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Life of “Japanese Schindler” in Photos at Naha Exhibition

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-10-27

A photographic exhibition at the Okinawa Prefecture Womens’ Center in Naha last week celebrated the life of Chiune Sugihara, sometimes known as Japan’s Oscar Schindler, who saved the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees during the Second World War.

Many of the photographs in the exhibition were taken by Setsuko Kikuchi, sister of Sugihara’s wife, Yukiko. They survived a ten year odyssey through Eastern Europe, Russia and Japan and were at one point confiscated by Russian soldiers. But Yukiko convinced them to return them and they were the only family treasures to be brought back from Europe.

There is a lot of portraiture and family groups in the exhibition from the early part of the century. Both Sugihara and his wife were from old samurai families and we see photos of them in traditional dress. There are military men festooned with medals, family outings, drawing room shots. Double breasted suits, kimonos, plus-fours and caps powerfully evoke another age.

The context of the photos is what makes the collection especially poignant. Without the captions and quotes to go with the pictures we would be looking, for the most part, at a social history of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. But text beneath each picture advances the story of a gifted man, but one with normal cares, who was emboldened to do something extraordinary, at great risk to himself and his family.

Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1 1900. There were family expectations that he would be a doctor but he had dreams of studying literature and living abroad. He paid for his own education at Waseda University by working part-time as a longshoreman and tutor. Then he saw a classified ad wanting entrants to the diplomatic service. He passed the difficult exam and was sent to the prestigious Harbin Languages School in China. There he studied Russian and passed out as top graduate there. He became a teacher at the faculty.

Afterwards he served in Manchuria where he became disturbed by his government’s cruel policies and resigned his post in 1934. Later he became Vice Minister at the Foreign Affairs Department. In 1938 he was posted to Helsinki and the next year sent to open a Japanese Consulate at Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania.

A photograph of the family with children gathered round a pram in front of the Consulate illustrates the semblance of normal life before the arrival of the storm. A few months after Sugihara arrived in Lithuania war broke out.

Kaunas was strategically situated between Germany and the Soviet Union. There is an enlightening quote under a picture of a jolly family group out for the day, perched on the hood of a car. Sugihara’s son Hiroki says his father always went on picnics to out-of-the way places, following tank or truck tracks. He was always looking around, taking pictures. It was not until later that Hiroki realized he was spying on the Russian and Lithuanian governments.

When the German army invaded Poland, a wave of Jewish refugees streamed into Lithuania with chilling tales of Nazi atrocities against the Jewish population. They had escaped from Poland without money or possessions and the local Jewish population gave them shelter and helped them as much as they could. It was difficult though for the Lithuanian Jewish population, who were leading normal lives, to fully believe that Polish Jews were being murdered by the tens of thousands.

In 1940 the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania and it was now too late for Lithuanian Jews to leave for the East. Polish Jews were however allowed out of Lithuania through the Soviet Union if they could obtain exit visas. By 1940 most of Western Europe had been conquered by the Nazis, with only Britain standing alone. In the rest of the free world, with very few exceptions, immigration of Jewish refugees was barred from Poland or anywhere else in Nazi occupied Europe.

In July 1940 the Soviet authorities instructed all foreign embassies to leave Kaunas. Sugihara requested a 20 day extension and was granted it. He and a Dutch acting Consul were the only diplomats left there. Thousands of Polish Jews converged on the Japanese Consulate, begging him for exit visas. Each time Sugihara wired Tokyo for permission to issue the visas, he was refused. The Japanese government did not want to jeopardize their diplomatic alliance with Hitler and the Nazis.

Then Sugihara went ahead without permission and started issuing exit visas to any Jewish refugee who was eligible for one. The Japanese Consul became the focus of hope for thousands of refugee families. Sugihara issued 300 visas a day for the next 20 days. A blow-up of one of the life saving documents is on display at the exhibition. It reads “Transit Visa. Seen for the journey through Japan (to Suranam, Curacao and other Netherlands colonies.) 1940 V111 29. Consul du Japon a Kaunas.”

Another photo shows a train leaving Kaunas Station in August 1940. Sugihara continued giving out visas from the train window as he left the city. “We’ll never forget you” one grateful recipient was heard to shout.

Sugihara’s widow Yukiko, who is still alive, said “I encouraged my husband to issue visas, even though I knew it might jeopardize his career and even our lives. We knew that the Jewish refugees were in peril of their lives. Human life is the most precious thing.”

Sugihara had to resign from the Foreign Service on his return to Japan. He did not know of the fate of his visa recipients until 1968. He died in 1986, aged 86. He reflected on the 6000 Jews he saved from almost certain death, one of the largest refugee rescues of the Second World War. Today his visa holders probably have 40,000 to 50,000 descendants. “I may have to disobey my country, but if I don’t I would be disobeying God” said Sugihara.

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