It’s said that the virtue most valued in Japan is loyalty, which is why the famous heroes of Japanese literature and history are people who made sacrifices for their lords rather than their beliefs. And often, as in the case of the 47 ronin celebrated in Chushingura or the tokkotai (kamikaze) pilots of World War II, the sacrifice is more notable for its symbolism than for any effect it may have had on actual events.

This notion of heroism may explain why Tatsuji Fuse, a Japanese lawyer who died in 1953, is a hero in Korea but unheard of in Japan. Last fall, Fuse posthumously received the Order of Merit for National Foundation from the government of South Korea, an honor given to individuals who helped in the cause of Korean independence. The medal has been given to more than 50 non-Koreans, but Fuse was the first Japanese. Apparently, the awarding body had wanted to honor Fuse for years, but lingering anti-Japanese sentiments made it difficult to do so.

The award was covered in Japan by the wire services, but most of the major Japanese media ignored it. The only television coverage I saw was in November on the TV Asahi news variety show “SmaStation,” as part of its occasional “Japanese in the World” series, which usually presents Japanese people who have made a name for themselves overseas. Fuse did almost all of his work in Japan, but in South Korea he’s been called “Japan’s Oskar Schindler.”

It’s a misleading description. Fuse didn’t save people by clandestinely manipulating the system the way the German industrialist did during the Nazi era. Fuse was clear and open about his beliefs and consistent in his application of them. His own hero was Tolstoy, who advocated a moral philosophy based on conscience.

Fuse graduated from Meiji Law School at the turn of the 20th century and became a prosecutor, but quit after a year when he realized that the people he was prosecuting were society’s more vulnerable members. When the police brought him a case he invariably rejected it for this reason.

He became a private attorney in 1903, but his first Korea-related case came in February 1919, when he helped defend nine Korean students who had been arrested in Tokyo for publicly advocating Korean independence from Japan, which had annexed the peninsula almost 10 years earlier. Fuse’s defense was simple: seeking independence was a normal reaction to colonization, and it was therefore wrong to suppress calls to that end. Miraculously, the students were able to avoid punishment.

The Japanese government soon cracked down on the independence movement, sending troops to quell a Seoul uprising in which an estimated 2,000 Koreans were killed. In every subsequent court case related to the colonies, Fuse represented any Koreans who were arrested. Following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, it is believed that thousands of Korean residents were lynched by vigilante groups and that the government, apprehensive of radical elements, encouraged the lynchings. It is said that Fuse saved many Koreans following the earthquake by sheltering them in his house, though in a book he wrote about his father in 1963, Fuse’s eldest son Kanji implied this is mostly a legend. However, Fuse did demand that the government investigate the reported lynchings.

The philanthropic lawyer did not limit his concern to Koreans. When impoverished Japanese tenants were thrown off their land following the earthquake because they built shacks for shelter, Fuse sued the landlords. In a different case a year earlier, he had helped set a precedent for Japan’s tenancy laws, which even now make it difficult for a property owner to evict a tenant for any reason.

Fuse often traveled to the colonies — Korea and Taiwan — to help people win their land back from Japanese companies. He defended workers in labor disputes. He even stood with Japan’s untouchable class, the burakumin, against the authorities. For his efforts he was thrown in jail twice and disbarred a number of times. His third son, a newspaper reporter, was thrown in jail for political offenses during the World War II and died there in 1944. After the war Fuse continued to defend those who could not defend themselves, most notably against the police after they fired upon a May Day rally in 1952, killing two people.

According to Kanji, Fuse was not a particularly likable man. In the memoir, he refers to him as “Mr. F,” because he never had much affection for him. It is a common complaint about men like Fuse, who cannot countenance anyone whose ideals aren’t as lofty as their own.

Nevertheless, that isn’t the reason Fuse’s career isn’t taught in Japanese schools or mentioned anywhere at all. Usually, the media loves it when a Japanese person is celebrated overseas, but if Fuse has been lost to the ages in his own country it’s because the period in which he lived is still not discussed fully.

The situation of Korean residents of Japan, who are still officially foreigners even if they were born here, shows that the authorities retain remnants of a colonial mindset. Fuse can’t be acknowledged, much less considered a hero, in his own country until the social conditions he fought against are completely and publicly forsworn. His idealism was demonstrated in opposition to the Japanese authorities — he was patently disloyal — and apparently that’s not the type of person you want to hold up to young Japanese as an example. When you refuse to look at your past squarely, heroes really are hard to find