The Japanese Schindler
Given the history of Japanese atrocities in the 1930’s in Manchuria and during World War II in Korea, the Philippines, and other locations, it would be easy to see all Japanese of that era as either willing participants in or giving tacit approval to the brutality, but heroes are sometimes found in the most unexpected places. Such is the case with the subject of today’s post, Chiune (Sempo) Sugihara (January 1, 1900-1986). He was definitely an outlier in a society that placed high value on conformity and obedience.
Sempo showed his independent streak early on. When his father insisted that Sempo become a doctor, he sat for the entrance exam for medical school and left the answer sheet blank. He was a very able student, but his interests lay in languages, travel, and literature. After graduating with top honors from the prestigious Harbin Gakuin National University where he studied Russian, he taught at the university for a short period then entered the diplomatic corps. In 1932, he was
posted to Manchuria as Deputy Consul of the Manchurian Government Foreign Ministry. He negotiated the purchase of the Northern Manchurian Railroad from the Soviet Union and he appeared to be a rising star in the Japanese foreign service. Anyone who has read even a single article written about Sino-Japanese relations during the 1930’s and Japan’s subsequent occupation of China has encountered descriptions of great cruelty and brutality culminating with a six weeks period in late 1937 that became known as the Rape of Nanking.
Sugihara did not wait until the events of Nanking. He was so distressed by how his countrymen were treating the Chinese, he resigned his post in protest in 1935. Returning to Japan, he married, began a family, and continued his diplomatic career as a translator of Russian. Posted first to Helsinki, Finland and then other legations in Europe, he was promoted to Japanese Consul in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1939. His time there would be short, but would earn him a place as the only Japanese person on the list of The Righteous Among the Nations.
When Germany and her Soviet ally carved up Poland between them after Hitler’s September, 1939 invasion and occupation, circumstances became dire for anyone on the undesirables list. Understandably, Polish Jews were terrified and many of them fled across the border into Lithuania where a sizable Jewish population already resided. In 1940, the Soviet Union agreed to let Jews pass through its territory as long as they had a final destination outside its borders. Long lines of desperate people formed outside the Japanese Consulate hoping for transit visas that would take them to safety beyond the grasp of the Nazis.
Sugihara’s superiors in Tokyo had forbidden the issuance of visas without a stated final destination, which created a tremendous obstacle to the Jews who had essentially become stateless persons whom no one wanted to admit. Sugihara felt the moral obligation to help the helpless was a far greater imperative than the demands of his career or obedience to his government.
Together with Dutch diplomat, Jan Zwartendijk, Sugihara hatched a plan to enable Jews to flee an ever tightening circle of Nazi influence. Sugihara issued Japanese passports upon which Zwartendijk wrote that no visa was required to enter the Dutch Caribbean possession of Curaçao. This was completely untrue, but none of the authorities in Lithuania or the Soviet Union were concerned about the immigration policies of a small island nation half way around the world. The plan worked well enough that perhaps as many as 10,000 people were saved in this way.
The two diplomats would no doubt have continued the subterfuge, but the Soviets invaded Lithuania in June, 1940 and ordered all consulates closed and foreign diplomats to leave the country. Sugihara worked feverishly to get out as many visas as he could before his departure. It is believed he was writing visas and throwing them out the carriage window as his train pulled away from the station. The “visas for life” earned him a place in history and the title of hero.
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.