Heroes of History–Sugihara Chiune

Heroes of History–Sugihara Chiune

He did not plan to be a hero, but circumstances came upon him, and [he]…did what he had to do.

Having the news at our fingertips can be convenient, but it can also be exhausting, especially with the media in every country in the world reporting similar cases of bad news and alarming statistics. In particular, many people are feeling コロナ疲れ, or coronavirus fatigue. It’s time for a good report!

For today’s post, we interviewed Tom (retired research optometrist and professor, currently firearms instructor) about a person from Japanese history whom he admires. Tom and his Japanese wife lived in Japan for the first 8 years of their marriage and moved to the US with their 3 small children in 1990. Tom is an avid historian with an interest in both Western and Japanese history. Here is his interview:

Q1: Who is your favorite figure in Japanese history?

“Right off, several men come to mind, like Ben-kei or Oishi Kuranosuke, who are well known. I admire both for their courage and devotion to their Lords. But there’s another man I’d like to mention who most people don’t know, Sugihara Chiune.”

“Sugihara Chiune” a JUURI artwork (Insta: @juuriart83)

Q2: What is he famous for?

“He was a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania during World War II, and he helped save thousands of Jews from the oncoming Nazi army. Keep in mind, Japan and Nazi Germany were allies at the time. Although officially the Japanese foreign ministry denied his repeated requests to issue the transit visas for the Jews […] he disobeyed orders and issued as many visas as he could. Because of him thousands of Jews were able to barely escape. On his returned to Japan after the war, Mr. Sugihara was shunned for many years. However, he has been highly honored and appreciated by the nation of Israel. In 1985, they recognized him with one of their highest honors, the “Righteous Among Nations” award. “

Q3: What do you admire about him?

“I am inspired and deeply moved by his courage and compassion […] and his willingness to sacrifice […]. Like him, I hope to live my life as a faithful and true Christian.”

Q4: What was/were his weakness(es)?

“I’m not sure about his moral weaknesses, but he suffered because of his limited physical strength. Once he decided to disobey orders and issue the visas, he worked non-stop from morning to late at night for over a month. At first he wrote the visas one by one, by hand, as usual, but the need was so great that he began using a stamp. He worked to the point of exhaustion. Finally, when he was ordered by the government to leave Lithuania, he continued frantically writing and throwing visas out the window of the departing train.”

Q5: Does he have a counterpart in Western history?

“I’m sure there are many people around the world who displayed similar courage and integrity. The story of Corrie ten Boom, comes to mind. Her father rescued Jews in Holland during World War II, but he was caught and died in a concentration camp. I haven’t seen it, but I think the movie Schindler’s List tells a similar story.”

Q6: How do you/can one follow his example?

“That level of integrity and courage cannot be put on superficially. They come from noble character and a good heart, developed over time. Therefore I read the Bible daily, pray often and spending time with people of noble character. I also avoid things that might corrupt my heart of mind.” 

Passage To Freedom: The Sugihara Story (see bottom of post)

Q7: How would history have been different if he had not been born?

“Maybe in the scope of world history, Mr. Sugihara was insignificant, but for thousand of Jews, he made the difference between life and death. Today, their children and grandchildren number tens of thousand of precious people all over the world who would not exist if it were not for him.”

Q8: If you could do one activity together, what would it be?

“It would be a great honor to meet briefly with Mr. Sugihara, perhaps at a coffee shop, and learn more from him about what he did and why.”

Q9: If he were alive today, what kind of position do you think he would be in/in what position could he make a difference in the world?

“I imagine he would be just an ordinary person faithfully doing his job, treating everyone with respect and kindness. He did not plan to be a hero, but circumstances came upon him, and because of the character already established in his heart, did what he had to do. Few people know about him, but, when he went to heaven, I’m sure he heard the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.'”

Further Reading

Thanks to Tom for sharing this unsung hero of recent Japanese history. It is so inspiring to hear about the extraordinary courage of ordinary people. If you are interested in reading more about Sugihara Chiune, check out a beautifully illustrated children’s book entitled Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story (Rise and Shine) published by National Geographic Learning.

Back cover: Passage to Freedom–The Sugihara Story
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