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STREETS IN Tel aviv, Israel, and in Kaunus and Vilnius, Lithuania, carry Chiune Sugihara’s name. Memorials in Jerusalem, Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo and Chestnut Hill, Massachuetts, celebrate his life. There’s even an asteroid, 25893 Sugihara, honoring him.

Yet Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara and his accomplishments aren’t nearly as recognized as, for example, those of Oskar Schindler. However, had Sempo Sugihara kept a list, it would likely be five times as long as Schindler’s.


Chiune Sugihara, 1900 – 1986, Japanese diplomat, linguist and humanitarian.

Sugihara’s achievements were the subject of a PBS special, “Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness,” on Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 5, 2005 ( Now and again, his story resurfaces, as such tales of bravery and humanitarianism should.

Sugihara was Vice Consul for Japan in Lithuania 1939 – 1940, a time when European Jews faced growing persecution. Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union 1940 – 1941, and then by Nazi Germany 1941-1944. Of Lithuania’s approximately 209,000 Jews, more than 90 percent were killed during WWII, most of these between June and December 1941.

Many Jews sought travel visas from any amenable sources. In Germany, for example, the Leica Freedom Train evolved (see In Lithuania, the Dutch consul offered some visas to Curaçao, one of the Dutch islands in the Caribbean.


The former Japanese consulate in Kovno, now Kaunas, Lithuania. Image by Bonio.

Officially, the Japanese government made visas all but impossible to obtain. However, through the summer of 1940, Sugihara ignored this official stance and issued thousands of visas on his own initiative. At times, he and his wife Yukiko worked on hand-written visa documents for 18 to 20 hours a day. He came to be known as Sempo, because this was an easy-to-pronounce rendering of his name in Japanese characters.

Records indicate Sugihara issued approximately 3400 visas. Given that many were family documents, it’s estimated that as many as 10,000 people may have escaped through his humanitarian actions.


A 1940 visa issued by Sugihara shows a journey across Russia, into Japan and eventually Curaçao. Image by Huddyhuddy.

Refugees often traveled across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Then a boat trip brought them from Vladivostok to Kobe, Japan, where there was a Russian Jewish community. Tadeusz Romer, the Polish ambassador to Japan, organized help for many who received transit visas in Japan and asylum visas to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and several Latin American destinations.

Sugihara and his family were forced to leave Kovno (also known as Kaunas and Lithuania’s capital at the time) when the consulate closed in September 1940. Witnesses reported that he was still writing and distributing the documents as his train pulled out of the railway station.

He had other diplomatic postings in Eastern Europe during WWII. The Soviets put Sugihara and his family in a POW camp for 18 months, after which they returned to Japan. The Japanese Foreign Office asked him to resign, some sources (including his wife) sensing that their visa activities in Lithuania were the reason.

Fluent in English and Russian, Sugihara worked as a general manager of the U.S. Military Post Exchange in Japan. Later, he spent 16 years, essentially unnoticed, working in Russia.

In 1968, Sugihara was located by one of the people he had helped. In the years following, his humanitarianism was given recognition. In 1985, Israel honored Sugihara as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Chiune Sempo Sugihara died a year later, at age 86.

Other honors came posthumously. Sugihara was awarded the Life Saving Cross of Lithuania in 1993 and the Commander’s Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in 1996; the latter was enhanced with the Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta in 2007.

On Saturday, November 22, 2014, at its Sixth Annual Sakura Gala in Toronto, the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre honored Sugihara with one of its Sakura Awards ( ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014


  1. Anton Thortzen
    May 3, 2015

    How well deserved. A true hero disobeying his orders in order to rescue innocent people. If only there were more people like him……….. the world would be a better place.

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