Exactly 60 years ago, during the evening of Aug. 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito recorded the speech of surrender to be broadcast to the Japanese nation the next day at noon.
Aug. 15, 1945 found Chiune Sugihara, his wife, Yukiko, and their three little children in Romania, interned there by the Red Army. It was unclear what their fate would be. Japan had been officially at war with the Soviet Union, albeit for only a few days.
Who was Chiune Sugihara, and how did he come to be in Bucharest at the war’s end? At a time when Japan is being branded in some quarters as the unrepentant perpetrator of cruel misdeeds during World War II and before, a look at the life of this man of conscience may serve to lighten this dark image. It may also be a guide to Japanese people living today: proof that an individual can make a difference, even in the most callous of times.
I was fortunate to have known Sugihara’s eldest son, Hiroki, who was named after Koki Hirota, the prime minister in 1936 when Hiroki was born.
The elder Sugihara was a diplomat who was posted to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, in November 1939. He was soon to be presented with a striking dilemma.
“My father woke up one morning in late July, 1940, to see a great crowd of people milling outside the gate of the consulate,” Hiroki told me in July 2000. “I remember staring down at them from the second-story window. They were Jews, and they had come to get exit visas from my father.”
Sugihara was under strict instructions from his superiors at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo not to issue any Japanese visa other than a transit visa, and this only when the applicant had a valid visa to a subsequent destination.
However, Sugihara deliberately disobeyed those instructions, issuing more than 2,000 visas, some of them covering more than one member of a family, to Jews who were desperate to escape the Nazi terror that had overtaken Poland and was gradually moving eastward.
“The consulate was shut down on Sept. 4 that year,” Hiroki told me, “but my father continued to pen visas even at the railway station, throwing the last stamped passports out of the window of our train to Jews whose lives would, thanks to him, be spared.”
The more than 2,000 refugees traveled by train across Siberia and on to Japan, from where they eventually made it to Shanghai, Australia, the United States or other destinations. Incidentally, those Jewish refugees were treated humanely while in Japan, despite general Japanese sympathies for the Axis cause.
Meanwhile, Sugihara made his own way from Kaunas to posts in Prague, Konigsberg and, eventually, in 1942, Bucharest, where he remained until 1945.
Born on Jan. 1, 1900, in the village of Yaotsu in Gifu Prefecture, Sugihara went to Waseda University in Tokyo in 1918, but dropped out the next year to join the Foreign Ministry. After being sent by the ministry to Harbin in China, he converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity and married a White Russian woman named Klavdia.
In Harbin, Sugihara studied Russian and became, it was said, the best Russian-speaker in the Japanese government. He also negotiated, on terms exceedingly favorable to Japan, the agreement with the Soviet Union that allowed for the expansion of Japan’s Northern Manchurian Railway. Then in 1935, after divorcing Klavdia (who died several years ago, age 93, in a Russian nursing home in Sydney), Sugihara returned to Japan and married Yukiko Kikuchi, Hiroki’s mother.
The Soviets were not well disposed to Sugihara, given his hand in the railway negotiations, and disallowed his proposed next posting, to Moscow. He was dispatched instead to Helsinki and then to Kaunas where, with his linguistic skills (he had studied German as well as Russian), he was invaluable to the Japanese foreign service.
Why did Sugihara go out on a limb to save those Jews? His son, Hiroki, saw it as a matter of personal conscience.
“My father made a decision based on pure humanity. If you had the power to save people and didn’t, what kind of a man were you?”
In 1946, Sugihara, his wife and their three children, found themselves on the same trans-Siberian train line ridden by the Jewish refugees he saved. They were finally repatriated in April 1947. Before long, however, Sugihara was relieved of his duties at the Foreign Ministry, in what some have interpreted as a rebuke for his disobedience. This explanation fits into the stereotypical view of the conformist Japanese, but I believe it was not the case here. Instead, Sugihara was simply let go in the postwar changing of the guard that saw a third of the Foreign Ministry’s staff receive their marching orders in those chaotic years.
Afterward, Sugihara found various jobs, one of them as manager of a PX on an American base. Eventually he took up a position with a trading company and moved, alone, to Moscow, where he lived for 16 years. He passed away in Japan on July 31, 1986.
“I think that my father may have felt more at home with Russians than he did with Japanese,” Hiroki told me. “I guess he wasn’t very much at home in postwar Japan.”
There are tens of thousands of people around the world today who would not have been born had it not been for the compassion of Chiune Sugihara.
On a day such as this one, perhaps it will help both Japan and those who genuinely wish this country well to remember that the devils of the past were not alone in their undertakings. There were angels in their midst. Thanks to Japanese like Chiune Sugihara, “Lest we forget” may justifiably be said in the same breath as “kindly remember.”
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