Chiune Sugihara (1900 - 1986)
Born in rural Japan on the first day of the 20th century, Chiune Sugihara lived during a period of extraordinary change in his home country. A diplomat by profession, his memory endures thanks to his heroic actions in Kaunas, Lithuania, during a single month of his life in 1940. As a result, thousands of lives were saved. This historical timeline shows how his journeys across Asia and Europe prepared him, in a turbulent era, to meet his moment of truth.
The late 19th century is a period of dramatic political and social change in Japan. In 1854 it is forced to open its ports to the West. Then, in 1868, civil war ends nearly 300 years of feudalism under the Tokugawa Shogunate, restoring imperial rule, and marking a beginning to the country's rapid modernization. Japan launches a war with China in 1894 over control in the region, and advances with its more modern military into Manchuria through the Liaodung Peninsula. By the turn of the century, Japan has transformed itself from a small, isolated society into a formidable world power — still wary of Western interference in Asia, but with strong expansionist ambitions of its own.
Chiune Sugihara is born in Yaotsu, Japan
The second of six children, Chiune is born on January 1 to Yoshimizu and Yatsu Sugihara in a tiny town in the Gifu prefecture on Japan's main island. His mother hails from a long line of Samurai, and Chiune's early years are steeped in the ancient traditions of the Bushido code, which stresses duty, honor, dignity, and loyalty to family and country.
Read More: A brief overview of Bushido values
1904 - 1905
Japan wages war with Russia to strengthen control over resource-rich Manchuria, vital to Japan's growing industrial revolution. To finance the war, Japan secures a $200 million loan through Jewish-American financier Jacob Schiff. The world is stunned as Japan destroys the Russian navy, seizing Port Arthur (present-day Lushun). As a result of the loan, many in Japan draw exaggerated conclusions about the power of the Jewish people.
Interview Transcript: More on Japan's emergence as a world power
Yoshimizu Sugihara moves to Korea
Sugihara's father, Yoshimizu, leaves Japan to pursue business opportunities in Japanese-occupied Korea, where Sugihara's mother, Yatsu, eventually joins him.
Sugihara enters Waseda University
Already an excellent student with a talent for languages, an interest in foreign cultures, and a strong will, Sugihara decides to enter Tokyo's progressive Waseda University to study English literature. Having defied his father's wishes that he become a doctor, Sugihara must work odd jobs to pay his own way.
Sugihara begins his diplomatic training
Sugihara takes a Foreign Service exam after seeing an ad in a newspaper. He wins a scholarship to study Russian at Japan's new diplomatic school in Harbin, Manchuria. The spirit of the school is expressed in its founder's moral creed: not to be served by others; to be of service; and not to seek reward. While in Harbin, Sugihara meets and marries a Russian woman, and converts to Russian Orthodox Christianity.
Sugihara is assigned to the Japanese Embassy in Harbin
Sugihara works as a clerk at the Japanese Embassy in Harbin, Manchuria. During these years he witnesses firsthand the cruelties of the Japanese occupation in Manchuria. The region continues until the end of WWII to be a strategic battleground for Japanese, Russian, and Chinese influence.
Interview Transcript: More on Japan's interests in Manchuria
Japan establishes Manchukuo
Having used its rampaging military to gain control of the entirety of Manchuria, Japan now establishes a nominally independent state called Manchukuo, and installs a repressive puppet regime to govern it. Japan continues to colonize the region throughout the 1930s, though only Germany and Italy recognize Manchukuo as legitimate.
Sugihara becomes deputy consul in Manchukuo
The Japanese-controlled government in Manchukuo appoints Sugihara deputy consul. During this time, he negotiates with the Soviet Union for the purchase of the Manchuria railroad system. Using inside information gathered from Chinese locals, he secures a very favorable deal for Japan — a move that Russia does not forget.
Interview Transcript: More on Japan's interests in Manchuria
Sugihara resigns his diplomatic post
Anguished by Japan's brutal treatment of the Chinese, which left millions of civilians dead and homeless, Sugihara resigns as deputy consul. He later recalls, "I resigned from my post in the Foreign Ministry because the Japanese dealt with the Chinese cruelly. They didn't consider them human. I couldn't bear that." He divorces his Russian wife before returning to Japan. Surprisingly, he is not punished by the ministry for his stance.
Sugihara returns to Tokyo
Sugihara returns to Tokyo and trains for reassignment to foreign service in Europe, where persecution of the Jews continues to escalate. While in Japan Sugihara meets and marries Yukiko Kikuchi, a beautiful young woman who is impressed by Sugihara's sophistication and his "very kind eyes." They have a son, Hiroki, the following year. At some point, Yukiko and Hiroki also convert to Christianity.
Soviet Union rebuffs Sugihara
Following the birth of his son, Sugihara receives his dream assignment from the Japanese government: a diplomatic posting in Moscow. However, still aggrieved by Sugihara's tactics in the Manchurian railroad deal several years prior, the Russians do not allow him into the country.
Sugihara is posted to Helsinki
Though Moscow is out of the question, Japan is still keen for Sugihara, a Russian expert, to help observe Russian movements in the region. He is posted with his family to the Japanese Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, near the Russian border, as a translator.
Launching another major invasion, Japan gains control of China's eastern ports, including Shanghai. Between December 1937 and March 1938, in and around Nanking (present-day Nanjing), hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and POWS are brutally killed and tens of thousands of Chinese women are raped by occupying Japanese in what becomes known as the Nanjing Massacre.
Evian Conference, France
In July, delegates of 32 Western countries meet in Evian, France, to discuss the growing problem of Jewish refugees. Most, including the U.S. and Great Britain, decide not to make special allowances for Jews seeking to immigrate from Nazi-controlled territory.
Five Ministers Conference, Japan
In December, Japanese leaders meet to clarify policy on Jews. They decide to treat Jews under existing immigration laws applied to all, but to be especially receptive to any Jews deemed potentially useful to Japan. Factions within the government use this ambiguity to advance the goal of a Jewish state in Manchuria.
World War II begins
Austria having fallen the previous year, Czechoslovakia falls to the Nazis in March. England and France declare war on Germany when Hitler invades Poland on September 1. Two weeks later Russia attacks from the east, trapping Polish Jews between the terror of two invaders. More than 15,000 flee over the border to Lithuania, at the time still independent, where they are supported by a Jewish population of more than 250,000.
Sugihara is appointed Japanese consul to Lithuania
In the fall, Sugihara opens a one-man consulate in Kaunas, living with his family upstairs. His main duty is to report on Nazi and Russian troop movements near Lithuania's borders. This information is vital to Japan's interests: Should the Nazis invade Russia, Japan could expand its control in Asia more readily as Russia is forced to concentrate troops at the German front. In December, Sugihara chances to meet an 11-year-old Jewish boy named Solly Ganor, who invites him to join the Ganor family for their Hanukkah celebration. Sugihara attends the party, and at dinner is moved by the grim story of Nazi atrocities in Poland, told by Abe Rosenblat, a recent refugee.
Germany tightens grip; Russia annexes Lithuania
France falls to Germany in late June. Having taken Belgium, Denmark, Holland, and Norway in the spring, Germany occupies or controls much of Europe by summer. Also in June, the Soviet Union annexes Lithuania and orders all foreign consulates closed. Synagogues and Jewish schools are shut down; Jewish leaders arrested. As news of Nazi atrocities spreads and their invasion of Lithuania becomes imminent, Kaunas ceases to be a Jewish safe-haven. The difficulty of escape mounts. Jews wishing to leave must obtain a series of diplomatic stamps, including entry, transit and exit visas.
Sugihara issues visas to Jewish refugees
That summer, Sugihara prepares to close his consulate in Kaunas. On July 27 he wakes to find hundreds of Jewish refugees massing at the gates. Many have managed to obtain entry visas to the Caribbean island of Curaçao, but now need transit visas through Japan in order to be able to request exit visas from the Soviet regime, which takes a harsh view of attempts to emigrate. Though Japan is an ally of Germany, Sugihara wants to help. As the crowds build, Sugihara spends days agonizing over his decision, seeking authorization from his foreign ministry, to no avail. Finally, despite the dangers, Sugihara decides to act on his own to help the refugees. Ignoring official protocol, he works obsessively throughout August, writing countless visas each day. Within a month he has issued at least 2,139 visas, though in many cases entire families manage to escape on a single visa. By September, the Soviets insist that Sugihara close the Japanese consulate. Exhausted, he heads with his family to Berlin for reassignment. By spring 1941, most of the refugees that Sugihara helped will have arrived in Japan; the Jews who do not manage to escape Lithuania are later murdered by the thousands.
Sugihara moves throughout Nazi-occupied Europe
From Berlin, Sugihara is assigned to the consulate in Prague. While there he is ordered by the Japanese foreign minister to submit a full report of the more than 2,000 visas he issued in Kaunas. Later records show that in fact he wrote 69 more unauthorized visas from Prague. Through the war's conclusion in 1945, Sugihara serves as Japanese consul-general in several European embassies, including Konigsberg, Germany (present-day Kaliningrad), and Bucharest, Romania.
World War II escalates
In June, overrunning Lithuania and the Baltics, Germany launches "Operation Barbarosa," invading the Soviet Union with 3 million troops. Meanwhile, free of the need to defend its border with Russia, Japan continues overtaking territories in the South Pacific. Germany makes demands that the Jews in Japan be killed. In August, Japan sends the Jews to Shanghai. On December 7, Japan attacks the U.S. at Pearl Harbor.
The U.S. enters the war
The United States allies with England, Russia and 23 other countries in declaring war against the Axis of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The same year, Japan rescinds the policy of the Five Ministers Conference.
World War II ends
Following three more years of intense fighting, Germany surrenders to the Allies on May 7, ending the war in Europe. On August 6 and 9, the U.S. drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, devastating both cities. The Soviet Union invades Manchuria, and on August 14, the Japanese Empire surrenders to the Allies.
Sugihara and family are interned
Still in Romania, Sugihara and his family are detained and imprisoned in a Soviet internment camp for over a year in austere conditions.
The Sugiharas return to Japan
The Soviets release the Sugiharas and allow them to set out across Siberia for home. The family is detained again for several months in Vladivostok, before arriving in Japan in spring 1947, their bombed-out country now largely a wasteland under U.S. occupation. They settle outside Tokyo.
Sugihara resigns from the foreign service
Hoping to resume his career, Sugihara reports to the foreign ministry and is told to await reassignment. After three months, the ministry asks him to resign, ostensibly due to downsizing of the diplomatic corps under occupation. But the Sugihara family concludes that the true reason is reprisal for the visas. Months later, his youngest son Haruki dies, only 7 years old.
Sugihara works odd jobs in obscurity
Now deeply dispirited, lacking a career and in financial straits, Sugihara supports his family with menial jobs for several years, never speaking of the visas. Eventually, making use of his Russian, he takes a job with a trading company in Moscow, living there modestly for 16 years under the alias Sempo Sugiwara, while his family remains in Japan.
Sugihara is "found" by a survivor
For over 25 years he has never known if his visas helped the refugees, though many survivors have tried with no luck to find and thank him. One visa recipient, Joshua Nishri, now an Israeli diplomat, finally succeeds. The next year, at the government's invitation, Sugihara visits Israel with his son Nobuki, but in subsequent years resists accolades repeatedly.
Israel honors Sugihara
Having collected hundreds of survivor testimonies to Sugihara's courageous act of kindness, Israel's Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, declares Chiune Sugihara "Righteous Among Nations," and a tree is planted in his name. Now 85, Sugihara is not well enough to travel; Yukiko and their oldest son Hiroki go to Israel to accept the award in Sugihara's behalf. A Jerusalem park is also named for him.
Chiune Sugihara dies
Sugihara dies at the age of 86, having proved beyond doubt that one person can make a difference. By some estimates, more than 40,000 people alive today have him to thank for their very existence. Sugihara once said, recalling his decision in Lithuania in 1940, "I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn't I would be disobeying God." "In life," he said, "do what's right because it's right, and leave it alone."