Tsuruga: truly a ‘port of humanity’

by Alon Adika

Special To The Japan Times

The man in the black-and-white photograph wore a dark jacket with wide lapels. His hair was cut short and parted to one side. His eyes were directed toward the camera as if he were looking directly at me. I recognized him immediately: Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice-consul in Lithuania who helped to save thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis during World War II.

I was at the tourist information center in Tsuruga on the Sea of Japan coast in Fukui Prefecture. I had been asking what there was to see there when I saw that picture on a pamphlet. I knew Sugihara was originally from Gifu Prefecture, so I couldn’t understand what his connection was to Tsuruga. I was going to find out.

Most guidebooks do not even mention Tsuruga, and in those that do it only rates a brief entry. In his 1994 classic “Japan: Land of Myth and Legend,” Alan Booth says, “The heavily indented coast of Fukui Prefecture is attractive enough for it to have been designated a quasi-national park, although one part of it has earned its reputation for a grimmer reason. The Wakasa Bay area, particularly the city of Tsuruga, long a major port, is now Japan’s most rapidly developing centre for atomic power.”

With the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station, things in Tsuruga are now even grimmer, as its nuclear power facilities straddle an active fault.

In fact I was only there in the first place by chance, since I’d found I just had one day left on my Kansai-area train pass and wanted to use it to visit somewhere I’d never been before. I had heard of Tsuruga only in connection with its nuclear power plants, so when I saw it on the map printed on the train pass I decided to go.

A JR employee was standing at the lone exit gate collecting passengers’ tickets. Beyond it was a small waiting room, a convenience store and a tiny souvenir shop. Fortunately, there was also a tourist information desk, where I asked about visiting one of the nuclear power plants.

Silly: I was told the plants had not been in operation since the Fukushima disaster — and furthermore, it would be difficult to get there by any form of public transport.

My initial hopes in meltdown, I started walking toward the port to gaze upon the Sea of Japan and visit the Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum, which had the picture of Sugihara on its pamphlet. A wide avenue lined with shops and covered sidewalks led from the station, with along its sides numerous sculptures of characters from from the famous anime “Space Battleship Yamato” and “Galaxy Express 999″ that had been erected to commemorate the centenary of the opening of Tsuruga Port to foreign trade.

My stroll soon took me to Kehi Jingu, whose history stretches back more than 1,000 years and which is the designated most important shrine in Echizen Province — the old name of the region. Visitors are greeted by a large vermillion gate last rebuilt in 1645 and similar in structure to the famous torii in front of Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima. The wandering poet Matsuo Basho would have passed under this very same gate when he visited in 1689.

Only a few other visitors were walking about. A shrine attendant told me that among the deities enshrined are Emperor Chuai and Emperor Ojin, the legendary 14th and 15th rulers of Japan. Chuai’s consort, Empress Jingu, who led a mythical campaign into the Korean Peninsula, is also a resident deity.

A statue of Basho is located on the shrine grounds beside a monument carved with various haiku verses he penned during his visit. I later found some translations of these, and the following one caught my eye: “Where is the moon? / The bell has sunk / To the bottom of the sea.”

This poem refers to a story about a battle in the 14th century when two separate imperial courts were vying for supremacy. The battle occurred close by Tsuruga Port at a place called Kanagasaki, which is where I decided to head off to.

Yoshiaki Nitta, like his warlord father Yoshisada, had sworn allegiance to Emperor Go-Daigo of the Southern Court. After an earlier setback, Yoshiaki escaped with two of the Emperor’s sons, the princes Takanaga and Tsunenaga, to Kanagasaki Castle, which stood on a hill commanding Tsuruga Port.

The opposing Ashikaga forces based in present-day Tochigi Prefecture besieged the castle for several months. The defenders held out as long as possible, but were destined to be defeated. Yoshiaki set fire to the castle and then committed suicide along with Prince Takanaga. Legend has it that Yoshiaki was buried with a war bell that sank through the sand to the bottom of the sea.

Nowadays, though, beneath where the castle once stood is a white Western-style building housing the Port of Humanity museum. The exhibits first give some background information about the port. Since ancient times, this natural harbor linked Japan with Korea and China, and later it also served as a stopover for vessels traveling between western Japan and the northern provinces.

Then, in 1899, the port was opened to international trade and again became an important link to the Asian mainland and beyond to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which was under construction at the time. And in 1912, with the completion of a railroad connecting Tokyo and Tsuruga, the port’s importance increased again.

The rest of the museum is dedicated to the story of those Jewish people who were able to escape the Nazis thanks to Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, at the time when many Jewish refugees were trapped there in face of advancing German forces.

Sometime in July 1940, some of those people began to congregate in front of Sugihara’s home every day. Around that time, however, 40-year-old Sugihara received orders to prepare to close the consulate.

As small groups became a multitude of people waiting daily by Sugihara’s window, clinging to their last hope, the diplomat made a bold decision to help them and began issuing Japanese transit visas — many in direct defiance of his government’s regulations.

He spent the little time he had left endlessly authorizing those visas and, in an interview later in life he recalled still handing them out at the train station on his way out of the country. Sugihara ended up saving about 6,000 Jewish people — and about 40,000 descendants of those refugees are alive today.

During the 9,258-km journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Soviet Union’s Pacific coast, the Jews were subject to inspection, arrest and the confiscation of their possessions by officials. From Vladivostok, they took boats across the Sea of Japan and arrived at the port of Tsuruga, which explains the connection between Sugihara and Tsuruga City.

Oral accounts preserved at the museum tell of the Jews’ arrival and time spent in Tsuruga. Among them are the stories of a teenager who brought them apples, a bathhouse owner who opened his premises to them free of charge and the owner of a watch shop who bought their valuables. Most of the refugees did not stay long in Tsuruga and quickly moved on to Kobe and Yokohama, where there were existing Jewish communities.

After leaving the museum I climbed the hill behind it to see the site of the old castle. Up there I came across Kanagaseki Shrine, which is dedicated to Prince Takanaga and his brother Prince Tsunenaga, who was captured and killed after the siege of the castle. Today, the shrine is famous for its cherry blossoms and for good fortune in love and marriage.

From higher up I looked out at the harbor and city below. All was peaceful and quiet and a late summer breeze blew through the air. As I viewed the landscape, I thought again about those Jewish people who had arrived here and how, in the words of one of the refugees, “Seeing Tsuruga was like catching a glimpse of paradise after waking from a nightmare.”

Limited express trains to Tsuruga take about 90 min. from Osaka and 50 min. from Kyoto. The tourist information desk at Tsuruga Station is a good source of maps, pamphlets and bus timetables.