Who Is Chiune Sugihara? The Japanese Hero Who Saved 6,000 Jews From the Holocaust

Chiune Sugihara, a government official of samurai heritage, put aside career, family and reputation to do the right thing, which was to issue transit visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis

Wikimedia Commons

On July 31, 1986, Chiune Sugihara, the former Japanese diplomat who over the course of one month in 1940 issued enough transit visas to allow some 6,000 Jews to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, died, at age 86. He was honored on July 29th, 2019 by Google as their Google doodle for that day. 

Sugihara’s is the story of someone who, faced with a reality he found unacceptable, put aside considerations of career, family and reputation – all highly valued in Japan – to do the right thing.

Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1, 1900, in the town of Yaotsu, in the Gifu prefecture of central Japan. He grew up in that region and in Korea, at the time a Japanese colony. His father, Kosui Sugihara, was an imperial tax collector, and his mother, the former Yatsu Iwai, was descended from a long line of samurai.

Chiune’s father expected him to attend medical school, but he defied him and in April 1919, enrolled at Waseda University, in Tokyo, where he began to study English. A short time later, he entered Japan’s foreign service.

Appalled by abuse of Chinese

In September, 1919, Sugihara was sent to Harbin, in Manchuria, China, where the foreign ministry was running a Russian-language academy. (Harbin was a cosmopolitan city with a large Russian population and flavor.) He married a Russian woman and converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity.

Even before its occupation of Manchuria, in 1931, Japan dominated the economy and politics of the region. It was Sugihara who oversaw the delicate and lengthy negotiations with the Soviet Union for the Japanese purchase – at a bargain-basement price -- of the North Manchuria Railway.

In 1935, Sugihara resigned his position in the Manchurian Foreign Office, saying he could not abide the way the Japanese army treated Chinese citizens.

Back in Japan, divorced from his first wife, he met and married Yukiko Kikuchi, with whom he would have four children. He held several different diplomatic positions before being sent to open a consulate in Kaunas (also known as Kovno), the provisional capital of Lithuania.

In addition to regular consular duties, he was expected to keep track of Russian and German troop movements along the border.

Polish Jews pour in

The family arrived in Kaunas in late August of 1939. Almost immediately afterwards, on September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, leading thousands of Polish Jews to flee to Lithuania..

When the USSR, at the time allied with the Germans, invaded Lithuania the following June 15, the situation of those refugees became desperate, and they began to seek a country that would accept them. (The fear was justified: The Nazis occupied Lithuania a year later and proceeded to murder nearly its entire Jewish population.) In July, the Soviets ordered all foreign legations to close, but Sugihara received permission to remain several more weeks.

Japan was one of the solitary states that would issue visas to aliens, if they could prove they were in transit to a third country.

The Dutch government was then allowing Jews to settle in its colonies of Curacao and Dutch Guiana (today Suriname), to which the Lithuanian Jews could be sent.

Armed with only vague instructions from Tokyo, Sugihara decided, in consultation with his wife, that he would begin distributing Japanese transit visas to the Jews clustering desperately outside the Japanese consulate. He didn't stop until his train pulled out of the Kaunas station, by which time he had written at least 2,139 visas, each of which could serve an entire family.

A visa Sugihara issued to the holder of a Czech passport, who had reached Lithuania. (Photo: Huddyhuddy, Wikimedia Commons)

According to estimates by his family and historian Hillel Levine, author of a Sugihara biography, some 10,000 people were included in the diplomat’s visas. Many hwever never made it out of Lithuania.

Back in Japan after the war, Sugihara was never officially reprimanded for his actions, but he was forced to resign from the foreign service, ostensibly because of budget cuts. He would live another 39 years, supporting himself for a time selling lightbulbs door-to-door, and later, working for a trading company in Moscow.

In 1968, Joshua Nishri, an Israeli economic attaché in Tokyo, who had himself been saved by a Sugihara visa, tracked him down, and submitted his name to Yad Vashem for recognition as a Righteous among the Nations. That honor was bestowed upon him in 1984, two years before his death.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

Orthodox Christian icon of Chiune Sugihara in the Russian style, by Pavlo Sergeyevich (Wikimedia Commons)

This article was originally publlished in Juy 2015