Out of Japan: Still no Oscar for Sugihara's List

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The Independent Online
Tokyo - Chiune Sugihara was 40 years old and serving as Japan's consul-general in Lithuania when the Jews from Poland arrived. It was the summer of 1940, the Nazis were on the rampage in Europe, Jews were being rounded up, and the only escape route was across the Soviet Union to Japan and then to the United States. But first they needed a visa.

Japan did not go to war until its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but already its military government was leaning towards an alliance with Germany. When the terrified Jews queued up at Sugihara's residence and begged for transit visas, the Japanese consul was faced with a dilemma. Three times he cabled Tokyo asking for permission to issue visas, and each time he was refused. But he knew the Jews faced internment and likely death if they returned to Poland.

Sugihara decided to defy instructions and issue hand-written visas: in 28 days he processed 1,600 permits which allowed some 6,000 Jews passage through Japan. More people were applying, but then the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo ordered Sugihara to move to Berlin. Sugihara had already saved more than four times as many people as Oskar Schindler - celebrated in Stephen Spielberg's film. And he had not made a single yen or pfenning, unlike the industrialist Schindler.

When Sugihara returned to Tokyo after the war, he was fired by the Foreign Ministry. The humanitarian concerns were never entered into: he had disobeyed orders. Although he received the Yad Vashem Prize for Righteous Gentiles from Israel in 1985, he died in 1986 without receiving any official recognition from Japan.

It was not until 1991, when a top diplomat was preparing Japan's first official visit to newly-independent Lithuania, that the case of Sugihara came up again. He was still the most famous Japanese figure in Lithuania, and protocol demanded some gesture on Japan's part. After much high-level bickering, a Foreign Ministry official was dispatched to visit Sugihara's family, and although no apology was issued, the official expressed his 'regrets' that Sugihara had been cold-shouldered by the Japanese Establishment for five decades. The prime minister at the time, Kiichi Miyazawa, mentioned Sugihara in a speech in the Diet (parliament), but also refrained from issuing any apology.

The Sugihara case is an instructive detail in the larger picture of Japan's view of the last war. It brings out the helpless sense of fatality with which many Japanese view the 'tragedies of the recent past'. The government is prepared to admit his behaviour in saving human lives was an honourable act, but still maintains that it was wrong for him to violate orders. As a senior official, Sugihara had no call to listen to the dictates of his own conscience.

A similarly complex reaction was elicited by the comments two weeks ago of the former justice minister, Shigeto Nagano, who denied the Nanking massacre took place, and claimed Japan's invasion of Asia did not constitute aggression. After furious protests from China and other Asian nations, Japan admitted that terrible things did happen in Asia 50 years ago. And these widespread cases of sufferring were regrettable and left painful memories.

Again, no formal apology was made. The Prime Minister, Tsutomu Hata, used the often-repeated, neutral formula fukai hansei, which literally means 'deep self-reflection', but is routinely rendered as 'remorse' in Foreign Ministry translations.

In the popular imagination, Japan in the 1930s was caught up in a battle for supremacy with the West. This was a racial confrontation between whites and the only Asian nation capable of resisting them. Japan had no choice but to go to war. If tens of thousands of civilians in Nanking had to be sacrificed to consolidate Japanese advances in China, that was just part of war. And wars are inhuman and full of atrocities. But everyone was following orders.

The issue of moral accountability again gets pushed aside, overridden by uncontrollable historical forces, racial prejudices, 'national destiny' and the power of fate. They are irresistible, that is, to all but a few individuals like Chiune Sugihara.