Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara aren’t exactly household names in Japan, but they’re true heroes who saved thousands of lives during World War II. The two of them jeopardized their lives to save Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. Their efforts resulted in the second largest rescue of Jews from Hitler.
Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who served at the consulate for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania. During one month in 1940, he and his wife Yukiko hand-wrote visas that allowed 6,000 Jews to escape Germany by passing through Japanese territory. His actions were unauthorized and in fact prohibited by the Japanese government, whose entry requirements would not have allowed Jews to enter its territories.
The extermination of Jews in Lithuania during the Holocaust was particularly horrible. Nearly 200,000 were killed and many believe there were more. It’s fairly certain that the thousands of Jews Sugihara allowed to escape would have perished.
Why did Sugihara, who was a low-level diplomat, disobey orders and risk his career? For one thing, he was always an iconoclast. As a young man, he defied his father who wanted him to enter the medical profession and instead decided to study literature. He studied English at Waseda University and then studied in Harbin, China. He fell in love with the cosmopolitan nature of the city and this is what led him to answer a job ad looking for foreign diplomat trainees.
After his training, he was posted in Kaunas, which was then the capital of Lithuania. Lithuania was strategically located between Germany and the Soviet Union, so it served as a good escape route. But when the Soviet army moved into Lithuania in 1939, this became impossible for many.
One night, a group of Polish Jews woke him up begging to be rescued. He knew he could help them but first consulted with his wife, Yukiko. She was instrumental in encouraging him to make the decision. She later said that at the time she was nursing their third child. Looking at the newborn, she realized that all of these people were also children with mothers. It was this feeling of compassion that moved the two to start writing visas immediately.
Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara wrote all of the 6,000 visas by hand. The visas allowed a ten-day stay in Japanese territory. Through his Soviet connections, he arranged for the refugees to be transported on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, Russia, where they would then go to Kobe. Some stayed in Japan, but many moved on from there to Shanghai or Dutch-owned islands in the Caribbean.
At the end of the month, the Japanese consulate in Lithuania was closed. It’s reported that Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara were still writing visas and throwing them out the train windows as their train pulled away.
In 1985, Israel gave Chiune Sugihara the Righteous Among the Nations honor for his actions. There have been many tributes to him elsewhere around the world but he is little-known in Japan. There is a famous monument to him in Lithuania and when Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko went to pay their respects to it, Japanese television had to explain who the Sugiharas were.