Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Japanese Hero

During a trip to Japan with my daughter Jessika in the summer of 2009 I resolved to visit an obscure monument that pays tribute to a hero, Chiune Sugihara. It was off the beaten path; we had to take a series of trains from the city of Nagoya and then a bus to the small town of Yaotsu, his birthplace. I’m glad we made the journey, apart from the fact that it made us miss our bus ride to Mt. Fuji. Most Japanese, I suspect, know little about him, judging from the quizzical looks I got. Sugihara was Japanese consul in Lithuania and helped save thousands of lives by painstakingly and hastily writing transit visas against the dictates of his government. It was a simple act fraught with danger and risk. As he and his wife left on the train he was still filling out visas and handing them out through the window. He lived most of his life in relative obscurity. Blacklisted for this act of compassion during the war, Sugihara could not find a bureaucratic position in his home country commensurate with his experience and training. Consequently, he lived and worked in Russia under a pseudonym for many years to support his family. He died in 1986 not long after Israel declared him to be "Righteous among the Nations," the only Japanese person who’s been granted this honor. He only asked that one of his sons receive an education at the University of Jerusalem. One former prime minister of Japan, Noboru Takeshita, once expressed pride that his country had someone like Sugihara during those awful times.