He was a Japanese Diplomat who worked as the Vice-Consul for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania.
When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1940, Jews refugees started to acquire exit visas to escape Lithuania. Exit visas are required for those who wanted to emigrate or to leave the USSR for some time. At the time, the Japanese government states that visas can only be issued for those who had gone through the appropriate immigration procedures and those with enough funds. Most of the refugees were not able to meet that criteria.
In July 1940, Sugihara started to issue visas at his own initiative, ignoring direct orders from the Japanese Foreign Service Bureaucracy. For one month, Sugihara reportedly spent 18 to 20 hours a day producing hand written visas, granting one month’s worth of visas a day to the refugees. At the 4th of September, the consulate was closed and he was to depart to Japan.
The night before his departure, Sugihara and his wife stayed up all night writing visa approvals, and was still writing them on the way to the train and after boarding. In the final moments, in an act of desperation, he began throwing out blank papers with the consulate seal and his signature, so that other personal details can be written over after. As he prepared to depart, he bowed deeply to the crowd, “Please forgive me, I cannot write anymore. I wish you all the best.”
It was estimated that about 6000 family visas (visas that allow family members to follow) were issued by Sugihara.
In 1985, 45 years after the Soviet invasion, Sugihara was granted the honor of The Righteous Among the Nations by the government of Israel. When asked the reason why he risked his career to save the lives of the Jews, he answered:
“You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.
People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.“
He passed away on the 31st July 1986. He was born on the 1st of January 1900.
Sugihara Street in Kaunas and Vilnius, Lithuania, and Tel Aviv, Israel are named after him.