Happy Birthday

chiune sugihara, sempo sugihara

Happy Birthday, Chiune Sugihara, the “Japanese Schindler”

January 01, 2010
by Liz Colville
Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese consul during World War II who helped save the lives of thousands of Polish Jewish refugees by signing visas that allowed them to flee the Nazis’ grasp.

Early Days

Chiune Sugihara, also known as Sempo Sugihara, was born in Yaotsu in the Gifu Prefecture of Japan’s main island of Honshu, on January 1, 1900, to a middle-class samurai family. His father, who instilled the stringent samurai code of loyalty and obedience in his son, wanted him to become a doctor. But Sugihara sought an artistic life that would allow him to see the world.

Sugihara was educated at Waseda University, paying his way by working as a tutor and longshoreman. After graduating, he responded to an ad in a newspaper by the Foreign Service and attended Harbin Gakuin, a school in China where he learned Russian and became an expert on the Soviet Union. He was appointed foreign ministry director of Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, and according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum encyclopedia, “negotiated the purchase of the North Manchurian railroad from the Soviet Union in 1932.”

Notable Accomplishments

In 1939, Sugihara, now fluent in Russian and a convert to the Eastern Orthodox church, was sent to Kaunas, or Kovno, the temporary capital of Lithuania, to open a consulate. The capital was “strategically situated between Germany and the Soviet Union.” Lithuania was allied with Germany at the time, and the city of Kaunas was home to some 30,000 Jews—a quarter of the population. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Polish Jews began fleeing to Lithuania. Although Lithuanian Jews were not allowed to leave, Polish Jews could escape Nazi persecution if granted visas out of Lithuania.

On July 27, 1940, hundreds came to the Japanese embassy in Kaunas, pleading for Japanese transit visas. Sugihara wired the Japanese government three times, asking them to grant the visas. The government denied the request twice and did not respond to the third request. Sugihara and his wife, Yukiko then took matters into their own hands, signing visas for 30 days straight. They issued more than 2,000 visas, and because many of the survivors went on to have children, approximately 40,000 people owe their lives to the Sugiharas.

The Rest of the Story

Sugihara, who had once before shown similar compassion by aiding victims of a flood in Harbin, China, was not recognized for his efforts for many years. He was transferred to Prague soon after the visa event, and then to Romania, where the Soviets arrested him in 1944. Released three years later, he returned to Japan, and was fired from the Foreign Ministry because of “that incident in Lithuania,” his superiors told him.

Sugihara worked for a while as an interpreter, and was then employed as manager for an export company that conducted business with Moscow.

He was a humble person and didn’t tell anyone about his role in saving Jews from the Holocaust. But gradually those he saved spread the message about his actions and communicated it to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel. In 1985, Sugihara became the first Japanese recipient of Israel’s Yad Vashem Prize, given to those who are “Righteous Among the Nations,” non-Jews who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

Sugihara died at the age of 86 on July 31, 1986. In 2000, the Japanese Foreign Ministry finally recognized Sugihara’s accomplishments in a formal ceremony attended by his widow; they installed  a copper plaque in honor of the centennial of Sugihara’s birth, and created three scholarships and an exhibit in his honor. Yukiko Sugihara died in October 2008.

A documentary clip on YouTube explores how Sugihara came to be a Holocaust hero and Sugihara’s simple reason for his actions: “They were human beings and they needed help. I’m glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them.”

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