risking life or liberty, to save Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II. In this list of people and nations there is only one man from Japan who has been recognised. This man is estimated to have saved at least 6,000 Jews and yet he is virtually unknown in his native Japan.
Sugihara Chiune (杉原 千畝) was born, literally, at the turn of the century, January 1st 1900. He was born in the town of Yaotsu in Gifu prefecture to an upper-middle class family, the second son in a family of five sons and one daughter. The Japanese education system was, and still is, highly competetive to a fault. Chiune showed his intelligence by graduating from Furuwatari Elementary School with top honours and went on to graduate from Daigo Chugaku High School. However, Chiune showed, at this early stage, his propensity for disobedience. His father had pressured him into taking the entrance exams for medical school in the hope that Chiune would follow in his footsteps as a physician. Chiune, however, had other ideas and intentionally failed the exam, writing only his name on the paper. Instead, Chiune entered Waseda University, in Tokyo, in 1918 to study English Language. In 1919 Chiune earned himself a Foreign Office scholarship for the remainder of his studies and, upon graduation, was sent on his first mission, by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, to Harbin, Manchuria. Whilst he was in Harbin Chiune studied German and Russian, becoming fluent in the latter. His skill with Russian gave him the tools necessary to become and expert in Russian affairs and he even went as far as converting to the Orthodox Church taking the name Pavlo Sergeivich Sugihara and married a Russian girl, Klaudia Semionova Apollonova. His experience in all things Russian earned him the position of Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchuria where he was tasked with negotiating with the Soviets over the sale of their rights to the North Manchuria Railway. However, later that year, 1935, Chiune resigned his post in protest at Japanese mistreatment of the Chinese.
Just before returning to Japan Chiune and Klaudia’s marriage dissolved and ended in divorce. Chiune remarried a Japanese woman, Yukiko Kikuchi, with whom he would have four children. However, Chiune’s insubordination, regarding Japanese treatment of the Chinese in Manchuria, did not do his career any favours. He was soon re-posted in a demoted role as a translator to the Japanese legation in Helsinki, Finland.
On the eve of the War in 1939 Chiune was posted to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania as vice-consul. His main job was to collaborate with Polish intelligence and keep an eye on German and Soviet troop movements. Although Japan was in an alliance with Germany they had reasons to be suspicious. Hitler and Stalin had devised a plan of cooperation for a joint invasion and annexation of Poland to be followed by a non aggression pact. This had worried the Japanese who viewed the Soviet Union as the main threat to their Empire in Asia.
The Germans and Soviets invaded and occupied Poland soon after Chiune’s arrival in Lithuania. This was followed almost immediately in 1940 by the Soviet overthrowing the governments of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This led to an influx of Eastern European Jews to Kaunas in search of nations that would offer visas. Chiune asked the Japanese foreign ministry for instruction regarding visas for the Jews. The Ministry replied that visas can only be given to those who had through appropriate immigration procedures and had enough funds to purchase it. Most of the Jews coming in fulfilled neither of these criteria.
By July 1940 it was starting to become increasingly clear what would happen to the Jews if they remained in Eastern Europe. Chuine decided to take his own initiative and started to churn out ten-day transit visas as well as speaking to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews use the Trans-Siberian Railway (at five times the normal price). Chiune would reportedly spend 20 hours a day writing the visas, producing a months worth of them in a single day. By September he had given thousands of visas to Jews, many of whom, as the heads of family, could use the visa to transport their entire families to Japanese territory. However, in September the Japanese consulate was closed and the Japanese staff told to leave. Chiune and his wife Yukiko stayed up all through the night writing more visas. Apparently he was still writing them while in transit from his hotel to the train station. Finally, in desperation, he resorted to signing pieces of paper affixed with the seal of the Japanese consulate which could then be written over into visas. Flinging them out of the train windows into the crowds of desperate refugees. Chiune left a copy of his signature and the consulate stamp with some Jesuits in Vilnas who continued issuing visas in his name.
He is estimated to have saved at least 6,000 Jews through his insubordination. When one considers that one visa issued for the head of a family could transport that whole family, the real number is probably in the tens of thousands. Many of the Jewish refugees were able to use these visas to get to Vladivostok or Manchuria where they would get a boat to Kobe, Japan. With the help of the Polish ambassador in Tokyo they would then proceed on to Canada. Others remained in Japanese-occupied China and would also survive the War.
During the rest of the War, Chiune would serve in Prague, Konigsberg and finally in Bucharest. In 1944 the Soviet Union invaded Romania and Chiune was captured and placed in a POW camp until the end of the War. He was released and allowed to return to Japan in 1946. Soon after his arrival he was sacked by the Foreign Ministry, officially this was due to general downsizing but others have speculated that this was due to his earlier insubordination over the visas in Lithuania.
Like many other families in early post-war Japan, Chiune and his family found themselves in dire poverty. Chiune had to take up jobs like selling light-bulbs door-to-door. Chiune was finally able to get a steady job for an export company where his command of Russian got him sent to represent the company in the Soviet Union (possibly as a spy for the US military). However, this time in the USSR was brief and Chiune was soon back in Japan.
In 1968, the Israeli economic attaché in Tokyo, Jehoshua Nishri (whose family had been saved by Chiune’s visas in the 1940) managed to track down his saviour. He brought Chiune to Israel in 1969 where he was greeted by the Israeli government and lobbying was begun on the Yad Vasham. In 1985 the Yad Vasham granted Chiune the title of Righteous Among the Nations (he and his family were also given perpetual Israeli citizenship) although he was too ill to travel to Israel to accept the award which was received by his wife instead.
Chiune Sugihara died in 1986. In Japan he was still a complete unknown and it was only when a huge Jewish delegation from around the world and the Israeli ambassador to Japan came to his funeral that his neighbours find out what he had done. Although not officially a saint, Chiune is considered as such by some Eastern Orthodox Christian, some of whom have icons of him.
When asked why he went to such lengths to produce visas Chiune answered: “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.”