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 for permission 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 points in 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 back 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.
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.
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