A Japanese Righteous Gentile: The Sugihara Case

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2020, we are sharing an excerpt from Meron Medzini’s Under the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Japan and the Jews during the Holocaust Era. This book is Open Access and freely available at OAPEN.org.

Public Domain image

Public Domain image

In the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Japan is represented by one individual deemed worthy to be included: a man who helped some 6,000 Jews escape from Lithuania in the summer of 1940. His name was Vice Consul Sugihara Chiune (or Sugihara Sempo), who granted transit visas to Japan to some two thousand, six hundred Polish and Lithuanian Jewish families, thus saving them from either probable extermination by the Germans or prolonged incarceration or Siberian exile by the Soviets. Sugihara would have remained a footnote in history were it not for his efforts, made—as it was later claimed—without the prior approval of, and at times without the knowledge of, his superiors in Tokyo.

It is hard to determine what led Sugihara to help Jews, and to what extent he was aware that he would earn a place in Jewish history. Apart from him and Vice Consul Shibata in Shanghai, who alerted the Jewish community in that city to the Meisinger scheme, Japanese civilian or military officials did not go out of their ways to help Jews, probably because there was no need to. We have already noted that the Japanese government and military had no intention of liquidating the Jews in the territories under their control and consistently rejected German requests that they do so. What led Japan to act the way it did was not the result of any concern for the Jews but rather the result of cool and calculated considerations.

Myths abound regarding the personality and actions of Sugihara. Some originate with statements made by himself and his children during his later life, and some come from his wife Sachiko, who produced a biography of him after the war. According to the leading myth, he decided to help Jews on a hot July 1940 day when he saw hundreds of people waiting patiently outside the gates of the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he served as vice consul, to obtain Japanese visas. He took pity on the waiting people and after hearing their plans, which will be discussed in greater detail later, decided to grant them transit visas to Japan. After his superiors in Tokyo refused to approve his decision to issue the visas, he decided to do so without their authorization, and was subsequently punished after the war by being expelled from the Japanese Foreign Service and doomed to a life of abject poverty. The true story of Sugihara is more complex than that, and even though it does not change the respect Jews and Israel have for this man and his humane behavior, the facts are somewhat different.

Sugihara Chiune was born in 1900 in a small town called Yaotsu (Gifu Prefecture) near Nagoya. He grew up in Korea, to which his family relocated after Japan annexed that peninsula in 1910. The family barely eked out a living, but had enough to give Sugihara a decent education. After graduating from high school in 1918, he enrolled at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. A year later he answered a newspaper advertisement placed by the Japanese foreign ministry seeking candidates to study the Russian language. He was accepted to the program and was sent to study Russian and German in Harbin, in a school run jointly by the Southern Manchurian Railway and the Japanese Foreign Ministry and designed to train Russian specialists. Over the course of his studies, he was asked by one of the heads of the Japanese Intelligence Branch in Manchuria, Colonel Hashimoto Kingoro (1890-1957), to obtain intelligence on the Soviet Union from Jewish refugees who had gathered in the border town of Manchuli. This was the first time Sugihara had come in contact with Jews. In 1925, he married the daughter of a family of White Russian exiles, whose mother apparently held antisemitic views. In an interview he granted shortly before his death, Sugihara stated that until his appointment to the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas in 1940 he knew little about Jews or Judaism, and basically understood only that they were not wanted in Europe. This does not fit the facts: as part of his work for the foreign ministry and the Japanese army, he made contact with Jews in Manchuria in the early 1920’s.

Sugihara remained in Harbin and taught Russian there until 1932, when he found a position in the newly established Manchurian affairs office. In 1935, he divorced his Russian wife and married a Japanese woman. In 1938 he returned to Tokyo and served in the Japanese foreign ministry as an expert on Soviet affairs. The ministry planned to attach him to the Japanese embassy in Moscow, but the Soviet government refused to confirm his appointment, no doubt realizing that he was an intelligence officer and fluent in Russian. He was instead sent to the Japanese embassy in Helsinki, Finland. Soon he caught the eye of Japan’s ambassador to Berlin, General Oshima Hiroshi (1886-1975), who suggested to the Ministry that Sugihara be sent to Kaunas, Lithuania, and devote most of his time to gathering intelligence on Poland, Russia, and Germany, predominantly to determine the intentions of the Soviet government vis-à-vis Germany and whether Germany would carry out its threats and invade the Soviet Union in spite of the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In Kaunas, Sugihara befriended a number of Jewish families and even visited their homes.

September 1939-June 1940

When Germany invaded that part of Poland allotted to it under the Russo- German pact of August 1939, and occupied it in a blitz campaign in September and October of that year, some 15,000 Jews escaped from Poland to Lithuania, which was formally independent but in reality was under Soviet domination following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had given the Soviet Union effective control of the eastern part of Poland and the three Baltic states. Among the better-known Jews who fled from Poland to Lithuania were future Irgun commander (1943-1948) and later Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (1914-1992), future Haganah (Jewish underground in Palestine) commander Moshe Sneh (1909-1972), and Zerach Warhaftig (1906-2002), then a central figure in the Polish Zionist organization and later a signer of Israel’s declaration  of  independence and a minister in various Israel cabinets.

June-September 1940

On June 15, 1940, Soviet troops entered Lithuania, and seven weeks later, on August 3, 1940, it was annexed by the Soviet Union. Even before that, on July 1, 1940, the Soviet authorities banned all political activities and organizations apart from those supporting the Communist party. Local Jews  as well as Jewish refugees from Poland began seeking ways to escape from that country, given the fact that the Soviet authorities immediately began to round up Jewish leaders of the Socialist, Bundist, and Zionist movements. Some of those arrested, including Begin, were deported to camps in Siberia. Sugihara befriended a Jewish family in Kaunas and even attended a Hannukah party in their home in December of 1939. Over the course of that event Sugihara was asked, in his capacity as vice consul of Japan in Kaunas, about the possibility of obtaining transit visas to Japan on the way to other countries, mainly the United States. Perhaps it was after that conversation that he began to mull over ideas of how to help Jewish refugees who had fled from the Nazis and now wanted to escape the Communists. However, Sugihara’s reports to the foreign ministry in Tokyo consist mostly of intelligence reports on Germany’s intention to attack the Soviet Union and contain little comment on the condition of the Jews.

Vast number of Jews living in Lithuania now sought ways to leave as the Russians began to persecute them, accusing them of “bourgeois leanings” and of being hostile to the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1940, rumors began to circulate among Jewish refugees in Kaunas that the Japanese vice consul was prepared to grant Japanese transit visas. Hundreds of people began to gather outside the gates of the Japanese consulate seeking the precious documents. In August 1940, Sugihara sought Tokyo’s permission to grant such visas, which would be valid for a two-week stay in Japan for persons bearing Czech and Polish passports. By August 14, 1940, he had already issued 1,711 transit visas. However, he was ordered by Tokyo to stop issuing visas except to those who possessed a valid entry visa to their destination and could prove that they had the financial means to pay for their passage and their stay in Japan. In a cable sent to him from Tokyo on August 16, 1940, Sugihara was told that many refugees arriving in the Japanese port of Tsuruga had not complied with the regulations and that he was to stop issuing visas. By August 25, he had managed to issue 2,135 transit visas, and justified his actions to Tokyo by saying that there were no consular officers in Kaunas from other countries who could issue visas to refugees. Perhaps because of the large number of visas he issued  to Jewish refugees, or because of the dearth of intelligence he was supplying, but above all because the Soviets demanded that all foreign consulates in Lithuania be shut down, the Japanese government decided to close the consulate in Kaunas, and Sugihara was ordered to make arrangements to close it no later than August 25. By the 30th, he had moved to a hotel and continued to stamp passports in his hotel room, and when he left Kaunas altogether he proceeded to do so in the railway station and even from the railway car which carried him to his next destination. Eyewitnesses say that as the train left the station, Sugihara tossed the stamp he used to issue visas out of the window, leading some Jewish refugees to stamp fake visas. By the time he left Kaunas, he informed Tokyo that he had stamped some 2,132 transit visas, minimizing the numbers perhaps deliberately. Some of the visas issued were for individuals, and others meant for entire households. Not all of the visas were used, and this makes it difficult to substantiate the claim that Sugihara was instrumental in helping between 6,000 and 7,000 Jews leave Lithuania. He also told Tokyo that he advised those to whom he issued the visas that they would have to satisfy the Japanese authorities in Tsuruga that they had the necessary means to keep them going in Japan. He asked the Japanese authorities to make sure that even before they left Soviet ports in Siberia, holders of transit visas to Japan were checked to make sure they had the required funds.

The Jews who reached Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway paid for the journey with funds provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee and HIAS. Those who did not have enough funds on them to pay for the sea voyage relied on money transferred to the head office of the Japan Tourist Bureau in Tokyo by HIAS via the New York branch of the Thomas Cook Travel Agency. Tokyo transferred the money to its representatives in Tsuruga. Another issue had to be resolved: where would the Jewish refugees stay in Japan while there? One answer was Kobe.

The Jewish community of Kobe, which before the war consisted of about a hundred families, some of Middle Eastern origins and the others Ashkenazim, became involved in making sure the Jews arriving in Tsuruga could demonstrate to the authorities that they had enough funds to satisfy the regulations that would allow them to land. Part of this task was undertaken by the Trigoboff family, a leading Russian Jewish family in Kobe, and others, who together used the assistance of Japanese Bureau of Tourism officials to help the Jews who entered the country via Tsuruga. This led to another unique phenomenon: the Japanese government assigned a number of officials as escorts for the Jews. They boarded the ships in Siberia and handed the money given to them by the Kobe Jewish Community and by HIAS through Thomas Cook and the head office of the Japan Tourist Bureau to the refugees, so they could demonstrate that they had the necessary funds and thus were allowed to land in Tsuruga.

In June 2011, Kitade Akira, a former official of the Japan National Tourist Organization, the affiliate entity of the Japan Tourist Bureau, published an article in which he related the story of a Tourist Bureau official by the name of Osako Tatsuo, who was assigned to make travel arrangements for some 2,000 Jewish refugees aboard vessels sailing from the Siberian port of Vladivostok to Tsuruga. Osaku was Kitade’s superior officer in JTB, and many years after the event told him the story of taking care of the Jewish refugees on board the 2600-ton vessel Amakusa Maru, which made weekly trips from Siberia to Japan. Osaku had a list of names provided by the Thomas Cook Travel Agency, and he commented that he had a difficult time identifying the Jewish refugees who were entitled to get funds, as they had foreign-sounding names and the sea was usually choppy and many passengers were seasick and not paying much attention to his requests to speak with them. Those who could not be identified on board were given the money by Osaku’s colleagues in Tsuruga as they disembarked before proceeding to the Japanese immigration officials. His colleagues in Tsuruga also helped the Jewish refugees to board trains that would take them to Yokohama and from there to Kobe.

Other elements in the Japanese government were involved in helping the Jewish refugees find temporary shelter in Kobe. An official named Kotsuji Tetsuzo (1899-1973), who held a doctorate in Semitic studies from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, worked for a while for Foreign Minister Matsuoka. He was able to obtain Matsuoka’s agreement to have the Jewish refugees remain in Kobe for a while, although Matsuoka conditioned his agreement on the approval of the Kobe police chief and added the requirement that the Jews renew their visas on a weekly basis. The Jewish refugees who lived in Kobe in 1941 were able to do so due to the positive attitudes of the authorities. Those who had some contact with ordinary Japanese people viewed Japan as a country free of the antisemitism to which they were accustomed in Eastern Europe. Those few local Japanese people whom they met were friendly and curious about their religious practices and rituals. The community held a Passover Seder in April 1941, with matzot imported from the United States. Two synagogues were active in Kobe, and the refugees established their own schools.

In this manner about 4,000 Jewish refugees had arrived in Japan by September 1941. Some of them proceeded to other destinations. They were aided by the Polish ambassador in Tokyo, Tadeusz Romer (1894-1978), who helped arrange entry visas for them to the United States, Canada, and other countries willing to admit them. On the strength of these visas, the Jews could obtain transit to Japan.

When war broke out on December 7, 1941, the funds remitted to Japan’s Jewish refugees by HIAS and the Joint Distribution Committee ceased arriving. The burden of caring for the Jewish refugees who were still in Kobe now fell on the Kobe Jewish community, which could not cope with it. The Japanese authorities did not want to have several thousand Jewish refugees in Kobe, and decided that all those who came before the attack on Pearl Harbor—over a thousand individuals—had to relocate to Shanghai. That included the students and teachers of the Mir Yeshiva. During the war Kobe was often bombed by American bombers, and the Ohel Shlomo synagogue was destroyed. Several Jewish families remained in Kobe after Japan surrendered and rebuilt the synagogue.

We now return to the key question: on the basis of what was Sugihara able to issue transit visas to Japan? In his cables to Tokyo, he mentioned Curacao and Dutch Guinea as excuses to justify the granting of transit visas. Many of the people to whom he issued his visas had in their possession official papers signed by a Dutch consular official certifying that they were proceeding to the tiny Caribbean island of Curacao or to Dutch Guinea (later Surinam), both colonies that were under the control of the Dutch government-in-exile in London. The Curacao idea originated when Nathan Guttwirth and Leon Sternheim, two Jewish Dutch nationals who were studying at the Mir Yeshiva, applied for a Japanese transit visa, saying that they were proceeding to Curacao. The Dutch ambassador to the Baltic States, L.P.J de Decker, who was based in Riga, and the honorary Dutch consul in Kaunas, Jan Zwartendijk, had approved their application to travel to Curacao, and Guttwirth and Sternheim were seeking ways to travel via the Soviet Union and Japan on their way to Curacao. The main point was that there was no need to obtain an entry visa to Curacao; permission to land there was granted individually by the local governor. Ambassador de Decker did not specify this condition when he stamped the passports of the Mir Yeshiva students with the notation that no visa was required to live in Curacao. This document enabled Sugihara, based on this notation in the passports, to issue transit visas through Japan to their destination.

The next problem was how to travel to Japan while theoretically on the way to Curacao. Given the war situation, there remained only one way: by rail across the Soviet Union and by sea from Siberia to Japan. Soviet transit visas were obtained through the intercession of Warhaftig, who spoke with the Lithuanian Deputy Prime Minister Pius Globacki. The Russians were ready to grant Jewish refugees transit through their territories to elsewhere, as they did not want additional Jews after the two million they inherited as a result of their annexation of Eastern Poland and the Baltic states. There was also a financial consideration: the Jews paid for their rail fare with cash money—in American dollars. The funds, two hundred dollars for each passage, were provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee and HIAS. The flow started. Between October 1940 and August 1941, 3,489 Jewish refugees arrived in Japan, among them 2,178 Polish Jews, including three hundred rabbis and Mir Yeshiva students. The rest were Jewish refugees from Germany who had visas to the United States and or to any of a number of countries in Latin America.

The position of the Japanese government in regard to these developments was inconsistent and at best confused. On the one hand, Sugihara had acted according to the broad outlines of the policy of the Japanese government, but on the other hand, he had also acted on his own, driven probably by humanitarian considerations and the lack of specific directives from his government in Tokyo. The government had not realized how many transit visas he was issuing, and would probably have made greater efforts to stop him had they known the magnitude of his operation. Japanese foreign ministers such as Arita Hachiro and later Togo Shigenori did not want Jewish refugees in Japan, fearing that their presence could harm their relations with Nazi Germany and perhaps even with the Soviet Union. They noted that Britain had not only closed her own gates to Jewish refugees after allowing several hundred Jewish children from Germany and Austria to come to Britain in what became known as the Kinder Transport, but had also closed the gates of Palestine. If the British and the Americans turned their backs on the Jews, why should Japan become involved in helping them? Staff members of the Japanese embassy in London reported that in May 1940 the British government interned some 26,000 refugees from Austria and Germany, many of them Jews, suspecting them of being sympathetic to Nazi Germany. The reports did not comment on the fact that this excuse was at best preposterous: had they been sympathetic to the Nazis, they would have stayed in Germany. Several Japanese ambassadors reported to Tokyo that they tried to prevent Jews from going to Japan, among them Shigemitsu Mamoru (1887-1957), Japan’s ambassador to Britain, and Togo Shigenori (1882-1950), the ambassador in Moscow. The Japanese foreign minister between July 1940 and July 1941 was Matsuoka Yosuke, the man who pushed Japan to join the Axis pact with Germany and Italy. He claimed in a conversation with Lev Zykman, the Harbin Jewish communal leader, that while it was true that he had concluded the Axis Pact, he was certain that there was no antisemitism in Japan and that this view was not his personal one but part of the exalted ideology of Japan since the dawn of the empire.

Those Jews who were lucky enough to obtain the Sugihara visas were thus saved from an uncertain fate, either to be killed by Lithuanian collaborators who were glad to get rid of the Jews or by the Germans, or to languish in Soviet prisons.

After Kaunas

Years later, it became known that in his efforts to obtain intelligence on both the Germans and the Russians, Sugihara established close working relations with members of the Polish underground intelligence, who supplied him with a great deal of information that he used in his cables to Tokyo. Two such Poles were on his staff at the Kaunas consulate, and he even allowed them the use of his official car. Later he maintained close ties with Polish intelligence officers working out of Stockholm. The German government apparently knew of his activities and kept an eye on him. After the closure of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas on August 30, 1940, Sugihara was transferred to Berlin and served under the new Japanese ambassador there, Kurusu Saburo (1886-1954). Even during his brief stay in Berlin, which totaled less than three months, Sugihara issued 69 transit visas to German Jews. It is not clear whether Ambassador Kurusu was aware of the visas Sugihara issued in Kaunas and Berlin. If he was, he made no issue of the matter. In a cable to Tokyo, however, Kurusu wrote that there was no need to grant asylum in Asia to refugees expelled from Germany, Italy, Hungary, and the Baltic states, and nor would granting such asylum be of benefit to Japan. If we do not stem the tide now, he wrote, the refugees will be the source of much trouble in the future.

From Berlin Sugihara was transferred to Prague, where he served as acting consul general until February 1941. When the Japanese legation in Prague closed in March 1941, Sugihara was transferred briefly to Koenigsberg in Eastern Prussia. The German authorities, knowing of his connections with Polish intelligence, asked Japan to remove him from that city, and he was transferred to the Japanese legation in Bucharest where he served until the arrival of the Red Army in Romania. In all of these posts his expertise in Russian affairs proved useful. It is no wonder that the Russians, who knew he was a Japanese intelligence officer, captured him when the Soviet Army entered Romania in the summer of 1944 and sent him to Siberia. When he was repatriated to Japan in 1947, he along with hundreds of other former Japanese diplomats was dismissed from the Japanese Foreign Service, as Japan was now under American occupation and there was no need for an independent foreign ministry. Those dismissed were given severance pay for their previous service in the Japanese foreign ministry. Many of them were reinstated after Japan regained its independce in April 1952. Years later, Sugihara’s wife claimed that he was dismissed for issuing visas to Jews in Kaunas without authorization, but this claim cannot be substantiated. In the late 1940’s, Sugihara worked for a Jewish merchant in Tokyo. Later, again because of his fluency in Russian, he represented a Japanese firm in Moscow for fifteen years. This would give rise to the allegation that he was also a Soviet agent all those years, surely the Soviets knew exactly who he was before giving him a visa to work in Moscow. But there is definitely no proof to back this allegation.

Sugihara’s actions in saving Jews were well known to many people in Israel. One of them, who served as commercial attaché in the Israeli embassy in Tokyo and had been granted a visa by Sugihara, tracked him down and in 1968, at the behest of then-Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs Zerach Warhaftig, also the beneficiary of a Sugihara visa, Sugihara was invited to visit Israel. While there, he was received by Prime Minister Levy Eshkol (1894-1969), who awarded him a plaque commemorating his exploits in helping saved Jews and arranged for a scholarship for his son to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was only in 1985, a year before he died, that Yad Vashem decided to recognize Sugihara as Righteous Gentile. Many to whom he had given visas worked together to plant a tree bearing his name plate in Jerusalem. He was too old and frail to travel to Jerusalem, and received the associated certificate from Amnon Ben Yochanan, Israel’s ambassador to Japan. Toward the end of his life, the Japanese government reinstated his pension.

Why Sugihara Chiune was granted the title of a Righteous Gentile, even though he did not fulfill the key requirements set by Yad Vashem for this distinction? He did not risk his own life or those of his family members, and he did not knowingly rescue Jews from imminent death, for in the summer of 1940, few considered the total extermination of Jews possible. The pressure to grant Sugihara this honor was exerted by Minister Warhaftig, and it was probably politically expedient for both the Israeli and Japanese governments to have at least one Japanese official among the Righteous Gentiles and to demonstrate that not all Japanese people disliked Jews or were antisemitic in those dark days. Unlike Spain under Franco, which took credit for rescue operations carried out by Spanish diplomats who helped save some 40,000 Jews during the war, the Japanese government never took credit for Sugihara’s activities. In 2006, the Japanese composer Ichiyanagi Toshi wrote an opera called White Nights of Love: Visas for 6,000 Jewish Refugees, which was staged in Tokyo and won much acclaim. Many articles and books have been written in Japanese and English on this unique man.

Why did Sugihara become one of the very few Japanese people (a group that included Higuchi and Yasue) who bothered to help Jews, even though he may have risked his career by disobeying orders? In the end, his career was not damaged: after Kaunas, he was promoted and sent to Berlin, to Prague, and later to Bucharest. It must be noted that other Japanese diplomats in Berlin and Vienna granted 1,200 visas to Jewish refugees. Between October 1940 and August 1941, some 3,500 Jewish refugees arrived in Japan, the majority in possession of visas to the United States  or to various South American countries. Sugihara issued his visas in the summer of 1940, a year and a half before the Wansee Conference of January 1942, at which the plan to exterminate the Jews was approved and put into operation. The Japan option was by that point virtually non-existent for European Jews, since Japanese consular and diplomatic representatives in various European cities were issued a general directive not to admit Jews to Japan. This was done partly to appease Germany, partly because very few Jews bothered to apply for Japanese visas because it never occurred to them as a real alternative, and partly because the Japanese Foreign Service officials understood the general policies of their superiors. By effectively barring Jewish refugees from Japan, the Japanese foreign ministry ignored its own previous belief about the enormous influence that world Jewry wielded over Western governments. Japan could have won much praise from Jews (who, as we discussed, were believed by many Japanese officials to control international public opinion) if they had made the slightest effort to rescue Jews. It would certainly have won them points in the United States prior to Pearl Harbor.

Most of those who have been awarded the title Righteous Gentiles were involved in hiding Jews during the Holocaust or preventing them from being handed over to the Germans and their collaborators. There was no need to hide Jews from the Japanese. They did not build death camps or hand over Jews to the Nazis, and the Jews in territories under Japanese occupation did not face the danger of being liquidated. Besides, it was impossible to hide Jews in Asia because of their obviously different appearance.

What happened to the Japanese officers who were known as Jewish affairs specialists? Captain Inuzuka, who helped Jews in Manchuria and later in Shanghai, was transferred by the Japanese navy to the Philippines in 1943. Two years later he was captured by American forces, who wanted to try him as a war criminal. He was spared because he had in his possession a cigarette box he’d received in March 1941 from Rabbi Frank Newman on behalf of the American Union of Orthodox Rabbis, in gratitude for the services he had rendered to the Jewish people. The box’s dedication matched Inuzuka’s explanation, and he was safe. He returned to Japan and was active in the Israel-Japan Friendship Association until his death in 1965. Colonel Yasue was captured by the Soviet army in Manchuria and was probably sent to Siberia, where his trail goes cold. One report indicates that he died in Siberia in 1950. These two men shared an interesting trait. They were both antisemites who translated and circulated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but their behavior toward the Jews of Manchuria and Shanghai was humane and pragmatic. Goya Kano, who as was mentioned earlier was the official responsible for the Hongkew Ghetto, was beaten up by some Shanghai Jews when he was interned in that city shortly after the end of the war and returned to Japan.

Why were there no other known Japanese individuals who were prepared to rescue Jews? The answer seems to be quite plain. Most Japanese people, whether civilians or soldiers, had no clue about Jews, their religion, or why they should be treated in any way differently than other foreigners. It is also important to note that the Japanese have historically been a highly disciplined people whose culture encourages them to act according to the book and carry out orders scrupulously. There were few cases during the era in question of people disobeying orders or following a personal initiative; in fact, even Sugihara Chiune was not one of those rare exceptions. Most of the time he, like other Japanese diplomatic and consular officials, obeyed orders without asking superfluous questions. And since they were not asked to carry out violent acts against Jews, the officials did not ask questions about them. There was also a practical issue, however. Assuming that some people would have wanted to help Jews, they would have had to know something about Japan’s policy regarding the treatment of the Jews, and above all would have needed an idea of how could they help them. Perhaps some guards could have been more humane in the camps where Jews were interned with non-Jews, but helping Jews or other Westerners escape from prisoner-of-war or internment camps was a totally different matter. There would be a need to hide the Jews, or to help them reach a neutral country, both impossible tasks. No Japanese patriot would consider attempting such acts. Sugihara stands out mainly because Israel decided to make him an example and as such highlighted the fact that he deserved the gratitude of thousands of Jews.

Meron Medzini was born in Jerusalem and received his Ph.D in East Asia Studies from Harvard University. He began teaching modern Japanese history at the Hebrew University in 1964. Since 1973 he has been an Adjunct Associate Professor of modern Japanese history and Israeli foreign policy at the Hebrew University. Medzini is the author of six books and scores of articles.

Under the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Japan and the Jews during the Holocaust Era

Meron Medzini

Even before Japan joined Nazi Germany in the Axis Alliance, its leaders clarified to the Nazi regime that the attitude of the Japanese government and people to the Jews was totally different than that of the official German position and that it had no intention of taking measures against the Jews that could be seen as racially motivated. During World War II some 40,000 Jews found themselves under Japanese occupation in Manchuria, China and countries of South East Asia. Virtually all of them survived the war, unlike their brethren in Europe. This book traces the evolution of Japan’s policy towards the Jews from the beginning of the 20th century, the existence of anti-Semitism in Japan, and why Japan ignored repeated Nazi demands to become involved in the “final solution.”


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