Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Japan's Schindler

The Emperor and Empress of Japan recently visited Lithuana, and there they visited a monument to one of the more well known Japanese citizens in that country. He is all but unknown in Japan, his homeland.

A full history and accounting can be found in the article as well as in the Wikipedia article for Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuana during World War Two who during that time helped save the lives of thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis by issuing them transit visas, allowing them to escape Eastern Europe and find safety in third countries (but not Japan proper).

For me it is a small world. After he received some acclaim in the mid 1980s, his hometown of Yaotsu-cho established a small museum in honor of their hometown hero. Interestingly, the only Israeli JET program participant in Japan is posted to the town of Yaotsu where they work in city hall helping with this museum and "internationalization." I just happened to work in the neighboring city, and knew at least two of the Isreali's that worked there. They proudly told me the story of Japan's Schindler.

So, having known about this guy since I first came to Japan nearly a decade ago, I guess I was surprised to learn that he is so obscure in the rest of Japan. Upon reflection, it makes sense for had I not been a JET, I wouldn't have learned of him - even living just a few kilometers from his hometown. Had I not met those colleagues living in rural Japan - trying to explain to the children of this village not only what this man did, but what Israelis, Jews, and Nazis are - I would be none the wiser.

Sugihara died in 1986. Why did it have to be that his neighbors and friends didn't know what he had done until dozens of Isreali officials including Isreal's ambassador to Japan went to his funeral? Why was this act of courage ignored and disparaged for so long?

Another episode in Japan where I realize that as much as I learn and discover, there are things that may remain beyond my understanding.