In 1939, he became a
vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in
Lithuania. His other duty was to report on Soviet and
German troop movements.
Sugihara is said to have
Polish intelligence, as part of a bigger Japanese-Polish
the Soviet Union occupied sovereign Lithuania in 1940,
Jewish refugees from
Jews) as well as
Lithuanian Jews tried to acquire
exit visas. Without the visas it was dangerous to
travel, yet it was impossible to find countries willing to
issue them. Hundreds of refugees came to the Japanese
consulate in Kaunas, trying to get a visa to Japan. The
Jan Zwartendijk had provided some of them with an
official third destination to
Caribbean island and Dutch colony that required no entry
Surinam (which, upon independence in 1975, became
Suriname). At the time, the Japanese government required
that visas be issued only to those who had gone through
appropriate immigration procedures and had enough funds.
Most of the refugees did not fulfill these criteria.
Sugihara dutifully contacted the
Japanese Foreign Ministry three times for instructions.
Each time, the Ministry responded that anybody granted a
visa should have a visa to a third destination to exit
Japan, with no exceptions.
Sakura for memory of Chiune
Sugihara in Vilnius, Lithuania. Widow of Sugihara and
president of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus. 10 October
2001. Author: Rimantas Lazdynas
From 18 July to 28 August
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 issued 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
Chiune Sugihara monument in
Vilnius (Pamėnkalnio g.) by Vladas Vildžiūnas and Goichi
Kutogawa. Erected in 1992. Author:
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 4
September, 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 households 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 of the train's window even as the
train pulled out.
In final desperation, blank
sheets of paper with only the consulate seal and his
signature (that could be later written over into a visa)
were hurriedly prepared and flung out from the train. As he
prepared to depart, he said, “please forgive me. I cannot
write anymore. I wish you the best.” When he bowed deeply to
the people before him, someone exclaimed, “Sugihara. We’ll
never forget you. I’ll surely see you again!”
Memorial statue of
a Japanese diplomat who helped thousands of Jews leave the
Soviet Union while serving as the consul of the Empire of
Japan to Lithuania, in
Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, California.
2 December 2007. Author:
Sugihara himself wondered
about official reaction to the thousands of visas he issued.
Many years later, he recalled, "No one ever said anything
about it. I remember thinking that they probably didn't
realize how many I actually issued."
The total number of Jews
saved by Sugihara is in dispute, estimating about 6,000;
family visas—which allowed several people to travel on one
visa—were also issued, which would account for the much
higher figure. The
Simon Wiesenthal Center has estimated that Chiune
Sugihara issued transit visas for about 6,000 Jews and that
around 40,000 descendants of the Jewish refugees are alive
today because of his actions. Polish intelligence produced
some false visas. Sugihara's widow and eldest son estimate
that he saved 6,000 Jews from certain death, whereas Boston
University professor and author, Hillel Levine, thinks it
was far higher at around 10,000. According to Levine's 1996
biography of Sugihara, In Search of Sugihara, the
Japanese diplomat issued 3,400 transit visas to the Jews.
Levine reports from his research of official
Japanese foreign ministry documents entitled "Miscellaneous
Documents Regarding Ethnic Issues: Jewish Affairs,' vol.10,
1940 Diplomatic Record Office, Japanese Foreign Ministry,
Tokyo", that he discovered one list alone of "2,139 names,
largely of Poles—both Jews and non-Jews—who received visas
between July 9 and August 31, 1940...It is far from
complete; many who received visas from Sugihara, including
children, are not on it. By statistical extrapolation, we
can estimate that he helped as many as ten thousand escape;
those who actually survived are probably no more than half
Indeed, some Jews who received Sugihara
visas failed to leave Lithuania in time, were later captured
by the Germans who invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941,
and perished in the Holocaust.
The Diplomatic Record
Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already opened
to the public two documents concerning Sugihara's file: the
first aforementioned document is a 5 February 1941
diplomatic note from Chiune Sugihara to Japan's then Foreign
Yōsuke Matsuoka in which Sugihara stated he issued 1,500
out of 2,139 transit visas to Jews and Poles; however, since
most of the 2,139 people were not Jewish, this would imply
that most of the visas were given to Polish Jews instead.
Levine then notes that another document from the same
foreign office file "indicates an additional 3,448 visas
were issued in
Kaunas for a total of 5,580 visas" which were likely
given to Jews desperate to flee Lithuania for safety in
Japan or Japanese occupied China. Moreover, there were also
Jesuits in Vilna who were issuing Sugihara visas with
seals that he had left behind and did not destroy, long
after the Japanese diplomat had departed" which means that
some Jews could have escaped Europe with forged visas issued
under Sugihara's name.
Many refugees used their
visas to travel across the Soviet Union to
Vladivostok and then by boat to
Kobe, Japan, where there was a
Russian Jewish community.
Tadeusz Romer, the Polish ambassador in
Tokyo, organised help for them. From August 1940 to
November 1941, he had managed to get transit visas in Japan,
asylum visas to
Burma, immigration certificates to the
British Mandate of Palestine, and immigrant visas to the
United States and some Latin American countries for more
than two thousand Polish-Lithuanian Jewish refugees, who
Kobe, Japan, and the
Shanghai Ghetto, China.
The remaining number of
Sugihara survivors stayed in Japan until they were deported
Shanghai, where there was already a large Jewish
community. Others took a more southerly route through Korea
directly to Shanghai without passing through Japan. A group
of thirty "Jakub Goldberg" arrived one day to
Tsuruga but were returned to the Russian port city of
Nakhodka. Most of the around 20,000 Jews survived
the Holocaust in the
Shanghai ghetto until the Japanese surrender in 1945.
Despite German pressure for
the Japanese government to either hand over or kill the
Jewish refugees, the government protected the group. One
hypothesis is that the Japanese decision was in gratitude
for a $196 million loan that a Jewish banker from
Jacob Schiff, had given to Japan; the funds helped them
to victory in the
Russo-Japanese War of 1905. A broader hypothesis, which
also motivated the 1930s scheme, involved the benefit of the
supposed economic prowess to Jews (partly as some Japanese
leaders had read
anti-Semitic tracts attributing uncanny wealth and power
to Jews), which was desirable to the Japanese empire.
Finally, Jewish leaders pointed out that the Nazi ideal
excluded "the yellow", and asserted that like the Japanese,
the Jews were from Asia too.
Sugihara served as a Consul
Czechoslovakia, from March 1941 to late 1942 in
East Prussia and in the legation in
Bucharest, Romania from 1942 to 1944. When Soviet troops
entered Romania, they imprisoned Sugihara and his family in
POW camp for eighteen months. They were released in 1946
and returned to Japan through the Soviet Union via the
Trans-Siberian railroad and
Nakhodka port. In 1947, the Japanese foreign office
asked him to resign, nominally due to downsizing. Some
sources, including his wife Yukiko Sugihara, have said that
the Foreign Ministry told Sugihara he was dismissed because
of "that incident" in Lithuania.
In October 1991, the ministry
told Sugihara's family that Sugihara's resignation was part
of the ministry's shakeup in personnel shortly after the end
of the war. The Foreign Ministry issued a position paper on
24 March 2006, that there was no evidence the Ministry
imposed disciplinary action on Sugihara. The ministry said
that Sugihara was one of many diplomats to resign
voluntarily, but that it was "difficult to confirm" the
details of his individual resignation. The ministry praised
Sugihara's conduct in the report, calling it a "courageous
and humanitarian decision."
Sugihara settled in
Kanagawa prefecture. To support his family he took a
series of menial jobs, at one point selling light bulbs door
to door. He suffered a personal tragedy in 1947 when his
youngest son died at the age of seven. He later began to
work for an export company as General Manager of U.S.
Military Post Exchange. Utilizing his command of the Russian
language, Sugihara went on to work and live a low-key
existence in the Soviet Union for sixteen years, while his
family stayed in Japan.
In 1968, Jehoshua Nishri, an
economic attaché to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo and one of
the Sugihara beneficiaries, finally located and contacted
him. Nishri had been a Polish teen in the 1940s. The next
year Sugihara visited
Israel and was greeted by the Israeli government.
Sugihara beneficiaries began to lobby for his inclusion in
Yad Vashem memorial.
In 1985, Chiune Sugihara was
granted the honor of the
Righteous Among the Nations (Hebrew:
חסידי אומות העולם
translit. Khasidei Umot ha-Olam) by the
government of Israel. Sugihara was too ill to travel to
Israel, so his wife and son accepted the honor on his
behalf. Sugihara and his descendants were given perpetual
That same year, 45 years
after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, he was asked his
reasons for issuing visas to the Jews. Sugihara explained
that the refugees were human beings, and that they simply
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 sympathize 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
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...neighborly 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.
Inspired by “Lamentations, a
book of the Old Testament, written by Jeremiah” which
“suddenly came to [her] mind”, Yukiko Sugihara urged Chiune
to issue visas to save Jewish refugees. When asked by Moshe
Zupnik why he risked his career to save other people, he
said simply : "I do it just because I have pity on the
people. They want to get out so I let them have the visas."
Sugihara died the following
year at a hospital in
Kamakura, on 31 July 1986. In spite of the publicity
given him in Israel and other nations, he remained virtually
unknown in his home country. Only when a large Jewish
delegation from around the world, including the Israeli
ambassador to Japan, showed up at his funeral did his
neighbors find out what he had done.
Legacy and honors
Sugihara Street in Kaunas and
Vilnius, Lithuania, and the
25893 Sugihara are named after him. The Chiune Sugihara
Memorial in the town of Yaotsu (his birthplace) was built by
the people of the town in his honor. The Sugihara House
Conservative synagogue Temple Emeth, in
Massachusetts, has built a "Sugihara Memorial Garden"
and holds an Annual Sugihara Memorial
When Sugihara's widow Yukiko
traveled to Jerusalem in 1998, she was met by tearful
survivors who showed her the yellowing visas that her
husband had signed. A park in Jerusalem is named for him.
The Japanese government honored him on the centennial of his
birth in 2000.
A memorial to Sugihara was
Los Angeles' Little Tokyo in 2002, and dedicated with
consuls from Japan, Israel and Lithuania, Los Angeles city
officials and Sugihara's son, Chiaki Sugihara, in
attendance. The memorial, entitled "Chiune Sugihara
Memorial, Hero of the Holocaust" depicts a life-size
Sugihara seated on a bench, holding a visa in his hand and
is accompanied by a quote from the
Talmud: "He who saves one life, saves the entire world."
posthumously awarded the Commander's Cross with Star of
Order of Polonia Restituta in 2007, and the Commander's
Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland by the
President of Poland in 1996.
Also, in 1993, the Life Saving Cross of
Though still not
canonized, he is considered a saint by some
Eastern Orthodox Christians.
- A Japanese TV station in
Japan made a documentary film about Chiune Sugihara.
This film was shot in Kaunas, at the place of the former
embassy of Japan.
Conspiracy of Kindness (2000)
PBS shares details of Sugihara and his family and
the fascinating relationship between the Jews and the
Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s.
- On 11 October 2005,
Yomiuri TV (Osaka) aired a two-hour-long drama entitled
Visas for Life about Sugihara, based on his
Chris Donahue made a film about Sugihara in 1997,
Visas and Virtue, which won the
Academy Award for Live Action Short Film.
- Japan's largest film
Nippon Animation, is producing an animated film on
Chiune Sugihara. The film was specially animated for
television stations in Japan and around the world. The
plan is to market the film in 2008, marking sixty years
since diplomatic relations were established between
Israel and Japan. The Japanese company asked Israel's
ambassador to Japan, Eli Cohen, to help in making the
Notables helped by Sugihara