Movie review: Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness (2000)

Sugihara was a rare man who lived his conscious. He was a Japanese diplomat who had a decisive impact on the lives of many people.

What made Sugihara so rare? What was this decisive impact? As Japanese Consul in Lithuania during World War II, Sugihara issued transit visas to Jewish refugees—against his government’s orders. These refugees surely would have died at the hands of Lithuanians, Soviets, or Germans. Instead, the transit visits that Sugihara issued allowed the Jewish refugees to travel to Japan en route to another destination.

This documentary is a wonderful companion piece to the dramatization of Sugihara’s life in Persona Non Grata. Sugihara uses family pictures, words from his personal diary, interviews with family members—and surviving Japanese records from the war that deal with “the Jewish situation”. What emerge from these various sources are historical tidbits about Japanese involvement in World War II, Jewish experiences in Eastern Europe, and Sugihara’s professional life.

The documentary sheds light on Japan’s relationship with Jews, their presence in Japan during the war, and Japan’s rejection of ally Germany’s demand that Japan exterminate the Jews in Japan. Instead, Japan moved many of the Jews in Japan to Shanghai, which Japan occupied during the war. I was ignorant of all of this and now am interested in learning more, both about Japan’s relationship with Jews in Japan and the Jewish community in Shanghai.

According to the documentary, the Japanese military leaders were perplexed by the German hatred of Jews and by Germany’s demand that Japan kill the Jews within its borders. The Japanese military leaders met with two prominent rabbis in the Jewish community (Shemon Kalesh and Moses Shakish, who were accompanied by Abraham Kasugi and Leo Hanin) in attempt to understand this. Why did Germany hate Jews so much?

One of the rabbi’s explanation was chilling and must have been disturbing to the Japanese that he was speaking to. He explained how the Germans were seeking to develop an Aryan race: blond-haired, blue-eyed people. No Slavs, no gypsies, no one who looked different from them could exist. Did the Japanese look like the members of the Aryan race, asked the rabbi? No. After the Germans deal with the Jews, the rabbi explained, they would be coming for the Japanese.

Another striking recollection in the documentary involved financially supporting the thousands of Jewish coming to Japan. JEWCOM, a Jewish organization in Japan, gave money to the Jewish arrivals to help them pay for daily living expenses. But, as “Arie” Leo Hanin, a member of the Kobe branch, explained, JEWCOM couldn’t afford to support the huge numbers coming into Japan. The organization wired New York. The message they received back gave me chills—in a good way—money no object, save Jews.

After the war, Sugihara was kicked out of the Foreign Service, presumably for disobeying orders not to issue transit visas to the Jewish refugees trying to flee Lithuania. Sugihara worked odd jobs, such as bagging groceries, to support his family and ended up working for years as a businessman in Russia, basically living in poverty and separated from his family in Japan. It was an ignoble end to an important diplomatic career. The faithful servant who worked tirelessly for his government and saved thousands of lives was rejected by the former and in the dark about whether his sacrifices made any difference to the latter.

That is, until in 1968, when one of the Jews that he helped save with a transit visa managed to track him down in Russia. This was the first time Sugihara learned that living his conscious by issuing transit visas to people who would surely die in Lithuania or parts of the Soviet Union or Germany was not in vain. (In fact, to the amazement of the German invaders of Lithuania, the Lithuanians instigated violent attacks on the Jews in their midst. The Germans hadn’t seen such willing collaboration in other countries that they occupied.) Today over 40,000 Jewish people are alive because of what Sugihara did.

Japan’s treatment towards other races is a mixed bag. Like other countries, Japan had no problem brutalizing and killing people who it deemed The Other. While Japan was perplexed by Germany’s treatment of the Jews, they were treating Chinese in occupied China in ways that could be called genocide. The commonality between the German treatment of Jews and the Japanese treatment of Chinese is treating a group of people as non-humans. Even if others look like you, you can wantonly kill them if you distance yourself from them: you are human, they are not.

The quotes that book end the documentary are illuminating and speak to the life of conscious that Sugihara lived. At the beginning of the movie: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ~ Edmund Burke (1729-1797). At the end of the movie: “If you save the life of one person, it is as if you saved the entire world.” ~ Jewish proverb.

Never say that one man cannot make a difference. Sugihara certainly did.

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