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Honors--Some Say Belated--for 'the Japanese Schindler'

WWII diplomat who defiantly helped Jews flee Lithuania was later at odds with the government over why he lost his job.

October 20, 2000|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who issued visas that saved the lives of thousands of Jews during World War II, has long been considered a hero outside Japan: Lithuania named a street after him, Israel recognized him as a "righteous Gentile," and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is presenting a special exhibition on his efforts.

In his own nation, however, some government authorities have apparently considered Sugihara more renegade than hero. After all, he repeatedly defied orders and continued to issue transit visas to Jews trying to flee Lithuania in 1940 with insufficient documentation. Sugihara, who died in 1986, and his family contended that his actions cost him his job.

But now the government is making sure that the man known elsewhere as "the Japanese Schindler" is honored properly at home.

In a ceremony earlier this month, the Foreign Ministry hailed Sugihara posthumously for his humanitarianism. Foreign Minister Yohei Kono apologized to Sugihara's widow, Yukiko, for any "troubles" that Sugihara had suffered and unveiled a plaque at the ministry's diplomatic record office, where Sugihara's picture, his story and the list of people to whom he issued visas are now prominently displayed.

The Foreign Ministry says the belated recognition is appropriate now because it is the centennial of Sugihara's birth. "Our view is that we should honor what he did in very exceptional and difficult circumstances," said Himeno Tsutomu, a senior ministry official.

But others suggest that the recognition is coming because of Sugihara's international acclaim and the Holocaust museum exhibit.

"If the story was not famous and believed abroad, he would not be recognized in Japan," contended Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, who has written a book about Sugihara. "Now there's a move to cast light on him as the finest of Japanese diplomats as opposed to some sort of black sheep."

Sugihara was the sole Japanese consul in Lithuania in 1940, when hundreds of Jews, many of whom had fled Poland, began desperately seeking visas. Sugihara was told by superiors to issue them only to people who had completed the application process or had enough money. Sugihara instead feverishly issued as many visas as he could that summer to many people with little or no documentation.

Because several family members often used the same visa, as many as 6,000 Jews were able to gain passage through the then-Soviet Union and temporary refuge in Japan before moving to the United States or elsewhere.

Sugihara--and, after his death, his widow--was long at odds with the Foreign Ministry about why he lost his job upon his return to Japan in 1947, after he had held additional posts in Czechoslovakia and Romania. The ministry contends that Sugihara was laid off in a restructuring forced by Japan's World War II surrender, which cut about 700 diplomats, one-third of the ministry.

Then 47, Sugihara retired with a pension and went to work for a trading company with business in Russia.

The apology and plaque are "more a recognition of his honorable deeds rather than anything about the ministry forcing him to resign," Tsutomu said.

There has been a growing recognition of Sugihara's deeds within Japan in the past decade. A museum opened in his hometown, and he was recently honored in a series of postage stamps commemorating important people.

The first official recognition came almost a decade ago, when then-Vice Foreign Minister Muneo Suzuki was sent to Lithuania in 1991 to reestablish diplomatic relations with Vilnius. When there, Suzuki read a book by Yukiko Sugihara about her husband.

Suzuki held a ceremony honoring Sugihara but still felt the recognition wasn't enough. So recently, Suzuki, a powerful politician in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, asked Foreign Minister Kono to commemorate Sugihara more publicly.

It is hoped that the latest recognition will influence diplomats as well.

"I myself have imagined what I would do if I were there in 1940, operating with not many people around, and a family to care for," ministry official Tsutomu said. "But I hope I would do something right."

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