Staff writer

YOKOHAMA — Yukiko Sugihara, 85, still recalls the huge crowd outside the Japanese Consulate in Nazi-occupied Lithuania one cold summer morning in 1940 — hundreds of European Jews desperate to escape persecution.

“As my husband motioned me to look out of a window one morning, I saw hundreds of people surrounding the consulate and looking at us. They were all poorly dressed and appeared desperate,” Sugihara said.

The crowd came to plead for her husband, Consul Chiune Sugihara, to issue them visas to go to Japan.

Sugihara’s widow last week spoke of her memories of the summer she spent in Nazi-occupied Europe with her husband Chiune, known as “Japan’s Schindler,” for saving thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.

“Looking at the people standing outside the window, we felt so sorry for them. We just couldn’t turn them away as human beings,” Sugihara told a cultural seminar held by the Yokohama branch of Nikko Securities Co.

Sugihara’s husband did not have the authority to issue so many visas, so he repeatedly telegraphed the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to explain the urgent situation the Jewish refugees faced. However, Tokyo’s response was that Japan could not issue visas to people lacking proper passports and who had no final destination after stopping over in Japan.

Most of the refugees had narrowly escaped from Poland and didn’t have adequate documents, she said.

Knowing he was defying orders from his government, Chiune Sugihara started writing visas around the clock. Each was supposed to bear a serial number, but he stopped numbering them.

“Although the number of visas he issued is said to be 6,000 or so, I think he probably issued almost 10,000,” his widow said.

The Japanese Consulate was shut down a month later, and the Sugihara family was ordered to Berlin. On the train before their departure, the consul kept issuing visas, handing them to the applicants through the window until the train started moving, she said.

“But there were still people left on the platform who failed to get a visa, and we were afraid they were destined to be killed. Tears fell from my eyes,” Sugihara recalled.

When the war ended, the Sugihara family was detained in Russia for a year before they were able to return to Japan. Awaiting the consul in Tokyo was an abrupt dismissal from the foreign service.

“When Chiune asked the reason for his dismissal, the ministry official in charge only replied ‘You know,'” his wife told the seminar.

The consul’s deeds would only be honored many years later.

Chaim Choshen, a counselor at the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, said the delay was partly because of Sugihara’s modest personality. “It was so natural for him. He didn’t think he did something extraordinary.”

Sugihara also said her husband didn’t talk to anybody about what he had done in the summer of 1940.

In 1985, a year before he passed away, the Israeli government awarded him as “A Man of Justice of the Peoples of the World” — one of the country’s highest awards. In 1991, a memorial monument was erected in Lithuania and a street was named after him there.

Sugihara’s reputation grew in the Japan that shut him out of the Foreign Ministry upon his return. The Diet officially honored his deeds in 1992.

Following the release of the movie “Schindler’s List” in 1994, the “Japanese Schindler” started to draw more attention both in Japan and abroad.

The Yokohama branch of Nikko Securities Co., which invited Yukiko Sugihara to be the first guest speaker of its cultural seminar series, will also hold an exhibition of photos related to the consul’s work this week at its office. The exhibition will include explanations in English.

“Japanese people of late seem to have fallen short on self-confidence. We must remind ourselves that we had such great people as Chiune Sugihara,” said Michiyasu Kitamura, manager of Nikko’s Yokohama branch.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.