Chiune Sugihara (杉原 千畝) and the Triumph of Christian Conscience Over Worldly “Obedience”

Chiune Sugihara by Pavlo Sergeyevitch (source: http://tinyurl.com/qd72bfx)

Chiune Sugihara by Pavlo Sergeyevitch (source: http://tinyurl.com/qd72bfx)

In July and August 1940, a Japanese Christian Samurai working for the Foreign Ministry of the Empire of Japan as Consul-General in Kaunas, Lithuania did the unthinkable. Ignoring direct orders from his superiors in Tokyo on at least three occasions, Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara instead counseled with his wife Yukiko and, influenced by old Samurai wisdom[1] and the Book of Lamentations[2], together they issued between 2,500 and 3,500 exit/transit visas[3] to Eastern European Jews desperately seeking to escape the terrifying advance of Nazi armies through Eastern Europe via Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania at the time. The Japanese consulate in Kaunas was these Jews’ last hope because the Soviet Union had annexed Lithuania as its armies simultaneously advanced westward and ordered all embassies and consulates closed. But following his conscience, Sugihara had presciently applied for, and providentially was granted, a 20 day extension to keep his consulate open in Kaunas. Only the Japanese and Dutch consuls remained. That was when the Jews requested Sugihara’s help and, finding him receptive[4], was what led to crowds of thousands of Jews gathering outside the gate of the consulate.

The visas written by Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara for the next 29 days — they painstakingly handwrote a month’s worth of transit visas each day, working 18-20 hours a day — were issued to heads of households in many instances, meaning that many more Jews obtained the ability to flee certain death at the hands of the approaching Nazis than merely the number of actual visas issued. Over 10,000 Jews, on conservative and reasonable estimation, received permission to transit via Japan upon exiting Lithuania and travelling across Russia (with the cooperation of the Russian consul in Kaunas) based on these visas.[5] Unfortunately, far fewer than that actually made it out as the Russian armies complicated the situation on their westward advance, while others still ended up behind German lines and sent to the death camps. Still, it is estimated conservatively that approximately 40,000 people — descendants of those who were delivered by Sugihara’s actions — are living today as a direct result of the exit visas (see http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/sugihara.html).

"Bushidō in Gyo-Kaisho style Kanji," by Michiko Imai (cc), depicting the Seven Tenets of Bushidō

“Bushidō in Gyo-Kaisho style Kanji,” by Michiko Imai (cc), depicting the Seven Tenets of Bushidō

Chiune Sugihara was descended from a long line of Samurai on his mother’s side. Though deeply influenced by traditional Japanese values, including the neo-Confucian Samurai moral values (the “Bushidō code[6]) of his mother’s rural upper-middle class family, he learned to follow his conscience early as he declined his father’s insistence that he become a physician, opting to study Russian and foreign relations instead. Later, while serving as the Deputy Foreign Minister for the Empire of Japan in Manchuria, he became troubled by the abuse he observed perpetrated by the occupying Japanese against the civilian Chinese population and, again following his conscience, resigned his post out of protest. He then converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity (he had belonged to a Baptist fraternity while studying at University) before being reassigned to translation duties in Helsinki and then to open the consulate in Lithuania.

Chiune Sugihara, Japanese Consul-General in Kaunas, Lithuania, 1939-1940.

Chiune Sugihara, Japanese Consul-General in Kaunas, Lithuania, 1939-1940.

When Jews showed up at the gate of the consulate in late July 1940, Sugihara faced a perplexing conflict between his traditional Japanese values of strict obedience to authority, on the one hand, and Samurai moral obligations of courage, honor, and kindness, as well as the moral pull of his Christian conscience in deciding how to proceed, on the other hand:

He was a man who was brought up in the strict and traditional discipline of the Japanese. He was a career diplomat, who suddenly had to make a very difficult choice. On one had, he was bound by the traditional obedience he had been taught all his life. On the other hand, he was a samurai who had been told to help those who were in need. He knew that if he defied the orders of his superiors, he might be fired and disgraced, and would probably never work for the Japanese government again. This would result in extreme financial hardship for his family in the future. Chiune and his wife Yukiko even feared for their lives and the lives of their children, but in the end, could only follow their consciences. The visas would be signed. (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/sugihara.html)

More than twenty years later in a rare interview, Sugihara had a simple answer to the question of why he had defied direct orders from the Japanese foreign office when he signed the visas: “Do what is right and forget about it. Do what is right because it is your duty” (See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sugihara/resources/index.html).

Sugihara obeyed his conscience rather than his superiors in Japan’s Foreign Ministry. As a result, he lived the rest of his life in ignominy despite being a hero who rescued thousands from certain death. By the time he was forced to leave Lithuania for Berlin on September 1, 1940, Sugihara was exhausted but still fervently signing the visas. Many reports have survived about how he continued signing visas from the train window as his train pulled out of Kaunas station. At the last moment he passed a stack of consular stationary with his signature already affixed on to further refugees who had not yet obtained visas, and it appears that some Jesuit priests remaining behind assisted with using those pages to prepare more visas. Sugihara was reassigned to Königsberg and then Prague from Berlin and it is believed that he signed close to 100 more visas during his tenure in the consulate there. He also made a full report to his superiors of his activities in Kaunas, accepting full accountability for his actions, including by informing them of the number of visas he had issued.

As the war drew to a close, he came into Russian captivity and he and his family suffered as Russian prisoners of war for over a year before being released back to Japan in 1946-47. When they finally arrived in Japan, they were greeted by the bombed wasteland that was once Tokyo. The Foreign Ministry asked Sugihara to resign. He understood this request to be in response to his actions in issuing the visas, though the Foreign Ministry has subsequently denied that to be the case. The Sugiharas were then forced to live in squalor as Sugihara worked odd jobs until eventually going to work for a Russian export company in Moscow, where he was able to put his extraordinary language skills to use again. In 1969, Sugihara was found by someone he had helped (although many people who survived because of him had sought for him earlier but hadn’t been able to find him because he was living in Russia under a different name). It wasn’t until 1985 that he was formally recognized by the Jews in America and Israel for his efforts during the war, as he was given Israel’s highest honor and named one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem, the only Japanese person to carry that honor.

* * *

At the beginning of Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days, it is worth considering those Jews who were written in the Book of Life thanks to Sugihara’s efforts — those Jews who had Sugihara visas and who could finance the 6,000 mile train journey across Russia and on to Japan were able to escape the horrible fate of the European Jews in general and the Yiddish culture in particular. They congregated in Kobe, Japan, and were tolerated by the Japanese government despite demands by the Nazis to exterminate them. Eventually, the Japanese government relocated them all to a ghetto in occupied Shanghai, which helped them evade the efforts of Gestapo chief Josef Meissenger, the notorious Butcher of Warsaw, who was in Japan to address the Jewish problem there and other matters of interest to the Nazis. The Jews lived out the war in Shanhai and elsewhere and survived because of Sugihara. As mentioned, it is estimated that approximately 40,000 people are now alive because of his efforts. It is believed that only perhaps half of those who obtained Sugihara visas actually escaped the Nazis and Russians through Russia (for example Jews who were Lithuanian citizens were denied passage through Russia by the Soviets to Vladivostok and from there to Japan; many were sent to Siberian gulags for even applying for exit visas based on the Curaçao and Japan transit visas.) But those who survived have had children and grandchildren, all of whom can be eternally grateful for the Christian service, humanitarian efforts, and Samurai chivalry of one remarkable Japanese Consul-General who was willing to follow his conscience against every cultural and professional impulse to default to obedience for the sake of obedience.

Sugihara did “that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (Deut. 6:17-18) by risking his career and his life (and the lives of his wife and three children at the time) to save as many Jews as he could in defiance of the orders of his superiors. Through his courageous actions, the Lord’s light, salvation, and strength were made manifest opposite the encamped enemy hosts (Psalm 27:1-6). These actions establish Sugihara as a “pastor” according to the Lord’s heart, who “shall feed [us] with knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:15) about following our conscience to live the moral law in the face of negative consequences for doing so. Let us emulate this “faithful and wise servant” (Matthew 24:45) should we face a choice between obeying an unjust or morally incorrect directive and following our conscience and the voice of the Spirit directing our compliance with the objective moral law. In so doing, let us not forget that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 10:9). In the Spirit of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and following the penitent Season of Teshuva, let us ponder that “if [anyone] be in Christ, he [or she] is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 10:17). Thus renewed, we should embrace confidence in our ability to follow the moral law as guided by the Spirit; “[t]herefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 4:2). Though temporal and mortal consequences might be dire as a result of doing what is right, let us be confident that if we “bring forth works of righteousness” like Sugihara, we “shall not be hewn down and cast into the fire” (Alma 5:35). Like Sugihara, we must learn to do good simply because it is our moral duty; we must “do what is right and forget about it.”

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MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

The Feast of Chiune Sugihara (杉原 千畝), 1986

Deuteronomy 6:17-18, Psalm 27:1-6, Isaiah 55:6-7, Jeremiah 3:12-15, Matthew 24:45-47, 2 Corinthians 5:10-19, 1 Nephi 4:2, Alma 5:33-35

The Collect: Heavenly Father, Thou who hast provided a space for Thy children to repent and seek entry into the Book of Life, help us in Thy Church, as we become new creatures in Christ, to have the confidence to follow the conscience Thou hast given us and enlightened even in the face of danger or disadvantage as the consequence for doing what is right and let us be strong like Moses as we emulate the example of Thy faithful and wise servant Chiune Sugihara who showed us the importance of conscience in doing Thy work, through the revelation of Thy Son Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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[1] “Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge” (source: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/sugihara.html).

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiune_Sugihara#Later_life

[3] Yad Vashem provides the higher figure (http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/stories/sugihara.asp).

[4] Sugihara had previously interacted with the Jewish people of Kaunas (who constituted about one fourth of the population of 120,000 at the time, see http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/sugihara.html) and had followed the development of Germany’s war efforts and their actions against the Jews with interest, as he had been assigned to do by the Japanese Foreign Ministry as part of his consular duties. He even celebrated Hannukah with a random Jewish family in December 1939. The eleven year-old boy who invited him, Solly Ganor, recounts the story as follows:

It was a few days before Hanukkah, actually. … I walked into [my aunt’s] shop and she was speaking to a very elegant, well-dressed gentleman. … That was the first time I saw a Japanese person. And he looked kind of strange. I [had] never seen a person with slanted eyes.

He kind of smiled at me. And so my aunt called me over … and she said, “Don’t stare.” You know? And [then] she introduced me to “His Excellency.” She said, “This is Sugihara.” And he looked at me and … I felt very comfortable with him. … There was a certain aura of kindness about him; I don’t know how to explain. You know, as a child, I guess you feel these things more. Your senses are more acute. … So I liked him immediately.

And then … I told [my aunt], “I want to go to the movies.” She says, “Oh, okay.” So she went to get some money. And [Sugihara] whipped out this … money, and he said, “So you’re going to see a movie and this is your holiday, little boy? Well, I’ll be your uncle for the holiday.”

I was kind of surprised, obviously. … I didn’t know whether to accept or not, but, finally, I took it. … I [felt] comfortable with him. And I said, “Thank you very much.” But then I had this crazy idea. And I said — a very impulsive thought — I said, “You know, if you’re my uncle, why don’t you come to our Hanukkah party on Saturday?”

And my aunt heard it, and she was kind of embarrassed. And she said, “Oh, His Excellency, you know.” But the way he was speaking to me, he didn’t, you know, … usually when you’re a child, … people have a certain way of talking to you. I won’t say condescending, … but, you know, a grown-up to a child. He was talking to [me] as if I was … a small person. … So maybe [that’s why] I felt comfortable [with] him.

And he said, “No, no, that’s all right.” And she said, “Well, if you’re interested …” [And] then he said, “I would be interested, actually.” He [had] never been to a holiday like this, sort of [a] party, [a] Hanukkah party. [He had] probably heard of all these things before, because he was in Harbin and he was in touch with Jewish people, I assume. So that was that. She said, “All right, if you’d like to come, please do.”

[….]

… About 30 people were there, you know, aunts and my cousins and uncles. It was a big family. And it was my Aunt Anaska [who] walked in with this couple. Yukiko [Mrs. Sugihara] was well dressed, [with] a long dress, I remember, and she really looked radiant. … She was such an exotic-looking person, [and] I hadn’t seen [her] before; I [had] just seen him. So everybody went, “Ahhh … who are these people?” It was quite an event.

With them, [Sugihara spoke] Russian and German, and Mrs. Sugihara spoke German. … And so it was very successful, in this respect, that everybody was telling stories. And, of course, they offered him lots of food and cakes. And around 50 years later when I met Mrs. Sugihara in Yaotsu, she said, “Oh, I remember your family very well to this day.” … I said, “Why?” She says, “I was sick the whole night from the cakes that your aunts and mother fed me.” The Japanese don’t know how to say “No,” you know….

[5] No formal entry visa was required for the small Dutch colonial islands of Curaçao and Dutch Suriname in the Caribbean. The key was therefore to obtain a transit visa through some third country, such as Japan, to allow Jews to travel through Russia, ostensibly en route to Curaçao. This arrangement allowed thousands of Jews to escape Lithuania via Russia and Japan with the end destination of Curaçao (though not a single Jew ever actually went all the way to Curaçao).

[6] The Seven Tenets of the Bushidō code were Rectitude (義), Courage (勇), Benevolence (仁), Respect (禮), Honesty (誠), Honor (名誉), and Loyalty (忠義) with a further emphasis on Filial piety (孝), Wisdom (智), and Care for the Aged (悌) (see the Wikipedia entry on it). Sugihara was born just one year after Nitobe Inazō published Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1899) and brought this Samurai code of chivalry to the West’s attention, and by the time of Sugihara’s birth, it had only been thirty years since Samurai had maintained a strong societal presence.

Comments

  1. flowlykeariver says:

    Stunningly beautiful. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  2. Powerful stuff, John. I’m so glad that we can honor Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara in the Mormon Lectionary Project.

  3. Wow. Thank you for this. What a humbling, heartbreaking example of heroism.

  4. Another Fowlesian masterpiece.

  5. Thanks for this inspiring story of selfless sacrifice.

  6. Beautiful piece. I liked integrating the Japanese hero. Perhaps “Christian” conscience is not the right word here, though. It seems that linking good deeds with the term “Christian” especially in the context of Jews is somewhat problematic. Perhaps “humanity” despite religious labels would work. Many Jews are very humane and caring without being “Christian”.

  7. Sugihara wasn’t Jewish, he was Christian. Hence use of the word. If you can clarify the concern (since this post is about Sugihara and his work in saving Jews, which he needed to disobey his superiors to do) then I am completely open to removing Christian from the title of the post. Keep in mind, however, that this is an entry in the Mormon Lectionary Project and so it should help us to consider how our Christian faith can be instrumental in bringing us to this kind of courage and confidence both in the Lord and the voice of our own conscience, guided as it can be by the spirit by virtue of our discipleship.

  8. Wow. Another blessing from the power of the internet!!! For those who wish to learn more about the Day of Atonement, read The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity, Daniel Stokl Ben Ezra, (Mohr Siebeck, 2003).

  9. John, you’ve done well here. This is a stunning addition to the project.

  10. John, thanks for your piece and I totally understand where you’re coming from. I realize that Sugihara was Christian and you are totally right to use the word “Christian” to describe his actions especially in the context of the Mormon Lectionary Project. I don’t think you should change the title. My comments come from having worked with Jews, lived in Israel three times for a year and attended many Holocaust survivor discussions. In my observations, I have seen that using the term “Christian” to describe good deeds can be a rub for some Jews. It doesn’t appear that Jews, however, are your audience. Well done. I posted your piece to my Facebook profile which is hopefully is a testament to my appreciation of your work.

  11. This is wonderful.

  12. Excellent work, John.

    This man’s courage brings to mind the experience of a few Latter-day Saints living in Germany during the Second World War who declined to follow the instruction of church leaders to be obedient citizens and support the German government. Several of these members were excommunicated because they opposed the Nazi party. And some, after being ostracized by their fellow saints, were executed by the state.

  13. Yes, watch for Helmuth Hübener on Oct. 27 — the day he was beheaded by the Blood Tribunal as the youngest person to receive capital punishment for Treason in the regime.

  14. The Sugiharas’ story is one of my longtime favorites. Thank you for adding them to this project.