Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Yukiko and Chiune Sugihara

L.A. Memorial

It was discovered in the year 2000 although it's namesake was born exactly 100 years earlier.
It floats through the vacuum of space between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, in the main asteroid belt, a little more than 3 1/4 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Earth (1 AU equals the distance between the Earth and the Sun, approximately 93 million miles) at times, sometimes closer, sometimes further away.
It is of course an asteroid, essentially a piece of space rock, and was discovered by William Kwong Yu Yeung (Bill), at the Desert Beaver Observatory, in Eloy, Arizona, which is the sky diving capital of the world. Fool hardy people just love to jump out of airplanes above Eloy. I don't know why (Eloy is also famous for being the home of a privately owned prison, the Saguaro Correctional Center, which houses the majority of the State of Hawaii's male prison inmates). The asteroid Mr. Yeung discovered on November 19th, 2000 at first was designated 2000 WR9 after it's orbit had been calculated (2000 being the year it was discovered, W designating the half year it was discovered, for instance A designates the half month from January 1st to the 16th, B from January 16th to the end of the month, and so on. The letter "I" is not used. I don't know why. No one does. Accordingly W designates the second half of November. The R in the name designates the order of discovery within that half month, R equaling 17, meaning there were 16 asteroids discovered before this one in the second half of November in 2000 ("I" again not being used). This would be true if the pesky "9" wasn't at the end, which means that since there are so many people in the world with too much time on their hands due to being unemployed because of the Republican financial crisis, too many asteroids are being discovered, the "9" representing how many times that "R" scale has been recycled, in other words, in this case the "R" instead of representing the 17th asteroid discovered in the second half of November in 2000, the "9" means the scale needs to repeated nine times, meaning this asteroid is actually the 217th, or thereabouts which was discovered in the second half of November in 2000. Wheeew! I'm glad we got that cleared up).
The actual discoverer of an asteroid may name it, which is then approved by the International Astronomical Union, if the name is not frivolous.
The name Mr. Yeung chose was "Sugihara." The whole name of this asteroid then is 25893 Sugihara (2000 WR9). (I have no idea what the prefix "25893" designates, because quite frankly no one will tell me, and I'm now sick of thinking about it)
My lovely ex-case manager, Erin, and I used to have breakfasts at various restaurants on Tuesday mornings around town close by. One of the places we used to frequent was a Starbucks on Central just north of 2nd street, in the Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles. We would eat these little biscuit breakfast sandwiches with breakfast meats inside them and egg and cheese, and drink breakfast drinks like coffee.
Right outside of that Starbucks is a memorial in the form of a black statue of a man seated on a bench, holding up a little book in his statue hand. One of the pictures above is of that memorial. You can see in that picture a lady seated in the upper left corner, that's where the Starbucks is.
This memorial is dedicated to a Sugihara, the very same Sugihara that the asteroid was named after. Imagine that.
That man had a first name too. It was Chiune.
Chiune Sugihara.
Who was this man... this man who warrants a celestial object named after him, and his very own Starbucks statue?
He was a Japanese diplomat, that's who. And not a very important one at that. He wasn't an ambassador or anything. He was a vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania. He came there in 1939.
I hadn't heard of him either until last Sunday morning after the weekly service at the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple on 3rd Street and Central. Bishop Noriaki Ito told us all about him in the talk we have after the service (in English. There's another talk going on in Japanese, but I don't go to that one). It would appear that besides being a mid-level diplomat, Mr. Sugihara was one of the most amazing heros and humanitarians of the World War II era.
He was born on the first day of the year 1900, in the town of Yaotsu, located in the center of the main Japanese island of Honshu, the second eldest son of a middle class physician father and a samurai class mother. He graduated high school with top honors. His father wanted him to follow his footsteps and become a doctor, but the boy always wanted to study literature and travel, and so first revealed a somewhat independent, rebellious nature. Upon taking the entrance exam to medical school he purposely flunked the test by just signing his name.
Instead he entered Waseda University in Tokyo and studied English, while working several part time jobs. The Foreign Ministry was looking for students who wanted to study abroad and pursue a career in the Diplomatic Corps. The idea appealed to 19 year old Chiune who applied and was accepted to Harbin Gakuin University in Manchuria, where he studied the Russian language. He graduated with honors when he was 24.
He began working in the Manchurian government which was controlled by Japan at the time. He helped in negotiations with the Soviet Union over the Northern Manchurian Railroad, and converted to Orthodox Christianity as Pavlo Sergeivich Sugihara and married a Russian woman.
They divorced in 1935, before he returned to Japan after protesting the Japanese cruel treatment toward the Chinese.
Back in Japan he married Yukiko Kikuchi, with whom he remained married until his death in 1986, and had four sons.
In 1938 Mr. Sugihara served in the Information Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a translator for the Japanese legation in Helsinki, Finland. The next year he was transfered to Kaunas, Lithuania, the second largest city of that Baltic country. He was to open a Consulate there.
In September of 1939 World War II began in Europe with Germany's invasion of Poland. Jewish refugees flooded into Lithuania fleeing from the Germans and the atrocities perpetrated upon the Polish Jews. They had little or no money or possessions, but were desperate to escape from the advancing Nazis. Their only escape route was to the east, however, the Soviets only allowed Jews to pass through Russia if they had a transit visa – and so, obtaining a Japanese visa became a matter of life and death.
In June 1940, the Soviet Union occupied and annexed Lithuania. During this time Sugihara decided to facilitate their escape from war-torn Europe. In the absence of clear instructions from Tokyo, he granted 10-day visas on his own initiative for transit through Japan to hundreds of refugees who held Curacao destination visas. Before closing his consulate in the fall of 1940, Sugihara even gave visas to refugees who lacked all travel papers.
Mr. Sugihara asked the refugees to call him “Sempo,” the sound reading of a Chinese character, as it was much easier for Western people to pronounce. Sempo was not his middle name, as Japanese names do not have middle names.
After he had issued some 1,800 visas, he received a cable from Tokyo reminding him: "You must make sure that they [refugees] have finished their procedure for their entry visas and also they must possess the travel money or the money that they need during their stay in Japan. Otherwise, you should not give them the transit visa."
In his response to the cable, Sugihara admitted he was not exactly following prescribed instructions, explaining the extenuating circumstances. Japan was the only transit country available for those going in the direction of the United States, and his visas were needed for departure from the Soviet Union. He suggested that travelers who arrived in the Soviet port of Vladivostok with incomplete paperwork should not be allowed to board ships for Japan. Tokyo wrote back that the Soviet Union insisted that Japan honor all visas already issued by its consulates.
"Given his inferior post and the culture of the Japanese Foreign Service bureaucracy, this was an extraordinary act of disobedience. He spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway at five times the standard ticket price.
Sugihara continued to hand write visas, reportedly spending 18–20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month's worth of visas each day, until September 4, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By that time he had granted thousands of visas to Jews, many of whom were heads of households and thus permitted to take their families with them. On the night before their scheduled departure, Sugihara and his wife stayed awake writing out visa approvals. According to witnesses, he was still writing visas while in transit from his hotel and after boarding the train at the Kaunas Railway Station, throwing visas into the crowd of desperate refugees out of the train's window even as the train pulled out.
In final desperation, blank sheets of paper with only the consulate seal and his signature (that could be later written over into a visa) were hurriedly prepared and flung out from the train. As he prepared to depart, he said, 'please forgive me. I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best.' When he bowed deeply to the people before him, someone exclaimed, 'Sugihara. We’ll never forget you. I’ll surely see you again!'" -Wikipedia
In June of 1941 Nazi Germany betrayed the Soviet Union and attacked it, invading Soviet held Lithuania in doing so. Some of the Jews who had received Sugihara visas failed to leave Lithuania in time, and were later captured by the Germans, and perished in the Holocaust. The Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators murdered around 190,000 Lithuanian Jews (91% of the pre-war Jewish community) during the Holocaust.
It is estimated that Chiune Sugihara issued visas for about 6,000 Jews, many of which were family visas which allowed more than one person to travel on it. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has stated that around 40,000 descendants of the Jewish refugees are alive today because of his actions. Some have estimated the figure to be as high as 80,000.
Sugihara was able to continue his diplomatic service to Japan by serving as the Consul General In Prague, Czechoslovakia, from March 1941 to late 1942, and in Königsberg, East Prussia and in the legation in Bucharest, Romania from 1942 to 1944. When Soviet troops entered Romania, they imprisoned Sugihara and his family in a POW camp for eighteen months. I don't know why. They were released in 1946 and returned to Japan through the Soviet Union. In 1947, the Japanese foreign office asked him to resign, due to down-sizing they said. Some sources, including his wife, have said that the Foreign Ministry told Sugihara he was dismissed because of "that incident" in Lithuania.
To support his family he took a series of menial jobs, at one point selling light bulbs door to door. He eventually returned to Russia, Moscow specifically, to accept a managerial position with a Japanese trading company. Sugihara worked there for over 15 years in complete obscurity, visiting his family in Japan only once or twice a year.
After the war, many of those who had been issued visas from Sugihara tried to trace him, seeking information at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, to no avail. The Japanese Government refused to cooperate; no one seemed to remember or recognize him or his name.
Chiune never mentioned his wartime deeds to anyone, and the world knew little of him until almost 30 years later, in 1968, when he was located by Joshua Nishri, the Economic Attache to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo and one of his survivors. This was a significant event for him as for all of this time he had had no word, and did not know if any if the visas he had issued so long ago had actually worked and had helped the Jews as he had intended.
As we've mentioned the visas had worked and did help those Jews he had intended to help, thousands of them. That knowledge was joyous to Sugihara, and he was overcome with satisfaction and happiness. He felt no regrets for his actions. He felt even if only one life had been saved all of his hardship would have been worth it. Indeed, at his memorial in Los Angeles, a quote from the Talmud is carved on the nearby stone: "He who saves one life, saves the entire world."
The next year, Sugihara visited Israel and was greeted by the Israeli Government, which included another one of his survivors: Zerach Warheftig, the Israeli Minister of Religion.
In 1985 after gathering testimonials from all over the world, Sugihara was granted Israel`s highest honor. He was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Israel`s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. Later that year, a monument was erected on a hill in Jerusalem, a cedar grove was planted in Sugihara’s name at Yad Vashem, and a park in Jerusalem was named in his honor. Sugihara and his descendants were given an everlasting Israeli citizenship. His son Nobuki graduated from the Hebrew University, speaking Hebrew fluently.
That same year, 45 years after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, he was asked his reasons for issuing visas to the Jews. Sugihara explained that the refugees were human beings, and that they simply needed help.
“You want to know about my motivation, don't you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.
People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people's lives....The spirit of humanity, philanthropy...neighborly friendship...with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage."
Chiune Sugihara died the following year, on July 31, 1986. In spite of all the publicity given to him in Israel and other nations he remained virtually unknown in his home country. It was only when a large international Jewish delegation attended his funeral that his own people discovered his extraordinary altruistic deeds.
He was posthumously awarded the Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta in 2007, and the Commander's Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland by the President of Poland in 1996. Also, in 1993, the Life Saving Cross of Lithuania, all posthumously.
He has his own asteroid too.
In 2005 PBS produced a 90 minute documentary, "Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness." which "tells the remarkable story of Chiune Sugihara and the Jewish refugees that he helped to save." It can be purchased through Amazon here:

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