Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, awoke on the morning of July 18, 1940, to a disturbing sight. He peered through the curtains of his bedroom window just before 6 a.m. Sugihara and his wife had been living in the consulate building since their arrival at the end of August 1939, just a few days before the German Army advanced into Poland.

“The street that the bedroom window of the consulate faced,” Chiune wrote in a memoir more than four decades later, “was suddenly filled with the din and clamor of a large group of people.”

About 100 people had already lined up that morning, some pushing against the iron railing of the consulate fence.

It wasn’t long before the number of people doubled. In subsequent days, several thousand Jewish refugees — primarily from Poland but also from Lithuania and points east — were to come to the consulate in the hope of attaining a Japanese visa and escaping the Nazi tyranny that most certainly awaited them.

Sugihara sent a cable — he was to send three in all — to his superiors at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, asking permission to issue transit visas to refugees. He was instructed not to do so. The case came to the attention of Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, who was troubled lest Sugihara’s actions stain his impeccable credentials with his Nazi allies, even though Matsuoka was in no way anti-Semitic himself and made public assurances that no Jews would ever be mistreated by Japanese.

At the time, transit visas were only issued to people with legitimate visas to an onward location from Japan and who could prove they had the means to provide for themselves while in the country. Sugihara nonetheless began writing out visas on July 29, 1940, and continued throughout that day and in the following days for the desperate and, in most cases, destitute refugees until, he wrote in his memoir, “my fingers were calloused and every joint from my wrist to my shoulder ached.”

On Aug. 3, Lithuania, occupied by the Soviet Union, ceased to be an independent country, and all governments were given three weeks to shut the doors of their diplomatic missions. This was extended until Sept. 4, and Sugihara persisted issuing visas even after moving into the Hotel Metropolis (which still stands today), right up to the morning of his departure the very next day, with his family, for Berlin.

This was an era later made famous by a banal and insidious excuse for brutality: “I was just following orders.” Here was a man who was not following orders, and one who, by issuing more than 2,000 visas to Jewish refugees and their dependents, saved the lives of upward of 6,000 people.

Why did a prominent member of the Japanese diplomatic corps put his job and reputation on the line by acting contrary to specific orders? It was not the first time Sugihara swam against the tide, though this time it was against a tidal wave that was sweeping over Asia and all Europe.

We may well ask of then, as of today: What can individuals do to stem the force of a massive wave of evil, some of it originating in their own country? The life and deeds of this one individual may provide an answer.

Acts of defiance

Chiune Sugihara was born on Jan. 1, 1900, in the small town of Yaotsucho in Gifu Prefecture, equidistant between the city of Gifu and Nagoya. His father, Yoshimi, was frequently moved around by his employer, the taxation office, and Sugihara spent his earliest years in Kanazawa (Ishikawa Prefecture), Kuwana (Mie Prefecture) and Nakatsu (Gifu Prefecture) before entering the third grade in Nagoya, where he continued on to middle school.

By then his father was working in Korea, a country that Japan had occupied since 1910. He urged his son, upon graduation from today’s equivalent of high school, to sit the entrance exam to a medical school in Seoul (the present-day Seoul National University College of Medicine).

“My mother had made a special packed lunch for me on the day of the exam,” Sugihara wrote in his memoir of his silent act of defiance, “but I really didn’t want to be a doctor so I didn’t take the exam. I did, however, eat the special lunch. When I got home my father read me the riot act and told me then and there to go out and get a job.”

In March 1918, Sugihara entered Waseda University in Tokyo to study English, but stayed for only a single year.

In 1919, he passed the exam to enter the Foreign Ministry and was sent to Harbin in the northeast of China. Harbin had been founded as a city by Russians only two decades earlier, and ethnic Russians comprised half its population.

Sugihara lived the best part of 16 years in Harbin, studying at Harbin Gakuin and attaining a fluent command of Russian, marrying (and divorcing) a Russian woman named Klavdiya, converting to Russian Orthodoxy and leading the nearly two-year-long negotiations with the Soviet government in the acquisition of the highly strategic branch of the Chinese Eastern Railway that crossed Manchuria. In June 1933, the year after the founding of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, this branch had been named the “North Manchuria Railway.”

Sugihara committed an act of not-so-silent defiance when, in 1935, he openly criticized the Japanese military (whose methods and nefarious objectives he despised), left his high post in Harbin in protest and returned to Japan.

“I had always been critical of (the Imperial Japanese Army’s) highhandedness,” he wrote, “and was unwilling to be used by professional soldiers.”

It was then that he met Yukiko Kikuchi, 13 years his junior, and proposed to her. She was to accompany him before and during the war on all of his journeys in Europe. The Sugiharas eventually had four children, three of whom survived childhood. (I was a friend of their eldest son, Hiroki, who told me much about his father until his own death, at the age of 64, in June 2001).

The Foreign Ministry, wishing to capitalize on his superb language and negotiating skills, assigned Sugihara to their embassy in Moscow, but the Soviet government, wary of those very skills, refused to grant him an entrance visa. During prior negotiations, the Soviets had demanded ¥625 million for their railway, and Sugihara had beaten them down to nearly a quarter of that. Making him persona non grata was a way of punishing him for his “victory.”

So, in 1937, Sugihara set out for Helsinki, where he could keep an eye on events rapidly unfolding in the region. The Soviets again refused entrance, and the Sugiharas were obliged to travel from Tokyo to Seattle, and from there by train to New York and, by sea, on to Europe.

It was at his next posting in Kaunas that he defied orders and issued visas to the Jewish refugees.

After a stopover in Berlin in September 1940, Sugihara was posted to Prague, where he was able to issue 33 transit visas to Jewish refugees, despite the fact that Japan had marched willingly, that very month, into Hitler’s camp by signing the Tripartite Pact uniting Germany, Japan and Italy into a powerful axis.

On March 6, 1941, Sugihara was transferred to Konigsberg (present-day Kaliningrad) in East Prussia and, in November of that year, less than two weeks before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, to Bucharest, the capital of Romania.

It was in Romania that the Sugiharas were to see out the war. The Soviet Army had effectively occupied Romania by September 1944. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on Aug. 9, 1945, and the Sugiharas, as enemy aliens, were detained.

Thanks to Sugihara’s linguistic skills and intimate knowledge of Russian ways, the family was released at the end of 1946, taking the very same train across the Soviet Union that the refugees had, being held up for weeks on end at transit camps across the country, and arriving by ship from Vladivostok at Hakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, five months later, on April 5, 1947.

Complex reasons

Thanks to Sugihara’s actions, thousands of Jewish refugees found themselves in Japan at a time when that nation was allied to a virulently anti-Semitic Germany. By all accounts, however, the Jews were treated with kindness and magnanimity. Although transit visas at the time were valid for only 10 days, the term was lengthened to a month and, in some cases, longer, until most all of them had been able to arrange passage to onward points such as Shanghai, the U.S., Australia and Brazil.

The issuance of transit visas had been aided by two other men of conscience: Jan Zwartendijk, acting Dutch consul in Lithuania, and L.P.J. de Decker, Dutch ambassador to Latvia, both of whom took risks at least as great as Sugihara had, given the fact that their country had been occupied by Germany since May 1940. Zwartendijk and de Decker acceded to the granting of entry visas to Curacao, the Dutch colony in the Caribbean, without taking the necessary steps to get them authorized at the other end. At one point, Sugihara phoned Zwartendijk to ask that he not issue his transit visas so quickly “because I cannot keep up, and the street is full of people waiting.”

As for Sugihara himself, he was relieved of his job at the Foreign Ministry two months after his return to Japan. “I was asked to accept the termination of duties without complaint because of ‘you-know-what,'” he told a Fuji TV show in 1977.

The “you-know-what” was, of course, his insubordination in the visa affair. This gave rise to the notion that he was being punished for the most “un-Japanese” behavior of breaking the rules. Yet, the circumstances and reasons behind his dismissal are much more complex than this would suggest, even though his disregarding of cables from his superiors in the Foreign Ministry is surely part of the rationalization of his dismissal, if not its grounds.

A full one-third of the diplomatic corps was given walking papers in the aftermath of the defeat. Sugihara, as part of the old guard, was swept up in this policy of redundancy. In addition, the Foreign Ministry was anxious to show that the Japanese had not been Nazi puppets and that some good deeds had been done. In disrepute after the war, the government tried to take credit for Sugihara’s altruism.

This is a shining example of the actions of a single, brave individual subsequently being claimed by an institution that, in actuality, strove to foil him. If anything is “Japanese” — both then and now — it is this peculiar variant on hypocrisy.

The Sugiharas settled in Kugenuma in the city of Fujisawa not far from Tokyo, and Sugihara, still in his 40s, worked in a number of jobs, among them manager of a post exchange on an American base.

He was eventually employed by the Kawakami Trading Co., making his first trip back to the Soviet Union in many years in the summer of 1960 to take part in a Japanese trade fair. He then spent 15 years in Moscow before coming back permanently to live in Japan. I believe that, in the end, he felt more at home among Russians than he did among his own people, this quiet man who, in the Japanese manner, never boasted of his personal deeds and sacrifices.

It was only in his last years that his courageous story came to light; and only after his death on July 31, 1986, that the government acknowledged his acts of conscience. In 1992, a monument to Sugihara was unveiled in his hometown of Yaotsucho, thanks to an initiative supported by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. There is also a museum in the town dedicated to his life and memory.

If there is a lesson for us in his life, it is that acts of individual conscience do matter when your country is making a slow descent into a state of injustice, intolerance and their inevitable consequence: the state-sanctioned repression of individual freedom under the guises of presumed past glory and the facile hype of homeland “security.”

“To be perfectly honest,” Sugihara wrote in his 1983 memoir, “when I received the answer from Tokyo (to my request to issue visas), I spent an entire night plunged in thought. … I could have refused to issue them, but would that, in the end, have truly been in Japan’s national interest? I came to the conclusion, after racking my brain, that the spirit of humane and charitable action takes precedence above all else.

“I am convinced to this day that I took that path of action faithfully, putting my job on the line, without fear or trepidation in my heart.”

Perhaps the following words of Chiune Sugihara are the most eloquent on his contribution to humanity: “I took it upon myself to save (the refugees). If I was to be punished for this, there was nothing I could do about it. It was my personal conviction to do it as a human being.”

Author and translator Roger Pulvers’ latest book is “Hoshizuna Monogatari,” a novel written in Japanese and published by Kodansha.

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