Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara - stolen from Wikipedia (click image for link)

I found out about an amazing Japanese couple – well, family, actually – today – Chiune Sugihara, or “Sempo” to the people he served, was a Vice-Consul for the Japanese Empire in Lithuania. His wife was a homemaker named Yukiko Sugihara.

The Lithuanian Holocaust nearly wiped out the Jews in Lithuania, with an estimated 195,000 death toll (some sources say more). A small but significant number survived due to Sugihara’s visas. Both Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara wrote and registered visas.

From July 18 to August 28, 1940, aware that applicants were in danger if they stayed behind, Sugihara began to grant visas on his own initiative, after consulting with his family. He ignored the requirements and arranged the Jews with a ten-day visa to transit through Japan, in direct violation of his orders. Given his inferior post and the culture of the Japanese Foreign Service bureaucracy, this was an extraordinary act of disobedience. He spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian railway at five times the standard ticket price.

Sugihara continued to hand-write visas, reportedly spending 18 – 20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month’s worth of visas each day, until September 4, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By that time he had granted thousands of visas to Jews, many of whom were heads of household and thus permitted to take their families with them. On the night before their scheduled departure, Sugihara and his wife stayed awake writing out visa approvals. According to witnesses, he was still writing visas while in transit from his hotel and after boarding the train at the Kaunas Railway Station, throwing visas into the crowd of desperate refugees out the train’s window even as the train pulled out. – Wikipedia

Yukiko Sugihara

Yukiko Sugihara - stolen from JewishVirtualLibrary.org (click for link to page)

These people were badass. They risked their lives and Sugihara’s career. Keep in mind that this is Japanese culture we’re talking about here – obedience is pretty damn high up on the list of Things They Like. To go against that, especially for people with kids at home, is amazingly courageous.

Sugihara was later asked to resign his position, ostensibly due to downsizing, but there are suspicions that it was due to his unorthodox actions in Lithuania. He worked menial jobs and later accepted a post in Russia, managing an export company, while his family remained in Japan. For decades, he and his family lived lives of obscurity.

In 1968, Sugihara was contacted by one of the refugees whom he helped. Nearly 20 years later, he was given the honorific Righteous Among the Nations (check out this list for more badass people). His family and descendents were given Israeli citizenship in perpetua.

Despite this honour, Sugihara and family still lived quietly. Only when Sugihara’s funeral was attended by Jewish people from around the world, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan, did the people around him learn what he had done.

Chiune Sugihara died on July 31, 1986. Yukiko Sugihara died on October 8, 2008.

I may have disobeyed my government but if I didn’t I would be disobeying God. Chiune Sugihara, from the Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness partial transcript

 

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