The Second World War was one of the most tumultuous times in all of human history, and there are still people alive today who remember living in fear and uncertainty. Much has been done to bring reparations to groups who were persecuted during WW2, but it can be easy to forget that there were those alive during the period who didn’t agree with the harsh treatment of Jews and other marginalised people. One man who believed in fighting against persecution was Japanese government official Chiune Sugihara.
Lending a helping hand
Called ‘Sempo’ by the people he helped, Sugihara was responsible for aiding around six thousand Jews escape from Europe by issuing transit visas that allowed them to travel through Japanese territory. The refugees were escaping from German and Russian persecution and this came at great risk to Sugihara and the lives of his family. Even so, he believed in doing the right thing.
Sempo was born in 1900 in Mino and went into military service at a young age. From 1920 to 1922 he served in the Imperial Army as a second lieutenant in the 79th infantry, but resigned to take the Foreign Ministry’s language qualifying exams. After passing with distinction, he was recruited by the Japanese Foreign Ministry and assigned to Harbin in China.
Over the next decade, Sugihara developed an affinity for repressed communities, as seen from when he quit his position as the Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchuria to protest against the Japanese mistreatment of the local Chinese population. This anti-authoritarian attitude would become pivotal during the Second World War.
Taking a stand in Lithuania
In 1939, Sugihara became the vice-consul of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas. His job was to report on German and Soviet troop movements and report back to his bosses in Berlin and Tokyo. While in Kaunas, Sempo saw how the Lithuanian and Polish Jewish communities were mistreated. Many tried to gain exit visas to Japan, but were unable to do so because of the Japanese government’s immigration processes.
At the time, the government required that visas must only be issued to people who had enough money and had gone through the right procedures. Sugihara contacted the Japanese Foreign Mistry three times for instructions. Each time the Ministry told him that anyone granted a visa needed to have a visa to a third country to exit Japan and there could not be no exceptions.
Realising that applicants would be in danger if they stayed behind, Sempo disobeyed the Ministry by issuing ten-day visas to Jews for escape to Japan. He wrote visas by hand, reportedly doing so for up to 18 – 20 hours per day. He did this until he had to leave his post on the 4th September 1940.
Sugihara was so dedicated to his task that witnesses claimed he was still writing visas while on the move from his hotel and on the train at Kaunas Railway Station. He reportedly threw visas into a crowd of refugees from the train’s window.
Reassignment and legacy
After Lithuania, Sugihara was reassigned to East Prussia and then served as a Consul General in Prague from 1941 to 1942. Eventually, Sugihara was captured by Soviet troops in Romania and they imprisoned him and his family in a POW camp for eighteen months.
They were released in 1946 and when he returned to Japan, Sugihara was asked to step down by the Japanese foreign office. Sugihara died in 1986, but he left behind a legacy that was honoured by the State of Israel. The man known as Sempo was recognised as one of the Righteous Among The Nations, the only Japanese national to earn the distinction. Despite everything he’d done, Sugihara was virtually unknown in Japan and it was only after a large delegation of Jewish people attended his funeral did his neighbours find out what he’d done.
Before passing away, Sempo explained his motivations as to why he helped the Jewish population.
“You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathise with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes.
Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.
People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives…The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighbourly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.”