Lionizing a rebel: Japan’s embrace of Chiune Sugihara

The war hero has become a draw for tourists– and a tool of moral education in rural Japan.

A girl runs toward a shrine in Hida Furukawa, in Japan's Gifu prefecture, where the local government is promoting Chiune Sugihara's legacy as a tourism draw. (Michael Wilner, November 2017) (photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)
A girl runs toward a shrine in Hida Furukawa, in Japan's Gifu prefecture, where the local government is promoting Chiune Sugihara's legacy as a tourism draw. (Michael Wilner, November 2017)
(photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)
GIFU PREFECTURE, Japan — When Japan’s prime minister visited the Baltics earlier this month to seal a valuable trade pact, he briefly detoured to the city of Kaunas, Lithuania, to honor a man from his country who once defied its empire and saved thousands of lives.
So goes the story of Chiune Sugihara, an Imperial Japanese diplomat to Lithuania during World War II who, at the onset of the Holocaust, issued roughly 3,000 transit visas to fleeing Polish Jews. His tale went untold for decades before Israel recognized him as righteous among the nations in 1984, and before Tokyo, more recently, embraced him as a noble rebel, an exemplary figure and a national humanitarian symbol.
As Sugihara grows in importance to Japan, so too has controversy and disagreement grown over the lionization of his legacy– between successive governments, within his own family and amongst historians, all of whom agree that Sugihara’s documented actions during the war are worthy of celebration and pride. From fights over basic biographical facts such as his birthplace to whether or not his decisions were known at the time to Imperial Japan, a wrestling match is under way for ownership of this hero’s tale that obscures the true story of his fascinating life.
There are political contours to the debate, as well. Abe, for one, embraces Sugihara at a time when he faces continued political criticism at home for shying away from Japan’s own wartime atrocities. His trip to Kaunas follows on similar gestures to Jews in recent years, including visits to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam in 2014 and, the following year, to the Holocaust Museum in Washington and Yad Vashem in Israel.
In Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall in Yaotsu, Japan, locals watch a video documenting his actions in a replica of the diplomat's Kaunas office. (Michael Wilner, November 2017)
In Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall in Yaotsu, Japan, locals watch a video documenting his actions in a replica of the diplomat's Kaunas office. (Michael Wilner, November 2017)
But the basic facts of Sugihara’s legacy are firmly established. And the government’s effort to shine a light on those facts is not new, nor unique to Abe, whose recent travel was only the latest episode in Japan’s years-long effort to reconcile with its past– and to bond with a Jewish community it has never fully understood.
Now, from high up in its mountains all the way to the prime minister’s office, the government is formally campaigning to share with the world Sugihara’s monomyth and his status today as a rare link between Japan and the Jewish world. It is a unique government project– an old-time “people to people” approach to cultural exchange that Jewish world leaders who have worked with the government for decades consider genuine, and attribute to a slow but steady warming of relations between Japan and Israel.
Japanese officials tell The Jerusalem Post they hope their campaign serves as moral guidance to its citizens at home– and as a draw for thousands of Jews to Japan for tourism from abroad. That costly effort, specifically targeting American and Israeli Jews to visit this nation’s countryside, revolves around the story of Sugihara, whose early life at the feet of the Japanese Alps is now enshrined in a well-promoted pilgrimage trail.
It is a diplomatic initiative from the capital. But in the process of celebrating Sugihara’s life, the rural Japanese state of Gifu whence he came is learning for the first time about Judaism and its people.
I went to Gifu last month at the invitation of the prefecture to travel that pilgrimage trail and experience the best of what the state has to offer. What I found was a quieter Japan, its stunning mountains untouched, its people strictly polite and sincerely interested in learning the ways of another.
ATOP THE HIGHEST PEAK in Yaotsu, where Japanese officials claim Sugihara began his life, a memorial building to his legacy overlooks the city. In its bright cypress hall is a concise Holocaust museum offering visitors a summary of events that led to Sugihara’s famous decision: whether to sign visas for Jews seeking to flee Nazi Europe without clear imperial permission.
The city of Yaotsu, in Japan's Gifu prefecture, where a memorial hall has been built in honor of Chiune Sugihara. (Michael Wilner, November 2017)
The city of Yaotsu, in Japan's Gifu prefecture, where a memorial hall has been built in honor of Chiune Sugihara. (Michael Wilner, November 2017)
“Am I aloud to issue transit visas?” Sugihara asked the Foreign Ministry by telegraph in 1940, according to the museum. Jews at the time would face difficulty crossing through the Soviet Union, which had just entered into a tripartite pact with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The museum then translates into English and Hebrew Tokyo’s vague reply: “No visas should be issued to those who don’t meet the conditions.”
The actions that followed made a humanitarian symbol of Sugihara, who first arrived in Kaunas in 1939 not primarily on a diplomatic mission, but an intelligence one: to collect information on Soviet forces. His role as spy has thrown into doubt the timeline of Sugihara’s communications with Tokyo over the visa issuances, and has made it difficult for historians to nail down precisely what the central government knew of his actions at the time.
In a later recounting, shortly before his death in 1986, Sugihara described his view of the empire’s position in his own words. “The Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo,” he said, as quoted in his biography, In search of Sugihara, by Hillel Levine. “Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis, while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.”
“People in Tokyo were not united,” he continued. “I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply.”
Toward the middle of the Yaotsu exhibit, the memorial hall poses to its visitors– who are mostly Japanese– a moral question.
“Try to put yourself in Sugihara’s place,” the material reads, featuring photographs of Polish Jews lining up at the consulate desperate for visas. “What would your decision have been?”
It is a question that successive Japanese governments have asked themselves in the generations since learning of Sugihara’s work. Daisaku Kunieda, the museum’s director, said that Tokyo’s celebration of his life was never guaranteed.
“Maybe twenty years ago, some people said that Sugihara didn't follow the Japanese government, so people did not have a very good impression of him,” Kunieda said through a translator. “But nowadays, nobody says such things.”
There is local debate over whether Sugihara was actually born in Yaotsu, where the memorial hall has been located since its construction in 2000, or whether the township lobbied to host the museum on false pretenses for government funding and tourism dollars. Some note that his father lived in Mino City. But his mother was from Yaotsu, and Japanese officials say it was custom for mothers to return home for childbirth.
Regardless, the museum is impressively built and has resonance with its visitors, including the tour group of Israeli women who passed through at the same time of this correspondent’s trip there.
“It was men like him that changed history,” said Tzipi Pinkus, an Israeli and a descendant of Polish survivors of Auschwitz, who shed tears leaving the memorial hall. “It means a great deal to me that this is here. And it makes me feel we’re lucky to have Israel.”
Within the manicured grounds are two memorials, including “bells of peace” on concrete meant to evoke stacks of visa paperwork. Across the “hill of humanity” is a circular, Roman theatre-like monument, built of ceramic and water but computer controlled, able to play tunes of peace for passersby.
Sugihara was the only Japanese diplomat in Europe during the war to sign transit visas, allowing Jews from Poland to escape the Nazis through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Most then traveled by boat across the Sea of Japan from Vladivostok to Tsuruga, an unassuming Japanese port city that now has museum of its own memorializing the city’s role in Sugihara’s story.
The “port of humanity” museum claims that 6,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Tsuruga on Sugihara visas, which allowed each visa holder to bring along members of their immediate family. It was through their later tellings that Sugihara’s actions came to light.
“Maybe the generation has been changing, the time is changing,” Kunieda said. “And nowadays the people have the idea, the thoughts about how human rights are very important. So maybe the society is growing in Japan. And maybe we're recognizing now that human rights is very important.”
LATE LAST YEAR, Gifu’s government invited six journalists from Israel and the Jewish world to tour their “Sugihara Survivors Remembrance Route,” anchored primarily by the site at Yaotsu. An official of Takayama City in Gifu said their campaign to increase Jewish and Israeli tourism runs in the tens of thousands of dollars and includes both local and central government funds.
Their hope is that Jewish and Israeli tourists will learn about Gifu and choose this road less traveled, drawn to the countryside by its beauty and by Sugihara, comforted by the region’s tranquility and its many attractions.
“Our first priority is not tourism,” said Yuuki Mori, the Takayama official. “We Japanese are so proud of Sugihara, because in World War II he saved so many Jewish people.”
But several years ago, Mori’s office discovered that Israeli tourism to Gifu had organically increased, and in their subsequent research found that Sugihara was the primary cause. They decided then to target the market, as well as a section of the larger US marketplace with a five-year Sugihara awareness campaign. “It’s a big market, so we should have a big impact so that people remember,” Mori said. “And Mr. Sugihara’s story is memorable.”
In the process of selling their tourism package, Gifu officials and residents are learning more about their potential Jewish guests– pairing traditional Japanese hospitality with genuine cultural exchange.
One manager of a high-end Japanese inn, or ryokan, in Takayama, said that kosher laws and dietary habits have proven critical for her and her staff to understand.
A traditional kaiseki meal served in Takayama, where hoteliers and restauranteurs are working to educate themselves on Jewish dietary habits. (Michael Wilner, November 2017)
A traditional kaiseki meal served in Takayama, where hoteliers and restauranteurs are working to educate themselves on Jewish dietary habits. (Michael Wilner, November 2017)
“Food was the most important thing to learn about,” said Eriko Arisu, of the Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan ryokan in Takayama, often characterized as a “little Kyoto” for its preserved old town and temples. She commissioned Hebrew-language maps for Israeli visitors and now serves sake at her exquisite kaiseki meals from the nearby Funasaka Sake Brewery, which has gone through the expensive and laborious process of securing a kosher license.
Hebrew signage graces some storefronts in this venerable city. Official tourism material is increasingly printed in Hebrew around the entire prefecture, and the nation’s largest tourism agency, JTB, has recently opened offices in Los Angeles and New York to cater to American Jewish travelers looking for a tailored experience.
Gifu’s governor, Hajime Furuta, who recently visited with descendants of Sugihara’s visa recipients in Washington New York, said that local officials and businesses have been “encouraged by the Jewish community” to push for increased tourism from Israel and the diaspora. He claimed that 10,000 Jewish and Israeli tourists had visited his prefecture last year. But tourism is merely one part of a larger campaign, Furuta added: Sugihara has also become a part of the local culture, incorporated into childhood “moral education” programs and into after-school theatre dramas and celebrated in an annual "Sugihara week" observed jointly in Lithuania.
“Our main goal is to further deepen the connection between Japanese and Jewish people,” said JTB’s local president, Hiroshi Matsumoto, who similarly noted of a six-year campaign separate from their tourism effort to educate local Japanese on Sugihara’s legacy.
These campaigns come off at first blush to some as ploys for tourism dollars, and to critics as an effort to whitewash Japan’s role in an axis with Nazi Germany during World War II. But the recent embrace of Sugihara marks a critical shift within Japan on war-era education and in attitudes toward Jews and Israel, all for the better, said Daniel Mariaschin, the chief executive officer and executive vice president of B’nai Brith International who has worked with Tokyo on Israel and Holocaust issues for over 25 years.
“There was some outreach at that time from the Embassy of Japan,” Mariaschin told The Jerusalem Post, recalling some of his first interactions. “Remember– I think you’ve got to go back in history. At that point, Japan was observing the Arab boycott of Israel. Books like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were being sold at bookstores in Tokyo and other cities. There were stereotypes of Jews that would appear in the Japanese press.”
Not until the 1993-1995 Oslo peace process, Mariaschin said, did a thaw in relations commence between Japan and Israel. It was then that Mariaschin observed the Japanese begin to embrace Israeli culture, its history, its businesses and its tourists.
Alongside the government’s cultural awareness campaign centered on Sugihara, Japan and Israel have since 2014 entered into an unprecedented number of security and investment agreements, bringing their bilateral relations to a new level. Mariaschin hopes that cooperation will soon extend to diplomacy at the United Nations, where Japan continues to vote against Israel on critical measures related to the Palestinians.
“I do think that the reappraisal on the Japanese side of Sugihara is a genuine appraisal,” Mariaschin said. “You have two ancient peoples who go back millennia and who didn’t really know each other very well. And perhaps because of Oslo, and perhaps because of the reappraisal of Sugihara, we are getting to know each other better.”
IF YOU CHOOSE to venture inland from Japan’s major attractions to Yaotsu following the Sugihara heritage trail, you will be treated to some of the country’s most sweeping natural scenery– and to a local perspective on Japan hard to glimmer from visits to Tokyo or Kyoto.
This rural prefecture is home to rustic Shirakawa-go, an historic town and UNESCO world heritage site filled with Japan’s iconic gasshō thatched-roof houses. Surrounded by sharp-cut mountains, this village– an inspiration for Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai– offers a peak into an old alpine Japanese life that you can soak in for days with a stay at some of the nation’s most authentic ryokans, surrounded by rice paddies and persimmon trees.
Fog engulfs Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan's Gifu prefecture. (Michael Wilner, November 2017)
Fog engulfs Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan's Gifu prefecture. (Michael Wilner, November 2017)
In Takayama, you can experience Edo Period temples and shogunate structures virtually in isolation when traveling off peak season, when the leaves of Japanese maples are lipstick red and the Alps are on fire with color. Nearby is one ancient street, Magome-juku, with sweeping views, well-preserved architecture and quaint shops, which again offers up a quieter Japan than the hustle you are sure to face traversing Kyoto, the center jewel in Japan’s tourism crown.
While the fight continues over where Sugihara was physically born, nobody denies that he spent his early life in Gifu (his father registered his birthplace as Mino, where you can also visit on your heritage tour to explore the origins of washi paper, now famous the world over thanks to IKEA and its popular lamp designs). There are other sites of interest around the prefecture, including some of the country’s most cherished onsen hot springs, the traditional architecture and carp-filled waterways of Hida Furukawa, and the birthplace of ultra-realistic plastic food replicas in the tiny city of Gujo Hachiman.
But if you were to come to Gifu for Sugihara, the memorial hall at Yaotsu and his hometown from childhood will be less attractive than simply getting to know its people, who have embraced him as a local hero and a role model for their children. In engaging with the local population there, you will be participating in a cultural exchange that once was the great cause for travel abroad.
The author was a guest of Gifu prefecture.