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December 22, 2017 12:17 pm

On the Trail of Japanese Holocaust-Era Hero Chiune Sugihara

avatar by Barney Breen-Portnoy

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A bust of the late Chiune Sugihara, on the Hill of Humanity in Yaotsu, Japan. Photo: Barney Breen-Portnoy.

A picturesque hilltop in the rustic countryside of central Japan’s Gifu Prefecture is the last place one might expect to hear Hebrew. But at the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall overlooking Yaotsu on a recent November morning, Hebrew and Japanese mixed in the air, as both international and local tourists circulated in the exhibit gallery highlighting the legacy of the World War II-era diplomat who — against the orders of his superiors in Tokyo — issued transit visas that saved thousands of European Jews from the clutches of the Nazis.

According to local officials, around 10,000 Israeli and Jewish tourists visit the Gifu region — located about a two-hour bullet train ride from the Japanese capital — annually. What draws them there? Yes, there are the charms of off-the-beaten-path Japan, including old-style towns, traditional foods, magnificent views, rejuvenating hot springs and intoxicating sake breweries. But mostly, it is the reputation of area native Sugihara, the only Japanese citizen to be honored by Israel with the “Righteous Among the Nations” title.

Born at the turn of the 20th century, Sugihara joined the Japanese Foreign Ministry as a young man and learned Russian (he also knew Chinese, English, French and German). In August 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, he arrived in the then-capital of Lithuania, Kaunas, to serve as a vice consul at the Japanese Consulate-General there.

One morning in July 1940, a group of Polish Jews who had fled eastward after Germany invaded their home country gathered outside the Japanese diplomatic facility in Kaunas. Sugihara noticed the refugees and inquired about their situation. He was told they were seeking transit visas to enable them to pass through Japan on the way to other countries that were willing to take them in. At the time, a rail journey across the Soviet Union followed by a sea crossing to Japan was one of the few potential paths of escape from the expanding Nazi empire for these Jews.

Sugihara consulted with the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which informed him the refugees did not meet the visa requirements. However, Sugihara decided he could not abandon the Jews to their fate.

“It was a humanitarian issue,” Sugihara said in an interview later in life. “I did not care then if I would be fired.”

Over the next month, before the consulate-general was shut down amid rising tensions following the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Sugihara spent nearly all his waking hours writing visas by hand. Ultimately, around 6,000 Jews — from whom there are an estimated 40,000 descendants alive today — survived the Holocaust thanks to these documents.

Shortly after Sugihara left Kaunas, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. During the rest of World War II, Sugihara served in diplomatic posts in Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad), Prague and Bucharest. Toward the end of the war, he and his family were taken prisoner by the Red Army and they only returned to Japan after spending more than a year in a Soviet internment camp.

In 1947, Sugihara was forced to resign from the Foreign Ministry. The official reason he was given was post-war manpower cuts, but he believed the true motive was his actions in Lithuania.

For the next two decades, Sugihara lived in obscurity, working a number of different jobs. Much of that time was spent in Moscow, where his Russian-language skills made him an asset for Japanese trading companies.

In 1968, Sugihara was located by an Israeli diplomat based in Tokyo who, as a teenager, had received one of the visas. Sugihara visited Israel the next year, and Holocaust survivors who owed their lives to him began lobbying for him to be recognized by Yad Vashem. This effort bore fruit in 1984, when Sugihara was granted the “Righteous Among the Nations” title.

Sugihara passed away less than two years later, at the age of 86.

The Port of Humanity Museum in Tsuruga. Photo: Barney Breen-Portnoy.

Today, the most prominent Sugihara-related sites to visit are the Memorial Hall and next-door Hill of Humanity Park in Yaotsu and the Port of Humanity Museum in Tsuruga, where the Jewish refugees were brought by ship across the Sea of Japan from Vladivostok, the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Daisaku Kunieda — the chief of the Memorial Hall — said Sugihara has become better-known in Japan in recent years and perceptions about him have changed due to societal developments. Whereas Sugihara’s disobedience of government instructions might have been controversial in the past, he is now widely viewed as a hero.

The view of Yaotsu from the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall. Photo: Barney Breen-Portnoy.

“Human rights are very important in Japan,” Kunieda said.

The governor of the Gifu Prefecture, Hajime Furuta, noted, “This is not just a story of the past, but very much relevant today, especially with the increasing tensions in the world. It gives important lessons that we should disseminate and continue to verbally express to the next generation.”

The Gifu Prefecture and JTB travel agency are currently engaged in an intense effort to attract tourists who are interested in Sugihara. As part of this, JTB has opened information centers on the “Sugihara Experience” in its New York City and Los Angeles offices.

“Our main goal is to further deepen the connection and the understanding between Japanese and Jewish people,” the president of JTB Central Japan, Hiroshi Matsumoto, said.

Earlier this year, Gifu officials were confident that Sugihara’s records would soon be registered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a “Memory of the World.” But, for reasons that are still not clear, the Sugihara documents were omitted when the latest additions to the list were announced in October.

Furuta called the UNESCO decision “very unfortunate,” but did not rule out trying again in the future to get the designation.

“We would like to check and see if we would reapply for the nomination,” he said.

Barney Breen-Portnoy, the managing editor of The Algemeiner, spent a week in Gifu last month on a trip organized by the prefectural government and JTB.

For more information on Gifu travel options, visit the prefecture’s official tourism homepage or JTB USA’s website.

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