The war hero has become a draw for tourists– and a tool of moral education in rural Japan.
GIFU PREFECTURE, Japan — When Japan’s prime minister visited the Baltics earlier this month to seal a valuable trade pact, he briefly detoured to the city of Kaunas, Lithuania, to honor a man from his country who once defied its empire and saved thousands of lives.
So goes the story of Chiune Sugihara, an Imperial Japanese diplomat to Lithuania during World War II who, at the onset of the Holocaust, issued roughly 3,000 transit visas to fleeing Polish Jews. His tale went untold for decades before Israel recognized him as righteous among the nations in 1984, and before Tokyo, more recently, embraced him as a noble rebel, an exemplary figure and a national humanitarian symbol.
As Sugihara grows in importance to Japan, so too has controversy and disagreement grown over the lionization of his legacy– between successive governments, within his own family and amongst historians, all of whom agree that Sugihara’s documented actions during the war are worthy of celebration and pride.