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An Interview with Carol Gluck

Dr. Carol Gluck is currently the George Sansom professor of history at Columbia University, specializing in modern Japan from the late 19th century onward. She is author of a number of books about Japanese history, including Japan's Modern Myths and Past Obsessions: War and Memory in the Twentieth Century. Filmmaker diane estelle Vicari interviewed Gluck on October 28, 1998, for the making of Sugihara. What follows is an edited transcript.

Japan's aspirations for global political power also created new cultural opportunities for its citizens. As the son of an international businessman, Sugihara was exposed early to non-Japanese traditions, and then pursued foreign study and assignments into adulthood. Gluck argues that it was this cosmopolitan lifestyle, as opposed to Japanese tradition, that formed Sugihara's character.

One of the things that has come up several times regarding Sugihara is this notion of the Bushido code, or the traditional Samurai code, and how that might have been an important influence on Sugihara for what he did later. What are your thoughts on that?

CAROL GLUCK: The Bushido code, or the so-called "way of the warrior," is about as far from an explanation of what Sugihara did as the "Lord's Prayer." It really is irrelevant to his actions and to ... the kind of person he was. Why people choose Bushido as explanation is, I think, because it's an easy explanation and people want an easy answer to why someone would do such a thing as save so many Jews. ... The Bushido code, has, to my mind, nothing to do with Sugihara.

What then do you believe were the influences that prompted Sugihara's actions?

GLUCK: ... If anything, the things that formed Sugihara were actually his experiences outside Japan; not any national code inside Japan. He grew up outside Japan, he went to school outside Japan, he spent most of his life outside of Japan and that made him a cosmopolitan person — for whom Bushido would be as irrelevant as carrying two swords.

... Here's a man who not only grew up outside Japan, ... but married a foreign woman, a Russian woman — not a normal course of action for a Japanese at that time. So he obviously had a different social view — or a different way of relating to people. ... Certainly [his first] marriage is an example of that, [his] conversion to a Western religion is an example of that, [and] his ease in foreign places is an example of that.

This is not a Japanese [person] who went home. There used to be something in the 1930s they called, "Return to Japan," where people who have been cosmopolitan in their youth decided as they got older [that] they really prefer to go home and wear a kimono and act Japanese. Not Sugihara. This is a man who was cosmopolitan from the inside out and from the bottom side up. And that is the most important thing about his background before he ever got into the foreign ministry.

One aspect of the Japanese ethos that Sugihara did conform to was its attitude of non-discrimination. While Nazi Germany and much of Europe began to treat Jews as a separate race in the 1930s, Gluck believes that Japanese society continued to treat Jews no differently than other foreigners — and that Sugihara followed suit.

So when these Jews came to Sugihara as the consul in Lithuania, what do you think was going through his mind?

GLUCK: I think he responded to the need — to the human need. I think he also had friendly relations with the Jews whom he knew in Kaunas, but I think he saved them because they were people — not because they were Jews. ...

In your opinion, what was the general Japanese perception of Jews during that period?

GLUCK: Well, the one concrete example I can give is that there were a number of stateless Jews who came to Japan during the war years and they stayed. Not all of them, but a fair number stayed and their children grew up in Japan. And in the study of the stateless Jews, time and time again, both the parents' generation and their children said, "You know, we were never really treated in Japan as Jews, we were treated as foreigners. Nobody seemed to care one way or another that we were Jews. In Japan, if you're a Westerner, you're a foreigner and that was our status and we experienced no prejudice whatsoever, beyond the immediate identification as being Western." And I think that goes some distance to explaining why, when Japanese society was faced with real Jewish people, there didn't seem to be much of a problem. And that's why the Jews found a fairly congenial place during the rough years, both in Japanese-controlled territories and in Japan.

Sugihara's foreign service career took off in part because of his early work in Harbin, Manchuria. Here, Gluck comments on one of Sugihara's key projects, and the general importance of Manchuria to Japan at the time.

Some historical information suggests that there were Japanese plans to bring Jews in to help develop Manchuria. Was that the case?

GLUCK: From 1932, when Manchuria became a puppet state of Japan, it was the center of Japan's empire, something like the jewel in the imperial crown. ... [So] one of the goals was to develop Manchuria. Another way of talking about Manchuria was as a new paradise on earth. It was meant to be a new, economically thriving development project. It was meant to mix all the races — "Five races are one" was the slogan. It was meant to attract — and it did attract — hundreds of thousands of Japanese to settle the countryside and farm there.

So Manchuria was a kind of experiment for Japan, and all sorts of plans were laid. A lot of Japan's best and brightest, young graduates of universities, went to Manchuria to work at the South Manchuria Railway. ...

So there were lots of plans and some of those plans included Jews, but those plans also included a whole range of ideas — some of them quite fantastic — for developing this colony. ... I mean it's this sort of grandiose, "planned" society and planned economy that characterized the puppet state of the Japanese colony of Manchuria.

Why was Manchuria so important for the Japanese?

GLUCK: Japanese imperialism, which began at the end of the 19th century, focused first on Korea then immediately on the parts of China adjacent to Korea — which meant Manchuria. ... In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, Manchuria was the site of some of the worst battles. This was a war that Japan won but almost lost. And it was really from that time that Manchuria became present in the Japanese imagination; primarily through war songs of the red soil of Manchuria and the loss of lives.

So Manchuria had been on Japan's imperialist mind for a long time. And then in 1931, Japan, in an aggressive act, took Manchuria, [and] established a puppet state [which they called Manchukuo] with the last emperor (of film fame) as the head of the state. So Manchuria is really the center of the Japanese continental empire. Manchuria, Korea, Taiwan — those are the Japanese imperial possessions. But in terms of planning, in terms of manpower, in terms of resettlement, in terms of the numbers of Japanese involved — Manchuria was the heart of Japan's imperial adventure.

One of Sugihara's early missions in Manchuria was to negotiate with the Soviet Union for the purchase of a railroad. Why was that transaction so critical?

GLUCK: In 19th-century style imperialism, when you had [various] spheres of influence, the first thing you wanted was a railroad — everybody did. The Russians built the Chinese Eastern Railway and the Japanese turned their attentions later to something that became known as the South Manchurian Railway. Why? Because one had to move goods and people to the ports — in a vast continental space like that of China and northeast Asia, the ports were very important. And so the railway began the way all imperialist railways begin — for transport and control.

The railway became, over the course of time, a huge bureaucracy. The South Manchurian Railway Company, it was called, [was] a huge bureaucracy that tried to plan the world — the Manchurian world. [It] had an enormous civil service, [it] had its own history department ... [which was] going to write the history of the entire region. They had agricultural specialists. ... It was a huge, almost Utopian, outfit — in a strange sort of Imperialist way.

So the South Manchurian Railway Company was very, very important in Manchuria. It was not the government, but it had been there a long time, it had a lot of people working for it, and it had very grand schemes.

While Sugihara's diplomatic work began in the epicenter of the empire, it ended in provincial obscurity. Some have speculated that Sugihara's lackluster post-war career was the result of his efforts to help the Lithuanian Jews. Gluck, however, views the downward trajectory as fairly standard.

How about this idea that Sugihara was punished for issuing the visas in Kaunas?

GLUCK: I don't know what went on ... in the foreign ministry, in terms of posting, but I do know that very often after the war — not only in Japan but in other countries — that people who had in some way played a slightly out-of-the-ordinary part ... often found themselves not moving upward in the various bureaucracies.

They were not victims of purging in particular, but ... in the post-war world, the impulse [was] to move forward. The political dangers of all these people with all these various pasts — some of them bad pasts, some of them not — made for what I would call very chaotic personnel assignments.

So the fact that Sugihara fell out after the war is pretty common, not necessarily because of what he did in Lithuania, but just because of the career pattern. But I don't know what happened. Someone would have to prove to me a causal connection between what he did ... in Kaunas ... and what happened to him after the war. ... It may exist, but if so, it's still part of this pattern of people who had somewhat out-of-the-ordinary experiences in extraordinary times, coming back to post-war societies which were hell-bent on being ordinary.