The Humanitarian Legacy and Lessons of Sugihara ChiuneThu, Jan 14, 2021
On December 9, Waseda University hosted a special event on “The Humanitarian Legacy and Lessons of Sugihara Chiune” which was streamed live. Notable figures presented at the conference, including the Lithuanian, Israeli and Polish ambassadors to Japan. Representing Waseda University was President Aiji Tanaka and Vice-President for International Affairs Masahiko Gemma, as well as Professor Hiromi Komori and Dean of International Affairs Magi Rhee, who served as M.C. In addition, presentations by Lithuanian historian Dr. Simonas Strelcovas and a video virtual excursion of the Sugihara museum in Kaunas made for a very comprehensive and inspiring conference.
Waseda alumnus Sugihara Chiune (January 1, 1900 – July 31, 1986) is recognized in many countries for his heroic humanitarian deeds as Japanese diplomat during the Second World War. Going against official instructions, his altruistic decision to help the Holocaust victims put himself and his family at risk. He helped around 6000 Jews exit Europe by issuing transit visas, which later came to be known as “visas for life.”
In the opening remarks of the conference, Waseda President Tanaka commented on the timeliness of the event, coming upon the 120th anniversary of Sugihara’s birth and the 80th anniversary of the ‘visas for life.’ Commending Sugihara’s valor for having “the courage and determination to do what he felt was right,” Professor Tanaka emphasized Waseda education as a training to instill humanitarian values to enable students to face future problems in the same spirit.
The Lithuanian Ambassador to Japan, Gediminas Varvuolis, who had initially proposed this conference, gave the first welcome address. He brought attention to the conference’s location at Waseda University campus grounds as a very fitting place, since it is where Sugihara began his studies in English Literature in 1918. The Ambassador mentioned that the Lithuanian people have adopted Sugihara as their own hero, with streets and parks bearing his name, as well as a museum that has become a pilgrimage destination for thousands. He expressed his wish for the Lithuanian contribution to be a positive addition to the growing research in Japan and internationally, to remember and learn the lessons of Chiune Sugihara in order to apply them to modern times as well as to “future generations, well beyond this commemorative year.”
Yaffa Ben-Ari, the Israeli Ambassador to Japan, delivered the second welcome. She began by stating that this is an emotional subject for her, as an Israeli representing Jews in Japan. She emphasized Sugihara’s heroic efforts in saving Jewish lives as a great humanitarian deed, especially in respect to the tragedy and darkness of those times and the Nazi’s agenda of the “Final Solution” to eradicate the Jewish population. For her, Sugihara represents much more than the ‘visas for life’ for 6000 people, in respect to commemorating the Holocaust victims. Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Memorial center, established in Jerusalem in 1953 for the 6 million Jews—among them 1.5 million children—who perished. Ambassador Ben-Ari highlighted the main objective of Yad Vashem to remember the Holocaust and to educate future generations to learn from the lessons of the past, as well as to recognize “those who helped save us.” Yad Vashem bestows the award of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” for those who saved Jewish lives at the risk of their own, for altruistic reasons. She noted that Sugihara was given this honor in 1984. Ambassador Ben-Ari stated that sometimes one Jew needed to be saved more than once, and that the Jewish tradition maintains that someone who saves one life, is as if they save the whole world. She added that the “Righteous Among the Nations” are immortal, because they save the value of humanity. The Ambassador affirmed, “it is much more than 6000 lives, it is 6000 worlds that Sugihara was saving.”
The Polish Ambassador to Japan, Pawel Milewski, concluded the welcomes. Like Ambassador Gediminas Varvuolis, he emphasized the significance of the event’s location at a university setting, commenting that every person has a duty to promote universal humanitarian values, for the good of all mankind. He called Sugihara a “hero of the world,” and that the remembrance of this great man should “stay alive forever” and instill courage to overcome challenges and to act resolutely in daily life.
A short video presentation followed, “Sugihara Museum in Kaunas,” offering viewers a virtual excursion to the Museum in the second-largest city in Lithuania. The Sugihara museum features an exhibition of the Sugihara family living space, stories of the survivors, and Kaunas during 1939-40, the “Casablanca of the North.” Sugihara’s office has been recreated to look exactly like it did when he was working there during the war, with replicas of the transit visas he issued. The video shows images of these documents, with the commentator pointing out the “high pace of work evidenced in the sheets of papers.”
Attending the conference via internet, Lithuanian historian Dr. Simonas Strelcovas delivered a presentation on “Question as a test of civilization: ignore or help? Coordinates: 1939-1940. Europe, Lithuania, Kaunas.” He expressed his gratitude for the work of historians to uncover more and more previously unknown facts about the war, and called the events in Kaunas in the summer of 1940 “a miracle.” Dr. Strelcovas launched into a very thorough description of the situation in Kaunas during World War II. He closed with a very moving statement, “Chiune Sugihara was not alone. When the world sank into darkness, the Lithuanian republic was the patch of light that secured thousands of people, and Sugihara Chiune became a lighthouse, giving its light, hope, and life.”
Representing Waseda University’s School of Education, Professor Hiromi Komori spoke on “Chiune Sugihara in the educational sphere in Japan.” She outlined three major points, to reconsider history education in Japanese schools, with Sugihara as a prominent historical figure, to relate to the complexity of global issues through the historical context of a single inspiring individual, and to reflect upon the potential of reframing world history through the eyes of a small state, contrary to traditional instruction. She emphasized Ambassador Ben-Ari’s message of commemoration and remembrance.
Professor Masahiko Gemma, Waseda University’s Vice-President for International Affairs, made the closing remarks of the conference. He called attention to the importance of diversity and the need for social inclusion. He noted Sugihara’s position as a role model for many Japanese youth, as he appears in various textbooks and how representative from many countries have gathered to commemorate him at the present conference.
Waseda University’s Dean of International Affairs, Professor Magi Rhee, eloquently served as M.C., initiating the conference with a warm welcome to all viewers online. As each presenter departed the stage, she requested the audience to wait as the microphone was being changed as a preventative measure against corona virus. This measure, the social distancing of the conference attendees and the online broadcasting of the event were all reminders of the current global pandemic, and also pointed to Waseda University’s staunch efforts in maintaining health and safety. The tumult and darkness of the present times made the light and inspiration of Chiune Sugihara all the more poignant.
The living descendants of the Jews who were able to escape with the help of Sugihara have been estimated to number as many as 100,000. The lesson of the Holocaust and the heroism of Chiune Sugihara is a symbol of inspiration that, and one that can shed light in the darkness of the current pandemic and continue to shine on brightly far into the future.
You can watch the full video of the symposium here.
*This article was written and contributed by the following student.
Linda Teresa Klausner
Graduate School of International Culture and Communication Studies