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Who Was Chiune Sugihara?
Born January 1, 1900, in rural Japan, Chiune Sugihara lived during a period of extraordinary change in his home country. He was a diplomat by profession, and his memory has endured primarily thanks to his actions during a single month of his life in 1940, while serving as Japan's consul in Kaunas, Lithuania. As World War II escalated in Europe, Sugihara wrote visas, unauthorized by his foreign ministry, permitting Jewish refugees to escape through Japan, even though they did not meet the Japanese government's requirement for entry, and in some cases, did not even hold passports at all. This decision, which some believe may have cost him his career, ultimately meant a safe escape for thousands of Jews who otherwise would likely have been captured by the Nazis.
Sugihara grew up at a time when Japan was beginning to assert itself as a global power. In his youth, he was exposed to competing cultural influences: his mother came from a long line of samurai, whose traditions stressed loyalty to family and country above all else; yet there was also the lure of more cosmopolitan opportunities, as Japan looked outward, colonizing parts of China and Korea.
An excellent student with an independent streak, Sugihara chose to pursue his own dream of studying English literature, entering the progressive Waseda University in Tokyo instead of following his father's wish that he become a doctor. He worked odd jobs to pay his way.
Soon after starting university, Sugihara won a scholarship from the Japanese foreign service to study Russian in Harbin, China. Then the capital of Manchuria, Harbin was an international city primarily controlled by Japan. While in Harbin, Sugihara married a Russian woman — whom he later divorced — and converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity.
Manchuria was also the site of Sugihara's first assignments after finishing his diplomatic training. As deputy consul, he negotiated with the Soviet Union to win control of the Manchurian Railroad at a favorable price for Japan. However, Japan's cruel treatment of the Chinese in its quest for dominance was more than Sugihara could stomach. He resigned from his post in 1934 and returned to Tokyo to retrain for assignments in Europe. While there, he met and married Yukiko Kikuchi.
As Nazi and Russian troops poured into Poland in the fall of 1939, Sugihara was appointed consul general to Lithuania and moved there with Yukiko and their young children. While his official assignment was to set up a small consulate in the capital city of Kaunas, his primary responsibility was to monitor Soviet and German troop movements near the border with Russia.
During his time in Lithuania, the Sugiharas quickly became acquainted with many of the local residents, including some Jewish families, who shared with him their fears of the growing Nazi menace. These friendships may have formed at least part of what inspired Sugihara to help the refugees when Nazi troops closed in on Lithuania.
Although his own government would not officially accept such a large number of refugees, Sugihara defied protocol and wrote scores of visas every day throughout August 1940, giving thousands of desperate refugees a chance to escape a terrible fate.
Later that fall, under intense pressure from the Soviet regime, which had annexed Lithuania in June, Sugihara was forced to close the consulate. After traveling to Berlin, he was reassigned to several Japanese consulates throughout Nazi-occupied Europe through the end of the war. Sugihara was serving in Bucharest at the time of Germany's surrender in 1945, and when the Soviets took control of Romania, he and his family were detained there for over a year in an internment camp. They were released in 1946, but detained again for months in Vladivostok on their journey back to Japan.
Upon arriving back in Tokyo in 1947, Sugihara was pressured to resign from the foreign ministry. He believed that the dismissal was a direct result of his decision to issue the unauthorized visas in 1940, though the official reason was downsizing of the diplomatic corps during Japan's post-war occupation by the United States.
Sugihara spent the latter half of his life in relative obscurity. At times finding it difficult even to provide for his family, he worked odd jobs as a translator and interpreter, and for many years as a manager with an export company in Moscow. Sugihara never spoke of his actions in Lithuania, never actually knowing, in fact, whether the risk had done any good. His humanitarian deed went almost entirely unheralded until the late 1960s, when he was located by a man he had helped to save.
In 1985, Israel officially recognized Sugihara for his actions with an award ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, where he was declared "Righteous Among Nations" and a tree was planted there in his honor. Since his death in 1986, Sugihara has been further memorialized in his hometown of Yaotsu, Japan, as well as Kaunas (now Kovnos), Lithuania.
In 2000, Japan officially celebrated the centenary of Chiune Sugihara's birth.
> View an interactive timeline of Sugihara's life for more historical and geographical detail.