Chiune Sugihara is not a name that immediately springs to mind when thinking of Japanese Second World War heroes, but his story is remarkable.
Born in January 1900 in the small Japanese town of Yaotsu, Chiune was an excellent scholar. He graduated from high school with top marks. He gained a place at the famous Waseda University in Tokyo where he studied English. He paid his way through university by taking several part-time jobs.
When he was 19, Sugihara discovered that the Japanese Foreign Ministry was looking for people who wanted to work in the overseas diplomatic service, and he applied. The entrance exam was notoriously difficult, but Chiune passed. He studied Russian at a Manchurian University, graduating with an honours degree when he was 24.
A ten-year stint working for the Manchurian government followed during which Sugihara married his wife, Yukiko. In 1938 Sugihara was sent to Helsinki, and in March 1939 – as Europe was poised on the brink of World War II – he opened a Japanese Consulate in Lithuania. He was unaware that he was about to make his very personal contribution to history.
Great Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, as a result of Germany’s invasion of Poland. Jewish refugees flooded into Lithuania to escape the advancing Nazi troops, and one morning in July 1940 Chiune Sugihara woke to find hundreds of frightened refugees outside his Consulate.
They were there in the hope of obtaining visas, without which they could travel no further. Sugihara asked the Japanese government to grant consent for him to enable the refugees to travel to Japan, but his request was refused. Three times he asked, and three times he was refused.
Sugihara and his wife were faced with a difficult decision. If they disobeyed the government, Chiune would lose his job, and the pair would face years of hardship back home. They decided to help and began to write visas. It is estimated that over the next five weeks the couple helped as many as 10,000 refugees to safety.
On his return to Japan, Chiune was imprisoned. After his release, he spent many years living in poverty. He died on 31 July 1986. His humanitarian actions were virtually unknown in Japan until a large Jewish contingent turned up at his funeral.
Since then there have been memorials erected to him in Lithuania, Japan, and Los Angeles. There is a park named after him in Jerusalem, and a film has been made about his life.