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You can learn a lot about a person by seeing how they act under pressure, in tough situations. Some people flounder, while others rise to the occasion.

Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara showed what he was made of during World War II when he saved thousands of Jews from the horror of the Holocaust at great risk to himself.

In the early war years Sugihara, a diplomat working for the Foreign Ministry of Japan, was stationed in Lithuania to be Japan’s eyes and ears in northern Europe as worldwide conflict was brewing. At first, his job went pretty normally, but he was soon thrown into an incredible situation.

As it became more and more evident what was happening in Europe, people (especially Jews) wanted to escape to other parts of the world. These refugees went to different embassies and consulates, looking for different ways out. Some of them came to Sugihara.

For a while, Sugihara played by the book, repeatedly asking permission from the Japanese government to write these refugees visas. After being turned down three times, Sugihara decided to take matters into his own hands.

Sugihara began writing visas for Lithuanians looking to escape the war. These refugees would travel through Japan, using it as a jumping off point to other parts of the world.

The Japanese government soon caught on to what Sugihara was doing and began tightening the noose, telling him to stop issuing visas, but Sugihara persisted.

Eventually, Sugihara was recalled from Lithuania. Legend has it that even as Sugihara was at the train station leaving Lithuania, he was still frantically writing visas, trying to save as many people as he possibly could.

After the War

After the war when Sugihara finally returned to Japan, he was asked to resign from his post from the Foreign Ministry for unrelated reasons. The remainder of Sugihara’s life in Japan was much quieter than you would expect of a hero. He worked odd jobs and even worked in Russia, away from his family for the better part of twenty years. Virtually nobody in Japan knew what he had done during the war.

The rest of the world, on the other hand, was very much aware of Sugihara’s bravery. In the late 60s, he visited Israel and was treated as a visiting dignitary.

Years later, Israel deemed Sugihara Righteous Among the Nations, an honor given from Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save people from the Holocaust. He and all of his descendents were also all granted Israeli citizenship, and Sugihara remains to this day the only Japanese person who is Righteous Among the Nations.

It’s not just Israel who’s recognized Sugihara’s deeds. There are been tributes to Sugihara all over the world. There are statues, memorials, painting, films — one astronomer even named an asteroid after Sugihara. Governments have awarded him their highest honors, including Poland and Lithuania.

Legacy

When Sugihara died in ‘86, delegates visited from around the world to pay their respects. Sugihara’s friends and neighbors were astonished that Sugihara’s death attracted so many people from so many places, considering that they hadn’t known about his time in Lithuania.

WWII was especially bad for Lithuania; over 10% of its population was wiped out during the war. That makes it more astonishing that by some measures, there is something like 40,000 people alive today because of Sugihara, including refugees and descendents. Many survivors have made sure that their children and grandchildren know about the man who risked his own life for them.

Photo by Alma Pater

There isn’t a whole lot for the Japanese to be proud of during the wartime years. The awful things that happened during Japan’s quest for an Asian empire still resonate to this day.

But even though that part of Japan’s history is so tragic, it’s inspiring that Sugihara acted against his official orders, against what was supposed to be his country’s ally, at the risk of his own life to save so many. And it’s fitting that we remember him to this day.


Header photo by markandrew

  • havoczephyr

    Hashi, the sentance “The Japanese government soon caught on to what Sugihara was doing and began tightening the noose, telling him” ….what do they tell him? :(

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Sorry, I’m dumb and didn’t finish that sentence. It should read “The Japanese government soon caught on to what Sugihara was doing and
    began tightening the noose, telling him to stop issuing visas, but
    Sugihara persisted.”

  • http://en-gb.facebook.com/GreenFox59 Michael Warren McDonald

    What a touching story! It is nice to hear some of the good things that happened during this terrible time in history.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    That sentence must have been lost to fires during the war.

  • mekko

    I’ve seen his small statue in LA’s Little Tokyo, and read a brief plaque about him, but thank you for his story. Sugihara truly was a hero.

  • http://www.AdiosParis.fr/ Arnaud

    Very interesting. When I’ll be in Lithuania I’ll ask to people if they remember this man.

  • orangedude

    Talk about a hero! What a great bit of history to learn about!

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    I feel like I’ve read this article before somewhere… Wasn’t it on Cracked or something?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I don’t read Cracked so I honestly can’t say, but I can imagine them writing about it. Maybe “7 Heroic Diplomats You’ve Never Heard of Before?”

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    “(That you won’t believe aren’t Photoshopped.)”

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    It’s The 6 Greatest War Heroes Who Got Screwed Out of History – he made #1. On second reading, it’s not as similar as I recall. You’re safe from a copyright lawsuit… this time. =P

  • DAVIDPD

    Bit of a non sequitir, but looking at the top picture, an article about Japanese charcoal would be fascinating. The care and manufacturing of the famous charcoal used for robatayaki is amazing.

  • http://twitter.com/Erojohn11 Crusty Dan

    Kate Beaton did a comic about him. Here is its story.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1173586833 Wei Keat Tan

    Nice history, and good to know. In my part of the world, when we talks about Japan during WW2, it is all blood and gore, many can recount relatives that was killed, tortured or raped. I am sure that are other Sugihara, but was lost in our collective memories.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Kate Beaton’s great, I had no idea she did a comic about him!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    The picture at the top is actually this incredible Holocaust memorial in Lithuania. The way I had to crop it makes it hard to tell what it is, but you can see the picture here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/markho/927876469/

  • Kwok Leuih

    Tofugu once again comes up with an amazing story that I’d never even heard of. I wonder how you guys go about researching things.
    Thanks for the great tale, Hashi!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mann.mohan.dash Manmohan Dash

    loved to read that .. Great Soul Sugihara