NPO Chiune Sugihara. Visas For Life

Who is Chiune Sugihara?

Chiune Sugihara
Chiune Sugihara

Chiune "Sempo" Sugihara

January 1, 1900 – July 31, 1986

Who is Chiune Sugihara?

Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat serving as consul in Kaunas, Lithuania during World War II, he helped rescue some 6,000 desperate Jewish refugees fleeing annihilation by the Nazis by defying his own government and issuing transit visas through Japan. Those saved directly by these “visas for life” along with their descendants number in the hundreds of thousands living in countries throughout the world.

Sugihara is nicknamed Sempo from an alternative reading of his given name.

Sugihara’s Story

Sugihara arrives in Lithuania

Chiune Sugihara, a young diplomat in the Japanese Foreign Ministry, was appointed consul to Lithuania in August 1939. Sugihara had previously served in Harbin, China (where he played an instrumental role in negotiations with the Soviet Union over the purchase of a major railway) and Helsinki, Finland. He was now charged with opening the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, then Lithuania’s capital.

Just when he was taking up his post, the world was shocked as Germany and the Soviet Union announced a non-aggression pact. Japanese diplomacy was thrown off course. Japan had signed a Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, and Germany’s tieup with the Soviets was a totally unexpected development.

Outbreak of war

On September 1,1939, immediately after Sugihara’s arrival in Kaunas, Germany invaded Poland, leading to the outbreak of war. Japan could do little but monitor developments. On September 17, Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union and divided up between the Nazis and Soviets based on a secret clause in the non-aggression pact, thus disappearing from the world map as an independent nation. Poland had the largest population of Jewish citizens in Europe. With the advent of the Nazis, those Jewish residents were at serious risk of extermination.

The Jews turned desperately anywhere they could to escape, and a great number managed to reach independent and politically neutral Lithuania when the Soviets returned Vilnius from Polish control to Lithuanian sovereignty in October 1939.

Germany aggressively expanded its attacks in April 1940 and took over Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in quick succession. By June, it had conquered France. In tandem, the Soviets took over the three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Germany and the Soviet Union thus drastically rewrote the map of Europe. The situation sparked uncountable waves of refugees.

With this development, Jews in previously neutral Lithuania now found themselves in the Soviet Union. Lithuanian Jews instantly became Soviet citizens, while Polish Jews were in danger of being sent back to Nazi-occupied territory, making their plight even more urgent. As Kaunas was no longer the capital of an independent country, the Soviet government ordered all foreign missions to close by the end of August, and embassies and consulates were shutting down one after another.

Desperate refugees

It was against this background that Sugihara awoke on the morning of July 18, 1940 to find a large group of refugees at the gates of the consulate. He soon learned that they were seeking transit visas though Japan. With Nazi Germany occupying Western and Northern Europe, the only practical escape route for the desperate refugees was to cross Siberia to the east and try to reach a third country, but the rapid closure of foreign missions had made it increasingly difficult for them to get the all-important visas. A rumor had spread that they could get help from Japan.

Sugihara communicated the situation right away to the authorities in Tokyo. Under Japanese law, issuance of a transit visa required mainly a valid passport, permission to enter a third country and sufficient funds. Sugihara recalls in his memoirs that few of the refugees who had rushed to the consulate could meet the visa requirements, and the number of applicants was staggeringly large. He explained to the Foreign Ministry that the rejection of the applications would be wrong on humanitarian grounds and sought permission to issue transit visas on his own judgment even if the refugees did not strictly meet the formal protocol. His repeated requests were rebuffed by Tokyo.

The decision

It was then that Sugihara decided to defy orders and issue the transit visas. Sugihara describes his struggle between his bureaucratic duties and his conscience in his memoirs:

On the day I received the first guidance from the government, I thought about it through the night. If I followed orders as stated, I figured I would be praised for being obedient to the ministry. If it were anyone other than me, probably 100 percent would do as they were told and choose the easy path of refusing the applications. Moreover, there was a real fear that a failure to follow the rules in any way could be grounds for denial of further promotion or outright dismissal. When I received the order, I thought about it all night. . .

After hard thinking, I ultimately reached the conclusion that humanity and compassion come first. I risked my career and duly executed my mission without hesitation. I’m confident even now that I did the right thing.

Sugihara immediately began the issuance process, racing against time ahead of the consulate’s imminent closure. Nevertheless, he was aware that the formal visa requirements had to be observed to ensure their validity. Needing permission from a third country as a final destination, he came upon the ruse of using “Curaçao visas” issued by the acting Dutch consul in Kaunas, Jan Zwartendjik. These were documents nominally permitting passage to the Caribbean islands of Curaçao and Surinam, which were Dutch colonies. In reality, entry into those territories required the approval of local authorities, so the visas were not quite what they seemed. Nevertheless, they allowed Sugihara to meet the letter of the law.

Thousands saved

Sugihara continued to work furiously. He stopped numbering the visas after the total reached 1,000 and eventually refrained from collecting the application fees to facilitate the process.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued repeated directives ordering that the foreigner entry law be followed strictly. Sugihara delayed his responses, diverting the ministry’s attention by restricting his communications to confirmation of individual cases up until the consulate’s closure. He managed to extract a response from the ministry that he adhere to the law “going forward”, thus in effect winning the acceptance of visas already issued. Sugihara thus not only issued transit visas in mass volumes, but worked out ways through adept thinking to increase the chances of success of his rescue operation.

The Japanese consulate was one of the last foreign missions to pull out of Lithuania. Sugihara continued to issue transit permits from the Hotel Metropolis and even from Kaunas Station as he prepared to leave for Berlin, working to his last moments to save the refugees. The official list indicates that he issued 2,139 visas but, as visas in those days covered entire families, the number of people saved is estimated to be significantly higher.

Sugihara in later years

Returning to Japan with his family after the war in 1947, Sugihara was “encouraged” by the foreign ministry to resign. He writes more pointedly in his memoirs that he “was fired” for his insubordination in issuing the transit visas, but in any event, his many years of diplomatic service for his country came to an end at age 47. He worked thereafter for trading companies and other firms, including lengthy overseas postings, without ever mentioning his past deeds.

In August 1968, he was suddenly contacted by a survivor, Joshua Nishri, who had become economic attaché in the Israeli embassy in Tokyo. He recalls that Nishri approached him tearfully, holding a passport with the weathered visa and thanking him profusely. “Mr. Sugihara,” he said, “We have never forgotten you.” Sugihara learned to his surprise that survivors from around the world had been searching for him for years.

The following year, he visited Israel and received a special award for his actions from Minister of Religious Affairs Zerach Warheftig, himself a survivor. Subsequently, he was decorated by the Israeli government in 1974 and named Righteous Among the Nations, Israel’s highest honor, by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem in 1985.

Courage, conviction, compassion

Sugihara’s decision to put his empathy as a human being above his duties as an officer of the state stands as a ray of hope amidst the unspeakable tragedies of WWII and the Holocaust. At a time when conflicts driven by blind hatred and bigotry remain all too common across the globe, the story of one man’s willingness to act under extreme duress out of courage, conviction and compassion for the helpless carries relevance for all mankind. Sugihara’s actions should continue to be taught to and remembered by future generations everywhere.


1900 Born in Yaotsu-cho, Gifu Prefecture
1918 Enters Waseda University
1919 Wins Foreign Ministry scholarship for overseas studies Studies Russian language in Harbin, China
1924 Appointed assistant secretary in Foreign Ministry Works in Japanese consulate in Harbin
1932 Appointed public assistant officer in Foreign Affairs Division in Manchukuo
1935 Plays key role in negotiations over North Manchuria Railway
1936 Marries Yukiko Kikuchi
1937 Appointed to foreign delegation in Helsinki, Finland
1939 Appointed consul in Kaunas, Lithuania
1940 Issues visas for Jewish refugees at consulate
Continues issuing visas at hotel after consulate is closed
Moves to Berlin
Becomes consul in Prague
1941 Works in Japanese consulate in East Prussia
Becomes consul in Bucharest, Romania
1945 Detained in prison camp in Bucharest
1947 Arrives in Hakata from Vladivostok
Retires from Foreign Ministry
1968 Reunited with survivor Joshua Nishri
1969 Receives medal from Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs
1977 Retires from trading firm and returns to Japan
1985 Designated “Righteous Among the Nations” by Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center
1986 Dies in Kamakura at age 86
2000 Honor officially restored by Japanese government on October 10

NPO Chiune Sugihara. Visas For Life
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