Japan during World War II

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A Just for Japan

Few Japanese people know about him, but he is honored in the United States and Israel like Oskar Schindler as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Parks, streets and monuments are dedicated to him and yet it is only in his hometown of Yaotsu, in the Gifu Prefecture that you will find traces of this unassuming hero.

Discretion was one of the traits of this Righteous man who declared that he had acted out of kindness and who was not recognized until 1985, on the eve of his death. Chiune Sugihara was a diplomat in Lithuania, facing the despair of Polish refugees who flocked there in 1940, he tried to convince his superiors to issue visas for humanitarian reasons, a generous demand that remained unheeded.

This ordinary man made the decision, surprising for a Japanese official, to dispense with the permission of his superiors by writing thousands of visas and negotiating Transsiberian transfers  with his Soviet contact. In September 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Chiune Sugihara was no longer welcome in Lithuania. He continued to write visas, even throwing them from his train onto a platform, apologizing for not being able to do more.

Kobe community

It is estimated that 6 000 Polish and Lithuanian Jews were saved in this way. Japan welcomed them in Kobe, where there was a prosperous Jewish community. Most of the refugees came and went and were transferred to safe countries. 2 000 people remained in Kobe where the Japanese showed polite curiosity for their guests. Welcomed as guests and fed, the survivors were surprised to be treated kindly, and in their own words, they went from refugee status to that of tourist.

Until then, the attempts of Nazi Germany to convert Japan to antisemitism were blocked by a sense of incomprehension for this inexplicable hatred. Japan refused to transcribe the anti-Semitic laws and visas were extended. When Japan entered the war, the Kobe refugees were transferred to Shanghai where they were less comfortable, but they did not suffer any persecution.

And Chiune Sugihara? He voluntarily left his position in 1947 and was neither blamed nor rewarded for his action. His role was not highlighted by the Israeli authorities until the 60s, before he was recognized as Righteous. The Japanese learned about this episode with surprise in an account written by the widow of Chiune Sugihara. The story is still largely unknown although the Japanese know that they had no role in the extermination.

A preserved memory

What remains today of this adventure? First of all traces of the Kobe community, the Ohel Shelomo Synagogue, dating from 1912, and its cultural center that still offers a collection of photos of refugees who arrived in Kobe. In Yaotsu the Sugihara Chiune Memorial Hall, although small, manages to convey to visitors, the memory and emotion of the period, despite the lack of authentic material.

Not far away, two monuments celebrate the Righteous. One of them was donated by residents while the other is the testimony of the recognition of the Israelis. They are located in a green park, able to bring the serenity suitable for a memorial location. The place is visited every year by a large number of descendants of refugees, estimated at over 40 000 people and Japanese people who are proud to count a Righteous man amongst them.

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