Japan's WWII 'Schindler' leaves a controversial legacy

A Japanese diplomat saved about 10,000 people from the Nazis, but his story is on trial.

Glance at the bestseller lists in Japan over the past decade or so, and it is hard not to conclude that the country is gripped by a powerful strain of anti-Semitism.

Books about Zionist conspiracies to take over the world, Jewish financiers sparking the Asian financial crisis, and US media in the pocket of Israel have found a large and ready audience in this island nation of 127 million, where an overwhelming majority - including some self-proclaimed academic "authorities" on the "Jewish problem" - have never met one of the country's 1,000 or so Jews. But one recent book - "Chiune" - paints a very different picture of two groups trying to help one another during one of the darkest moments of human history.

It is the moving story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who risked his life to save as many as 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust.

The Jewish author, Hillel Levine, a historian and professor of religion at Boston University in Massachusetts, says his aim was to investigate the "mystery of goodness" through a biography of his Japanese hero.

Courting controversy

But the pursuit of that lofty ideal led to a Tokyo court last month, where Mr. Levine and his Japanese publisher were sued for 10 million yen ($83,000) by Sugihara's widow, Yukiko, who claims the book defames her late husband.

As both sides in the dispute agree, the libel case - to be heard next year - is a sad development in what has otherwise been the brightest story of relations between the Japanese and the Jews.

Academics have noted the popularity of books based on "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a fabricated Jewish plot that was first translated by Japanese Army officers in the 1930s to stoke nationalism. In "Jews in the Japanese Mind," authors David Goodman and Masanori Miyazawa observe that Japanese anti-Semitism is "an eruption of the darkness in modern Japanese history.

"It is a malign version of the basic patterns of Japanese culture," they write. Even after Japan came out of its historic isolation in the 19th century, the country maintained its ambivalence to foreigners.

Today, they make up just 1 percent of its population, vulnerable to blatant discrimination such as "Japanese-only" signs at public baths, state agencies, and bars.

But the inspiring tale of Sugihara - now the subject of numerous biographies - has promised to foster a far more upbeat relationship between the two ethnic groups as well as between Japan and Israel, which has awarded Sugihara its highest honor by proclaiming him one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Sugihara was one of the few Japanese government officials to come out of World War II with his reputation enhanced in the West, though it took several decades for his role to be acknowledged.

Now he is often referred to as "the Japanese Schindler." Like the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, he helped rescue thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps and Soviet gulags.

Diplomatic lifesaver

In 1940, while he was vice-consul at Japan's diplomatic mission in Kuanas, Lithuania, he issued life-saving transit permits allowing Jewish families fleeing from Poland to travel through Russia to Japan and then on to the US.

Although his deeds were largely unrecognized in his own country when he died in 1986, Sugihara's story has recently become well known largely through the reminiscences of his wife, Yukiko, who has described how she and her husband fought against their own Foreign Ministry to help those in need.

During a frantic 29-day period, she says the two of them hand-wrote 2,139 of the "visas for life" at no charge. According to some of those they helped, the couple continued writing visas and throwing them from their train even as they were evacuating the city before a Soviet offensive. "They were human beings and they needed help," Sugihara said afterward.

His initiative helped to save about 10,000 people, but when Sugihara, a Christian, finally returned to Tokyo in 1947, his resignation was demanded.

"They told him to quit and they cut his pension," said Yukiko Sugihara, who blames Japan's foreign office for her husband's death in 1986. "In my view, they killed him, because from then on he was forced to work himself to death trying to make a living."

Mr. Levine, however, paints a more complex picture in his book, which received positive reviews in 1996 when was it first published in the US, under the title "In Search of Sugihara."

The scholar says that - far from being a heroic individual who put his conscience before his country - the diplomat was a spy who issued the visas on government orders to curry favor with the powerful Jewish community in the US when many in Japan were still trying to avoid war.

Levine's book also questions Sugihara's squeaky-clean image with anecdotes about him visiting a "soapland" brothel and using his impressive alcohol tolerance to win over Russian commissars.

Perhaps most shocking to the Sugihara family, the author also uncovered a Russian woman who married and divorced the diplomat in his youth - a subject Yukiko either knew nothing about or chose not to mention.

"My mother became ill after reading this book," said Michi Sugihara, the daughter of Chiune and Yukiko. "It is full of mistakes and exaggerations, distorts the image of my father, and damages our family's reputation."

The Sugihara family say the style of writing creates an impression of Chiune as a larger-than-life, almost American figure, rather than the low-key Japanese man they claim he was.

They also say Levine never interviewed Yukiko Sugihara, as he claims in his book, and that Chiune's first wife, Klaudia, was already dead when the author said he had talked to her in an Australian nursing home.

Levine says the lawsuit, which comes four years after the Japanese translation of his book was published, may be motivated by a desire to discredit him because of the film rights.

"The charges against me are absurd and frivolous," says Levine. "In the United States, this would be laughed out of court. My intention as a scholar is to tell the truth about Sugihara, to put him in the class of Gandhi and other great heroes. Whoever made the accusations is not a historian and probably cannot understand English."

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