Chiune Sugihara was born January 1, 1900, in Yaotsu, a rural area in Gifu Prefecture of the Chūbu region to a middle-class father, Mitsugoro Sugihara, and Yatsu Sugihara, a samurai-class mother. He was the second son among five boys and one girl. This has meaning for me especially, as that is the locale where my best friend in Japan, Taka Imayama, is from, and which I visited two years ago. My Japanese ‘home’ is Chūbu (Nagoya and Gifu).
I don't want to repeat his story in this post, but you can read it here in Wikipedia, and also here in a private webpage titled A Hidden Life.
What prompted me to research a little further was the question whether or not he was a Christian. From seeing him being included in the Catholic Hagiography Circle webpage dedicated to non-Catholics, I assumed he must have been, but I wanted to find out for sure. Many Japanese that are well known in the West have been Christians, such as my favorite actor Toshiro Mifune, or the conductor Seiji Ozawa, but it hadn't occurred to me that Sugihara might have been one too. Being a Christian in Japan is not quite the same as being one in America or Europe where it's almost something you are born into. Usually, you must choose.
As it turns out, Chiune Sugihara had accepted Orthodox Christianity when he lived in Harbin, Manchuria. He had married a White Russian woman, so the original impetus may have been as it often is, convert in order to marry. Orthodox Christianity does not permit the marriage of believers with non-Christians. But they were divorced, and in 1935 when he married his second wife, a Japanese, she also converted to Orthodox Christianity, taking the name Maria. This leads me to suspect that his Christianity was not merely a formality, as his later actions proved.
In his quiet, modest way, Sugihara very much embodied the noble concept of Tolstoy’s prince. He sought neither fame nor fortune, merely saying “I may have to disobey my government, but if I don't I would be disobeying God.” When asked why he chose to help the Jewish refugees, he responded,
“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.”Yes, I would agree that he deserves to be commemorated in the calendar of saints, but it's God's calendar of saints, not ours, who are often duped by worldly glory and the will of men. As I prayed in my previous post, I pray again, “With the Saints give rest, O Christ, to the souls of Your servants…”