Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1st, 1900, and lived to make his mark on the twentieth century. Thousands of people owe their lives in part to his willingness to buck authority. For his efforts, he was imprisoned by the Soviets and fired from his job by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
That's not the way Japanese children of his generation were raised. Sugihara walked to the beat of a different drummer even before the events that made him famous, when he went against his father's wishes and failed a medical school entrance exam -on purpose. Instead, he enrolled in a Tokyo university where he was recruited by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.Â Sugihara was assigned to Japanese-occupied Harbin, in Machuria, where he perfected his English, learned Russian, and joined the Greek Orthodox Christian church. As his career was taking off, Sugihara's sense of justice led him to protest the way the Japanese military treated Chinese citizens. Instead of getting rid of the talented diplomat, the Foreign Ministry transferred him several times. He was eventually reassigned to Europe.
Sugihara wired the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to get approval for the plan, but he was denied several times. The consul in Tokyo told him to issue no travel visas at all!
Sugihara had a difficult decision to make. He was a man who was brought up in the strict and traditional discipline of the Japanese. He was a career diplomat, who suddenly had to make a very difficult choice. On one had, he was bound by the traditional obedience he had been taught all his life. On the other hand, he was a samurai who had been told to help those who were in need. He knew that if he defied the orders of his superiors, he might be fired and disgraced, and would probably never work for the Japanese government again.
It is estimated that 6,000 Jews were able to leave Lithuania for the east because of the travel documents Sugihara prepared. The became known as the Sugihara Survivors. The refugees traveled through the Soviet Union to Japan, where they stayed for months. Some traveled on to the United States, others to Shanghai, China, and some to the Caribbean islands they had originally planned to escape to.
Sugihara died in 1986. He wasn't well known in Japan until his funeral drew interest because of the many foreigner visitors who came to pay tribute, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan. When his countrymen learned of his heroism, a memorial park was built in Yaotsu-cho, Sugihara's birthplace. The Sugihara Memorial Garden stands at Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. A statue of Sugihara was erected in 2002 in the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles. The memorial shown in a picture by Alma Pater is in Vilnius, Lithuania. In the 21st century, some estimate that the original visa holders have 80,000 descendants. That is the greatest memorial of all.
See also: The Legacy of Sadako