How much can one person do to resist the mechanisms of evil? When evil becomes normalized, when society’s major institutions are indifferent to or complicit in it, can a single righteous person make a real difference? If you think not, consider the example of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who defied his own government to save thousands of Jewish lives.
Sugihara displayed his independent spirit from a young age, defying his father’s wishes for him to become a doctor. Instead, he studied English at Waseda University, joining a Christian fraternity to improve his English further.
After college, Sugihara joined the foreign service. He learned Russian and German in addition to English, and became an expert in Russian affairs. He married a Russian woman and converted to the Eastern Orthodox church. He rose through the ranks, becoming Deputy Foreign Minister to Manchuria before resigning his position in 1935 to protest Japan’s mistreatment of the local Chinese population.
In 1939, Sugihara was named consul to Lithuania, an unlikely spot for moral heroics. It was an unlikely spot, period; Sugihara was the first Japanese diplomat ever sent there. He was sent primarily as a spy, to monitor the German and Soviet armies and report back to his government.
In Lithuania, Sugihara learned of the thousands of Jewish refugees coming there from Poland and Eastern Europe. It was a good place for them at the time; Lithuania had a significant Jewish population and was one of the few countries still open to refugees.
That changed abruptly, however, when the Soviets occupied the country in June 1940. Suddenly, the refugees — along with much of the country’s native Jewish population — were desperate to escape.
In order to leave, however, they needed transit visas. These were hard to come by, and it became harder that July when the Soviets told foreign diplomats in Lithuania to leave. Sugihara was one of the few who stayed. He was moved by the refugees’ plight and wanted to help. But Japanese government policy was clear: visas could only be issued to those who followed official immigration procedures.
Three times, Sugihara requested permission from the Foreign Ministry to issue emergency visas to the refugees. Each time, the Ministry directed him to follow the policy. Whether due to pressure from the Nazis, Japan’s fellow Axis power, or out of sheer indifference, the government turned a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis.
Sugihara agonized over whether to follow his orders or provide help to the refugees. He ultimately decided that even if it risked his career, he would defy orders and help. For two months, he spent 18 to 20 hours a day hand-writing as many visas as he could. By the time he was finally forced to leave Lithuania in early September, Sugihara had issued over 2,000 visas.
Sugihara paid a steep price for his righteous decision. After leaving Lithuania, he was sent to Romania, where he and his family were imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp for over a year. When they returned home, the Foreign Ministry asked him to resign, telling him, “You know what you did. Now you need to leave the ministry.”
After resigning, Sugihara lived in obscurity, taking undistinguished jobs to support his family. Worse yet, he didn’t know whether he’d actually saved anyone, whether the refugees he’d given visas had been able to escape.
That changed in 1968, when he was contacted by Yehoshua Nishri, one of the refugees who had received a visa. The following year, Sugihara traveled to Israel, where he was hailed by the government. He learned that his visas had in fact saved thousands of Jewish lives. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 people alive today are descendants of the refugees who received Sugihara’s visas.
Sugihara had the satisfaction of knowing his efforts were not in vain, but he still rarely spoke of them. Even his neighbors only learned what he’d done when a Jewish delegation, including the Israeli ambassador, showed up at his funeral in 1986.
Today, Sugihara’s heroism and righteousness are known worldwide. Israel honored him with their “Righteous Among the Nations” award, recognizing non-Jews who took altruistic action during the Holocaust. There are streets, parks, and statues around the world in his honor. Lithuania declared the year 2000 to be the “Year of Chiune Sugihara.”
It can be difficult to do what’s right when surrounded by evil. But Sugihara’s example shows that moral courage and clarity and compassion for people in need make it possible to do the right thing, even in defiance of your government and at the cost of your career. As Sugihara said when asked why he did what he did: “They were human beings and they needed help. I’m glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them.”
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