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Chiune Sugihara, sometimes known as the “Japanese Schindler,” served as Vice-Consul to the Japanese consulate in Lithuania and helped many Jews escape during World War II by issuing transit visas to Japan. He and his wife, Yukiko, risked everything to help 6,000 Jews escape from Lithuania and Poland. He received many commendations for his heroic work, including entrance into Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations in 1985 and two posthumously awarded Commander’s Crosses. Chiune Sugihara is the subject of the 2015 movie, Persona Non Grata.

Youth and Academics

Chiune Sugihara was born in Gifu Prefecture, outside what is now known as Mino City, on January 1, 1900. He was the second son of six children to middle-class parents, Yoshimi and Yatsu Sugihara.[1] He achieved top honors when graduating from Furuwatari Elementary School in 1912 and began studying at the local high school. Sugihara’s father encouraged him to take an entrance exam for a Seoul medical school, but he chose not to take it on the day of the exam.

Sugihara instead enrolled in Tokyo’s Waseda University and majored in English. He only stayed one year after he passed the Foreign Ministry’s entrance exam in 1919 and was stationed to Harbin, northeast China. There he encountered many Russians, who founded the city, and became fluent in Russian.[2]

Foreign Office and Family

Chiune Sugihara worked for the Japanese Foreign Ministry in the Manchurian Foreign Office. He played an integral role in the two years of negotiations with Soviet Russia regarding the acquisition of a section of the Chinese Eastern Railway crossing Manchuria. During his assignment, he married a Russian woman named Klaudia Semionovna Apollonova, but they divorced in 1935.

The same year, Sugihara defiantly resigned from his position in Harbin in protest of Japanese discrimination against Chinese locals. He returned to Japan, where he met Yukiko Kikuchi, who he married and together they had four sons, Haruki, Chiaki, Hiroki, and Nobuki.[3]

Chiune Sugihara, The Japanese Schindler

In 1939, Chiune Sugihara assumed his duties as Vice-Consul for the Consulate of Japan in Kaunas, Lithuania. He observed German and Soviet troop movements to report of German plans to attack the Soviets to his commanders in Tokyo and Berlin.[4] The Soviet Union began occupying Lithuania in 1940. Jews from both Poland and Lithuania searched for countries to issue exit visas to escape. During this time, about one-third of Lithuania’s urban inhabitants were Lithuanian Jews.[5]

The Japanese government enforced strict requirements for registering someone for a Japanese exit visa.

Chiune Sugihara’s principals always came before duty and he chose to defy orders again.

Sugihara knew many of the refugees failed to meet these and other standards, including obtaining a second visa for leaving Japan. He wanted to help the holocaust refugees, but the Japanese Foreign Ministry denied his pleas three times.[6]

Chiune Sugihara began granting 10-day visas from July 18 to September 4, 1940, to Jewish Holocaust refugees without the standard Japanese requirements being met. He negotiated with Soviet authorities to allow the refugees to travel across the Trans-Siberian Railway at an inflated price. He worked tirelessly and produced a month’s worth of visas daily during this time and granted freedom to thousands of Jews. Even when boarding the train to leave, Chiune Sugihara threw out blank papers with his signature and the consulate seal and quotes himself in his book, “Please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best.”[7]

The Japanese government never gave an official reply regarding the many thousands of visas granted by Sugihara.[8] The exact number of lives he saved varies. Anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 people received visas.[9]

Resignation and Later Years

Chiune Sugihara and his family took the same path back to Japan as the refugees he helped escape.

Chiune Sugihara next served in Prague, then Königsberg, East Prussia starting on March 6, 1941. They reassigned him to Romania in November the same year. The Soviet Army invaded Romania in September 1944. The Soviets imprisoned Sugihara and his family in a Prisoner of War camp for 18 months after they declared war on Japan. By the end of 1946, he and his family were released and returned to Japan over the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Sugihara resigned at the request of the Japanese Foreign Office in 1947. Possibly due to the visas he wrote in Lithuania.[10]

Upon returning to Japan, Sugihara moved to the Kugenuma city, Fujisawa, with his family where he found many different types of employment. His youngest son, Haruki, died at seven years old just after their return to Japan in 1947. Nobuki was born in 1949 and is the only remaining son who lives in Belgium.[11] The Kawakami Trading Co. eventually hired him and he moved to Moscow for 15 years.

Legacy and Death

The government of Israel named Sugihara one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1985 for his exceptional effort in saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. When asked why he wrote the visas, Levine quotes in his book about Chiune Sugihara, “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.”[12] Sugihara died on July 31, 1986, in a Kamakura hospital. The 2015 movie, Persona Non Grata, is based on the life of Chiune Sugihara.[13]

References

Bibliography


Levine, H. (1996). In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Dipolomat who risked his life to Rescue 10, 000 Jews from the Holocaust. United States: The Free Press.

Sugihara, S. (2001). Chiune Sugihara and Japan's Foreign Ministry, Between Incompetence and Culpability. Lanham, MD: University Press of Americ.

Sugihara, Y., Silver, L., Saul, E., & Introduction by Sir Edmund L. de Rothschild (1995). Visas for Life. San Francisco, CA: Edu-Comm Plus.

Tenembaum, B. (2004). Sempo ”Chiune” Sugihara, Japanese savior.

Footnotes

  1. Tenembaum, 2004
  2. Pulvers, R. (2015, July 11). Chiune Sugihara: Man of Conscience. The Japan Times.
  3. Sugihara, 1995
  4. Sugihara, 2001
  5. Cassedy, E. (2007). ”We Are Here: Facing History In Lithuania." Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal 12, No. 2: 77-85.
  6. Tenembaum, 2004
  7. Sugihara, 1995
  8. Sakamoto, P. R. (1998). Japanese Diplomats and Jewish Refugees: a World War II Dilemma. New York: Praeger.
  9. Levine, 1996
  10. Levine, 1996
  11. Sugihara, 2001
  12. Levine, 1996
  13. Persona Non Grata Movie IMDB

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