Chiune Sugihara: man of conscience

A look at the legacy of the diplomat who saved thousands from the Nazis during World War II



2015 07 11

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.

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