Chiune Sugihara was a diplomat born in Yaotsu. During WWII when he was posted in Lithuania, Jews who had nowhere to go after the terrible persecution of Nazi Germany, applied for a visa to Japan (permission to pass), in an attempt to escape from Europe. However, at the time Japan was allied with Germany and there was no way such a visa could be granted to the Jews. Following orders for his country would mean forsaking the lives of thousands of people.
That is when Sugihara decided that his service was not to his country, but to mankind. He issued visas to thousands of Jews without getting permission from the state. It is said that this saved the lives of over 6000 people. Sugihara truly was a lifesaver to these Jews.
Sugihara and his heroic feats were not known until 1991. In Sugihara’s hometown of Yaotsu, a large memorial hall was built to glorify his great work.
The memorial hall is located in a part of Jindo no oka Park, which was also established to recognize his achievements. The hall was fully remodeled in 2015. Built from Japanese cypress in Gifu prefecture, the memorial hall is constructed using the amalgamation of new and traditional methods of construction, which brings a contemporary touch to the traditional beauty. Though quintessentially Japanese, the hall also leaves a modernistic impression.
Inside the hall there are not only documents and materials of Chiune Sugihara’s life and work, but there are also displays exhibiting the holocaust and war. This is an opportunity to learn about the history that wasn’t taught in the school textbooks. Moreover, English and Hebrew translations of the exhibits are provided alongside the Japanese for visitors from other countries.
A replica of Sugihara’s Lithuanian diplomat office, where he issued the ‘Visas for Life’ is also exhibited. Why not sit in this serene space surrounded by wood, and try to stand in Sugihara's shoes and contemplate his thoughts and feelings towards the Japanese government when he issued these visas.
The film “Sugihara Chiune,” depicting this man who issued these lifesaving visas was released in 2015. The number of visitors to his memorial hall have increased partly due to that film.
In Yaotsu, the people wish Chiune Sugihara’s achievements to be remembered and are currently pursuing the registration of UNESCO Memory of the World for the materials and documents related to the vast number of visas that he issued. Certainly, his actions “should not just be left as records, but preserved as memories.”
Hopefully the story of this Japan’s admirable diplomat will reach the corners of the world.