VILNIUS – Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited on Saturday a monument in Lithuania to pay homage to the late Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who helped save about 6,000 Jews from the Nazi Holocaust by issuing them transit visas.
But their visit was brief, taking up only about five minutes out of their 24-hour stay in the Baltic state on the fourth leg of their 10-day European tour.
It is not clear why the visit to a monument honoring so widely respected a man as Sugihara was kept so short, but observers say it probably reflects the Foreign Ministry’s complex attitude toward Sugihara’s actions.
Sugihara issued visas against his government’s orders and was forced to resign from the ministry after the war. The ministry waited more than half a century to restore his honor by establishing a plaque for him.
He died in 1986 at age 86.
In 1940, a year after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, scores of Jews flooded the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, the former Lithuanian capital, seeking transit visas to Japan to go to the United States and elsewhere.
Then Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka instructed the consulate not to issue visas to those who did not meet financial and other requirements, an order apparently issued out of consideration for Germany, with which Japan was negotiating the Tripartite Pact.
Sugihara defied the orders and continued to issue thousands of visas to fleeing Jews on humanitarian grounds until the consulate was closed.
He was forced to quit the ministry in 1947, after the war had ended, giving rise to a charge that he was dismissed for defying Tokyo’s orders during the war.
For years, Sugihara remained virtually unknown to the world, but his actions came to light in 1985 when Israel awarded him the honor of “the Righteous Among the Nations.”
He is now referred to as a “Japanese Schindler,” after Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who worked to save Jews during World War II and on whose life the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List” was based.
The Japanese government had long maintained that Sugihara was not dismissed for defying orders, and his honor was not restored until 2000, when the ministry set up a plaque honoring his actions at its Diplomatic Record Office in Tokyo.
Sugihara “exhibited the significance of humanitarian consideration by his courageous judgment,” then Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said at the plaque’s unveiling ceremony.
Katsumasa Watanabe, who heads a group studying Sugihara’s acts, speculates that Saturday’s Imperial visit to the monument is the result of a compromise by the government. The government “couldn’t ignore (Sugihara’s memory) during the Lithuanian visit by the Emperor and Empress, so its best judgment may have been the five-minute stop,” he said.
Chihiro Sugihara, a grandchild of Sugihara who lives in Thailand, said before the Imperial visit, “I hope the visit serves as an opportunity not to bring up the past but to hand down the story of a man’s acts from generation to generation.”
Arrival in London
LONDON (Kyodo) Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko arrived Sunday in Britain for a three-day visit, the last leg of their 10-day tour of five European nations.
It is the Imperial Couple’s first visit to Britain since May 1998, when they were jeered by World War II veterans as they rode through London in a ceremonial carriage.
Officials said they have not seen any signs of organized protests during this visit, which will feature a dinner with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, as well as a visit to Helen and Douglas House, a hospice that cares for terminally ill children and youths.
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