GIFU PREFECTURE, Japan — It is not easy to visit Yaotsu. There is no real public transportation, nor is there English-language signage pointing to the mountainous town of 11,000 in the land-locked Gifu Prefecture. Bordered by the Hida River to the north and the Kiso River to the south, the town is sleepy and best known for its small sake industry — and Chiune Sugihara.
Hailed as a native son in Yaotsu, Sugihara, Japan’s World War II ambassador to Lithuania, is credited with saving the lives of some 10,000 Jewish refugees in 1940.
Sugihara helped the Jews flee war-torn Europe prior to the Final Solution through a complex arrangement of mocked-up visas to Holland’s Caribbean Curacao Island, which did not actually require them, but whose bearers could be issued transit visas to Japan. That meant Soviet Russia would allow them passage via the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the Vladivostok port.
For his deeds in securing a ticket out for these thousands of Jews, Israel bestowed upon Sugihara the honor of Righteous Among the Nations in 1984. Here in backwater, rural Japan, things moved more slowly and he was largely unheralded during his life.
Today, however, Sugihara is the main event in Yaotsu.
The day before our trip to isolated Yaotsu, we paid a formal, televised visit to Gifu Governor Hajime Furuta, who explained that the town hosts an annual day in memorial of Sugihara’s death. His life is dramatized in school plays — and even an opera.
In many ways, Yaotsu has become a one-stop shop for the now-honored diplomat. It even has its own Sugihara-branded sake.
Four years after Sugihara’s death in 1986, Yaotsu town “announced its ‘City Commitment to Peace’ declaration on February 2, 1990, and set up the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Fund in light of Chiune Sugihara’s humanitarian achievements,” according to the memorial museum’s website. (Along with background information, the website also provides the foundation’s bank details for ease in donations.)
In 1994, 40,000 square meters (430,556 square feet) of beautifully cultivated grounds were demarcated as The Hill of Humanity Park. In 2000, the striking two-floor cedar wood Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall was constructed. Built without nails using an ancient Japanese technique, its design is intentionally reminiscent of the ships that transported the Jews to safety.
Not following orders
After arriving as part of a delegation of six Jewish journalists, we make our way to the hall, soaking up some rare autumn sunshine and the park’s luscious seasonal colors.
At the entrance to Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, we are effusively greeted by director Daisaku Kunieda. He’s a political appointee, but his unkempt hair and beige jacket give him the air of an absent-minded professor.
This Holocaust education center in the middle of nowhere, director Kunieda says, sees 40,000 visitors annually — some 2,000 of them Israeli. That explains why the museum’s informative display panels are written in Japanese, English and Hebrew. As the Holocaust is but a footnote in World War II history classes in Japan, the panels give the less-knowledgeable Japanese visitor some quick pre-World War II context and a primer to the mass genocide of the Jews.
“We provide an opportunity for visitors to understand what happened in the past, think about reality, and what can be done in the future,” says Kunieda.
But that’s only part of its point, according to the museum director.
“Learning about Sugihara’s deeds provides an opportunity for people to see what they would do for themselves,” says Kuneieda.
“Twenty years ago, the young people said, ‘Sugihara didn’t follow the Japanese government’s orders.’ That gives a bad impression. Now, nobody says such a thing. The generation is changing, and along with it the idea of how humanity and human rights shape a society is growing,” he says.
We are ushered into a chilly outbuilding to watch, through our steaming breath, a semi-propaganda, black-and-white dramatization of Sugihara’s deeds. Following the predominant popular Sugihara script, the film promotes a Christlike narrative in which Sugihara’s issuance of visas for the Jews is “denied three times” by the Foreign Ministry. (This is historically inaccurate, according to researchers.)
The film opens with a reenacted, factually questionable, scene from August 31, 1940: At a war-torn railway station in Kovno, Lithuania, smoke billows around the train as we see a frantic Sugihara throwing visas from the window and apologizing to a crowd of grateful Jews for not being able to do more. The Jews wave as the train pulls away as the narrator says, “With bursting hearts, the Jews thanked Sugihara.”
After the Yaotsu visit, The Times of Israel spoke with Nobuki Sugihara, the diplomat’s only living son, to verify the accuracy of the narrative. From his home in Belgium, he says he is angered by this over-the-top fictionalization of his father’s actions. According to Nobuki, even his mother’s 1995 memoir, “Visas For Life” — written with the help of a ghostwriter — sadly includes several stories that were “made up,” but are now taken at face value.
“They are very dramatic, but not true,” says Nobuki.
Was Sugihara really born in Yaotsu?
Outside, on the grounds of the Sugihara park, a single bell atop a wooden pyramid peals over the mountainous lookout’s stunning fall foliage backdrop. Then follows another bell from a neighboring pyramid, then another. They echo across the valley, changing tone slightly with each reverberation.
So too, the historical narrative of Sugihara.
Among other arguably inaccurate facts of Sugihara’s life presented at the museum, its claim of Yaotsu as Sugihara’s birthplace — the town’s claim to fame — is highly controversial.
Youngest son Nobuki Sugihara claims he has found documentation that proves his father was born in Kozuchi. Now Mino City, it is approximately 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Yaotsu. To this day, however, the museum’s website states in large font, “Chiune was born in Yaotsu-cho.”
When asked about the controversy, a smiling Yaotsu town official emphatically explained to inquiring journalists that although Chiune Sugihara’s father was registered in Mino City, his mother’s parents were from Yaotsu and it was a custom for women to return to their parents’ houses to give birth and raise their children. Problem “solved.”
(Another inconsistency arose when, during our tour of the two-floor hall, a chatty member of museum staff stated that the content written on its recently renovated display panels was checked by experts at Yad Vashem. Asked about this in a followup conversation in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem has no record of such an interaction.)
Nobuki, the youngest of Sugihara’s four boys, decries Yaotsu’s cynical use of his father’s legacy. He says the town is not the “natural” location for the museum and alleges “dirty business” and “mafia work” on behalf of some of the town’s former leaders. He claims that two decades ago in the poverty-stricken town, the leaders were motivated by the opportunity to skim from the million-dollar government subsidiaries that were given first for the park and later for the museum.
“If it was not my father’s ‘birthplace,’ the town wouldn’t get money,” he says. Neither would it see much tourism.
His allegations that Yaotsu is not Sugihara’s birthplace are confirmed by Boston University Prof. Hillel Levine, the author of the 1996 “In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked his Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews From the Holocaust.” In conversation with The Times of Israel, Levine says that after the death of one of Nobuki Sugihara’s brothers, he “realized that his older brother had run an auction for validating the claims of towns that wanted to get money for tourism” based on the Sugihara legacy. Yaotsu, apparently, was the highest bidder according to this theory.
The familial mudslinging, which now includes the next generation, has led to the rise of splinter Sugihara not-for-profit groups, each one attempting to issue the “authorized” Sugihara history.
Somewhere in between
The truth, as my Great-Aunt Mimi used to say, is not what she said, nor what he said, but somewhere in between. Looking at the thought-provoking sculpture and memorials in the park, it’s not at all clear the money went into crooked pockets. What is clear is the domestic educational significance of this place for Japan.
A group of Israeli women — many whose extended family were murdered in the Holocaust — arrives in a loud bustle to the small museum. Their presence is instantly felt as they give their vocal approval to the museum and its message.
During their lightning-fast visit, they shared with this reporter the highlights of the packed itinerary on their short Japanese tour. It was an organized trip to explore Japanese women — they had met with a geisha the day before — and the country’s grafted Judaism.
Many of the women avow that this visit to the Sugihara memorial is very meaningful. Their charismatic Israeli tour director, Dorit Gabay, for her part, says she brings her groups to the Yaotsu museum “to comment on the man, not just the place.”
While it may be impossible to verify how many Jews Chiune Sugihara saved from the Nazi, and how much courage it required for him to intervene on their behalf, nobody is questioning the righteousness and the significance of his actions.
It is time for a scrupulously accurate history to be written to clear up the controversies swirling around the Japanese narrative of his heroism.
But watching the Israeli women walk through the museum, constantly remarking on its moving exhibits, one can also ask: Should whether or not the town was Sugihara’s birthplace back in 1900 outweigh contemporary efforts to disseminate a good man’s legacy?
The writer was a guest of Gifu Prefecture.