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Researchers say Japan has exaggerated the story of Chiune Sugihara, the ‘Japanese Schindler’

YAOTSU, Japan (JTA) — Three years before the Olympics began in 2021, Tokyo was already developing the national image it would display as the world looked on.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education issued a handout to the city’s public schools in 2018 highlighting “the outstanding achievements of our predecessors” that were meant to “raise [students’] self-awareness and pride as Japanese.”

Occupying a majority of the four-page handout was the story of diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who wrote thousands of life-saving visas for Jews fleeing Europe in 1940. The pamphlet recreates a dramatized version of Sugihara’s life and actions, bolstered by quotes from nameless descendants of the Jewish refugees he saved.

“Sugihara should be remembered and honored as an amazing hero who sacrificed his profession and family to save strangers from a different ethnicity and culture,” one of the quotes reads.

Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat to Lithuania from 1939 to 1940, helped thousands of Jewish refugees flee wartime Europe by issuing transit visas that allowed them to travel across the Soviet Union to Japan. Today, his name and story can be found all over the country, from his supposed hometown in Yaotsu to a museum at the northern Tsuruga port where Jewish refugees landed.

His likeness is found in memorials in Tokyo and in manga series and films, in addition to nearly every modern history school textbook. In 2017, the Tokyo Weekender magazine dubbed Sugihara the “best Japanese person ever.” Some Catholics have even expressed hope that Sugihara will be officially canonized by the Catholic church as a Saint.

But over the past few years, a growing number of researchers — in addition to his own son — have publicly challenged Sugihara’s superhero status and many details of the version of his story pushed in Japan and around the world. Some researchers say that Japan has used him as a symbol of humanitarianism in the face of criticism of Japan’s World War II record.

And some note that Japan is taking the nationalist narrative one step further, by boosting another World War II-era figure whom they believe can achieve a similar level of national fame and hero status — whether or not his story is verifiable.

A Sugihara visa seen at the Sugihara Chiune Memorial Hall museum in Yaotsu. (Jordyn Haime)

The Sugihara story

Issuing visas was not part of Sugihara’s job description. He was stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania, from 1939 to keep an eye on Soviet military activity in the region.

But when rumors spread of a Japanese diplomat issuing transit visas, Sugihara one day found a crowd of Jews lined up outside of his home hoping they would be lucky enough to get one. They were running from the Soviets; no one had yet predicted the havoc that would be unleashed on them by the Germans when they finally invaded one year later.

Sugihara issued some 2,140 transit visas, some used for entire households. But Meron Medzini, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Asian Studies, wrote in his 2016 book “Under the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Japan and the Jews during the Holocaust Era” that “Not all of the visas were used, and this makes it difficult to substantiate the claim that Sugihara was instrumental in helping [the commonly accepted number of] between 6,000 and 7,000 Jews leave Lithuania.”

Sugihara’s act was also only one step in a series of events that led to the refugees’ escape. Tokyo required them to have a final destination permit as a condition of their transit through Japan, and those were provided by Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch consul in Kaunas at the time who stamped thousands of Jewish passports to visa-free Dutch Curacao. Jewish organizations stepped in to pay for the refugees’ transit across the Soviet Union, which was miraculously granted by Soviet authorities.

Andrew Jocubowicz, whose parents escaped wartime Europe with the help of a Sugihara visa, emphasized the importance of Zwartendijk’s role in an interview. In recent years, the Dutch consulate has also attempted to boost the profile of their own Holocaust hero, who is often “hidden” in the shadow of Sugihara.

“The critical person in the whole game was really Zwartendijk,” said Jocubowicz, a professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney who has spent four decades researching the conditions of his family’s survival. “Without those visas, it would not have happened at all. There’s no way Sugihara could have cooked up something that didn’t have people moving on from Japan.”

After arriving in Japan, Jews left for Australia, Canada, the United States and other countries. Others were later deported to Japanese-controlled Shanghai, where authorities imprisoned them in a ghetto for the remainder of the war.

A view of the Visas for Life monument in Yaotsu, Japan. (Jordyn Haime)

The hometown museum that isn’t

Claims that Sugihara helped several thousand Jews; that his requests for visas were rejected “three times” by his superiors; and that he was dismissed and punished for his actions are all important details that make Sugihara a hero. But they are also all claims that researchers have debunked.

Jocubowicz said his father barely met Sugihara, whose visa was just one chapter in a long journey to safety. The survival of this group of Jews was “almost pure luck at every point,” he said, especially their allowance by the Soviets to cross through Russia. After several months in Kobe, his family spent the remainder of the war in the Shanghai ghetto before boarding a ship to Australia, where Jocubowicz was raised.

“My feeling is that it was an extraordinary wormhole that opened up through these essentially conflicting empires, and as they crashed into each other, this little hole opened up and people were able to scurry into it,” he said.

Yaotsu’s claim as Sugihara’s birthplace is also disputed, said Nobuki Sugihara, the consul’s only surviving child. Nobuki said that according to family documents, his father was born in Mino, about 30 miles away from Yaotsu.

“It’s shocking. People come from around the world to visit Yaotsu [but] my father was not born there, he has never lived there,” Nobuki told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “They made a story that he was born in Yaotsu in order to get tourists because in that village there is nothing.”

The memorial and museum in Yaotsu, despite its distance from a major city, receives 20,000 tourists per year both foreign and domestic, according to Ito Yuko, who works in Yaotsu’s regional development and promotion division. She said the Sugihara family once lived in their small town, and elderly townspeople still remember them.

“For our museum, we are telling the truth that we know. Not exaggerated, not right or left, we just tell the story that we think is true,” she said.

Local tourism officials have also promoted a “Sugihara Remembrance Route,” part of a multimillion-dollar effort promoted widely in Israel that is described as “a nostalgic journey of discovery that will take you to places associated with the great man and areas where the Japan’s [sic] original landscape and traditional culture remain strong.” Although sometimes referred to as the “refugees remembrance route,” the route curiously excludes the city of Kobe, where Jewish refugees lived for months before leaving Japan for other destinations.

Sugihara had no connection to many of the areas on this route, Nobuki said. He explained that much of the common narrative about Sugihara comes from his mother Yukiko’s memoir, published in 1995.

“She didn’t know exactly what happened in Kaunas, in Europe. So she asked a ghostwriter. She wanted to make a novel, not a documentary. So she put here and there some fiction stories. And this became famous in Japan,” he said.

A memorial to Chiune Sugihara was established in 2018 outside of Sugihara’s former high school in Nagoya, Japan. A project of Nagoya’s board of education, the memorial space has hosted ambassadors from Lithuania and Israel. (Jordyn Haime)

The rise to stardom

A decade or two ago, a much smaller portion of Japanese society knew the Sugihara story. Today, he is a household name.

In a recent article for the academic journal American Historical Review, University of Haifa professor and prominent Japan scholar Rotem Kowner examined how Sugihara became a “Holocaust paragon of virtue.” Sugihara, he wrote, “was not the only consul to issue visas to Jews during this period, and not every consul who issued visas turned into a hero.”

As Japan rebuilt and rebranded into a peace-loving nation after the war, said Chiharu Inaba, a professor who researches Jewish refugees in Japan, “The people didn’t know what a hero was anymore. They needed a new hero.”

The legacy of Japan’s wartime actions, including its military’s sexual “comfort women” system, continues to hinder its relations with China and South Korea.

The start of Sugihara’s rise to hero status can be traced back to his nomination as one of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations in 1968. According to Kowner’s research, Sugihara did not earn the honor for 16 years after his initial nomination because of Yad Vashem’s initial doubts over whether he risked his life or professional position to help Jews — normally a requirement of Righteous Among the Nations status. Instead, Sugihara was at first given a certificate of recognition for his actions.

Eventually, though, when a panel was presented with new evidence and testimony from survivors, it determined that Sugihara had taken a career risk, and his Righteous status was granted in 1984. Authorities also saw it as an opportunity to improve Israel’s image in Japan, Kowner argues, as Japanese public opinion about Israel had sharply deteriorated amid the conflict with Lebanon at the time.

A former head of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations department recently disputed the claim that political considerations were involved in Sugihara’s nomination.

Recognition of Sugihara remained scant within Japan until 2000, when the Japanese government for the first time officially recognized him at a centennial celebration of his birth. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — known throughout his 2012-2020 tenure for his conservative politics, revisionist views of Japan’s World War II activities and desire to ramp up Japan’s military — embraced Sugihara more than any other Japanese leader.

In Sugihara, Abe saw an opportunity to not only boost diplomatic relations with Israel and Lithuania, but to make Sugihara a positive representative of the Japanese people in its darkest historical period.

But the process had already started before Abe’s tenure. In the 2000s, revisionist writers began adding Sugihara’s name into texts that denied the Nanjing Massacre — a Japanese attack on the Chinese city in 1937 that resulted in an estimated 300,000 deaths — “to show that wartime Japan did not resemble Nazi Germany,” Kowner wrote.

Sugihara has been a key component of what some have called Asia’s “memory competition” to have documents and memorials receive recognition from UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural heritage authority. In 2017, Japan nominated Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, the museum at Sugihara’s supposed hometown in Yaotsu, for UNESCO Memory of the World status; the bid failed.

“Sugihara posthumously allowed his country to shed a long-lasting self-justifying policy of victimization and, instead, rebrand itself as possessing proactive humanitarian values,” Kowner wrote. “Critically, Japan could cast itself in the role of a ‘good’ country that helped the Jews rather than that of an Axis villain.”

An undated photo of Kiichiro Higuchi. (Wikimedia Commons)

The next Sugihara

Sugihara’s vast fame has also paved the way for a new World War II-era Japanese hero to emerge: Kiichiro Higuchi.

Higuchi, a general, allegedly defied orders from his superiors to allow between 2,000 and 20,000 stranded Jewish refugees to cross the Russian border into Manchukuo, according to media reports and his supporters in Japan. This path to safety is now known as the “Higuchi route.”

Though far lesser known than Sugihara, efforts to attract attention to Higuchi have received mild success: through a manga series, media reports, and other commemoration efforts, such as a statue in his hometown of Awajishima. The Japanese embassy in Israel has reportedly been in discussions with Yad Vashem since 2005 about Higuchi’s Righteous Among the Nations status, but efforts have been unsuccessful.

When researchers began looking into the Higuchi story, it started to fall apart. Dylan Hallingstad O’Brien, a doctoral candidate at the University of California San Diego, has found that Higuchi likely facilitated the entrance of “at least 18 people” into Manchukuo. “There’s just no record” of more than that, O’Brien said.

“It just doesn’t add up that you have thousands and thousands of people flooding in and then there’s no record,” he said. “Especially when there are records of other Jewish refugee groups, [that have] receipts, letters, communications, and there’s just nothing for this group that supposedly went the ‘Higuchi route.’”

The website for the General Higuchi Association, an organization created to encourage the commemoration of Higuchi in Japan and pursue donations from abroad, is saturated with nationalism and false statements. Hideaki Kase — a right-wing politician who advised Shinzo Abe — chaired the association until his death last year.

“What would have happened if [Anne Frank’s] family knew of the ‘Higuchi Route’?” the website asks. “Perhaps the family would not have lived in the attic but instead would have sought passage for Manchuria, like so many other Jews did, and survived. At the time, neither the United States nor Britain accepted Jews; Japan was the only country in the world that opened its doors to Jews.”

The goal, O’Brien argued, is to promote the idea that Japan had a policy of racial harmony — in this case, of helping Jews during the war.

Madoka Sugihara says “the way the government changed their attitude” to her grandfather is “a very cynical thing.” (Courtesy of Madoka Sugihara)

The consequences

Japan is far from the only country that has faced criticism for promoting Holocaust narratives for nationalist ends that historians disagree with. Poland has been widely derided for denying the part that many Polish citizens played in the killing of local Jews throughout the war. And in China, Shanghai’s history as a former home to thousands of Jewish refugees has been used as a diplomatic tool, at times to deflect from international accusations of genocide against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.

Small inconsistent details or a selective use and omission of certain facts can be dangerous, Jocubowicz said. Holes in Holocaust stories give antisemites and Holocaust deniers ammunition for their arguments that Jews were not in danger, he argued.

“What happens if something is inaccurate and could be corrected is then the readers have no idea whether anything in the story is accurate,” Jocubowicz says. “So anything could be a fake. Maybe it’s all a fake, and maybe this is a signal that the whole Jewish story about the Holocaust is rubbish.”

Rabbi Mendy Sudakevich, a Chabad-Lubavitch movement emissary who has been living in Tokyo since the 1990s, sees the narrative differently. He thinks that the Sugihara story — whether it is 100% true or not — has a positive effect on people and endears them to Jews.

“Kids in Japan grew up not knowing what Japan did in the war. They don’t know the story. And Japan tried to build up a new story,” Sudakevich said. “I want the new generation of Japan to know that saving Jews is an important task. I want them to know that. And if that’s what they know about World War II, it is a good result for me.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, many in Japan ventured out to Yaotsu, Kobe or Tsuruga to learn more about Sugihara. Invoking his memory, Inaba and his university students have organized a 5 million yen ($37,490) donation drive for Ukrainian refugees dubbed “donations for life.” The Visas for Life organization, founded by the Sugihara family in 2000, has raised 1.7 million yen ($12,746) for Ukrainian evacuees now living in Japan.

Madoka Sugihara, Chiune Sugihara’s granddaughter and soon-to-be-director of Sugihara Visas for Life, noted the dramatic change in the government’s reception of Sugihara in the past several years.

“The way the government changed their attitude is a very cynical thing,” but “it is a good thing that they regard Sugihara-san’s act very fairly. I’m convinced that it’s a good thing,” she said.

The post Researchers say Japan has exaggerated the story of Chiune Sugihara, the ‘Japanese Schindler’ appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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New Faculty Campaign Aims to Show Solidarity With Jewish Students

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Over 1,000 university professors will participate in a new campaign to show solidarity with Jewish students experiencing levels of antisemitism that are without precedent in the history of the United States, the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which promotes academic freedom, announced on Tuesday.

Titled “KeeptheLightOn,” the initiative comes amid a reckoning of congressional investigations, lawsuits, and civil rights inquiries prompted by an explosion of antisemitic discrimination at some of America’s most prestigious universities. It will see the formation of a new group, the Faculty Against Antisemitism Movement (FAAM), comprising professors from across the US who will pressure senior administrators at their schools to address anti-Jewish hatred as robustly as other forms of racism.

“We have written books, op-eds, and articles, but they are not penetrating the echo chamber of anti-Zionist antisemitism,” Southwestern University English professor Michael Saenger said in a press release. “As with previous protest movements, visual displays are sometimes necessary to get people to stop demonizing marginalized groups. We need to respond to bullying and hate, directed against ourselves and Jewish students, more directly and more personally: by visibly advocating for a university that treats Jews as people, and that treats Israel as a nation.”

As part of the campaign, FAAM professors will leave their office lights on after hours to “publicly demonstrate their commitment to fighting antisemitism.” AEN added on Tuesday that the lights will “also symbolize the faculty’s commitment to ‘light a fire’ under administrators to ensure a better academic year ahead.”

“Keep the Light On” was inspired by University of California, Berkeley professor Richard Hassner, who last month held what was widely believed to be the first teacher “sleep-in” protest of antisemitism, AEN said. For two weeks, Hassner lived in his office until administrators agreed to stop an anti-Zionist group’s blockade of a campus foot-bridge which made it impossible for Jewish students to cross without being verbally abused.

Numerous Jewish faculty members at other campuses have also begun stepping up and demanding a change. Some have organized faculty trips to Israel. Others have cobbled their peers together to form groups — such as Yale’s Forum for Jewish Faculty & Friends and Indiana University’s Faculty and Staff for Israel — which have since grown exponentially and will serve as a well of support for FAAM.

“The FAAM initiative is both a distressing sign of the times and a hopeful symbol for the future not only for Jews but also for the academy,” Smith College professor and AEN advisory board member Donna Robinson Divine said. “An academy that has become the core location for an activism promoting social justice cannot sustain its credibility by tolerating hostile attacks against its Jewish student and faculty. Nor can education leaders preserve the legitimacy of the universities over which they preside by ignoring the recycling of this old and dangerous hatred. Rooting out antisemitism in classrooms, lecture halls, and social gatherings is thus as important for Jewish students and faculty as it is for the academy and the nation.”

As The Algemeiner has previously reported, Jewish college students have never faced such extreme levels of hatred. Since Oct. 7 — when Hamas-led Palestinian terrorists invaded Israel, massacred 1,200 people, and kidnapped 253 others as hostages — they have endured death threats, physical assaults, and volleys of racist verbal attacks unlike anything seen in the US since the 1950s.

Many college officials at first responded to the problem sluggishly, according to critics, who noted universities offered a host of reasons for why antisemitic speech should be protected even as they censored students and professors who uttered statements perceived as being conservative. At the same time, progressive thought leaders came under fire for hesitating to acknowledge a swelling of antisemitic attitudes in institutions and organizations reputed to be champions of civil rights and persecuted minority groups. One recent study found that US universities have demonstrated an “anti-Jewish double standard” by responding to Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel and the ensuing surge in campus antisemitism much less forcefully than they did to crimes perpetrated against African Americans and Asians.

The situation changed after three presidents of elite universities were hauled before the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce to account for their handling of antisemitism and said on the record that there are cases in which they would decline to punish students who called for a genocide of the Jewish people. The stunning admissions prompted the resignations of Elizabeth M. Magill as president of University of Pennsylvania and eventually of Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s former president, who would not leave until a series of reporters exposed her as a serial plagiarist.

The US Congress is currently investigating whether several colleges intentionally ignored discrimination when its victims were Jewish. On Wednesday, its focus will shift to Columbia University, where Jewish students have been beaten up and harassed because they support Israel. The school’s president, Minouche Shafik, is scheduled to testify, and the event promises to be a much scrutinized affair.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one

It was close, but Toronto synagogues Adath Israel and Beth David will remain separate entities after Beth David’s vote on amalgamation fell short of the required two-thirds threshold. Adath Israel, the larger of the two Conservative synagogues by membership and facility size, voted overwhelmingly on April 14 to amalgamate, with 91 percent in favour. But […]

The post Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Amid Dimming Hopes That This Year Will Be in Jerusalem, Jews in Ethiopia Prepare for World’s Largest Seder

Jewish women in Ethiopia sort through grain to be used in baking matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

The Jewish community in the embattled region of Gondar, Ethiopia is preparing for the world’s largest Passover Seder this year, with nearly 4,000 Ethiopian Jews residing in camps and awaiting immigration to Israel expected to attend.

Over 80,000 matzot have been baked by members of the community over the past several weeks in preparation for the holiday, Jeremy Feit, the president of the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) aid group, told The Algemeiner. A smaller Seder, with almost 1,000 attendees, will take place in the capital of Addis Ababa.

The Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the Biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, will begin next Monday evening and end the following Tuesday.

A portion of the 80,000 matzot for use during Passover in Ethiopia. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

Past Passover Seders in Ethiopia have provided attendees a rare opportunity to partake in the traditional feast, offering some their first ever taste of meat — a luxury they could not otherwise afford. But according to Feit, food price hikes of 50 percent to 100 percent have meant that this year’s feast will largely consist of potatoes and eggs.

“With the extreme price increases and the resulting hunger, the community will feel the intensity as they pray to celebrate the Seder next year with their families in Jerusalem,” Feit said.

The Seder comes on the heels of an airlift of medical supplies for the beleaguered community, facilitated by SSEJ. Ten pallets of aid were delivered to a medical clinic established by the group a year ago in Gondar, serving 3,300 children and 700 elderly. The aid was dedicated in memory of former US Sen. Joe Lieberman, who served as SSEJ’s honorary chairman and who passed away during the weeks-long airlift operation.

SSEJ, which is based in the US  and entirely volunteer-run, is the only provider of humanitarian aid to Jews in Ethiopia. The group aims to mitigate some of the hunger ravaging the community by providing more than 2.5 million meals per year, prioritizing very young children, pregnant and nursing women, and students at a local yeshiva, who Feit said were often “so hungry they would faint in class.”

SSEJ and its leaders have assisted around 60,000 Ethiopians immigrate to Israel, more than the total number brought to the Jewish state during its storied military operations in 1984 and 1991.

Jewish men in Ethiopia need the dough that will be baked into matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

According to Feit, some 13,000 Jews still remain in Ethiopia. Recent years have seen several hundred Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel at a time, especially during periods of violent civil strife, but even that trickle has dried up following the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel.

“The average person in Gondar and Addis Ababa has been waiting to make aliyah for 20 years,” Feit said, using the Hebrew term for immigration. “They left their villages with the thought that Israel was going to bring them in. And they’ve been left since as internally displaced refugees.”

Feit said the decades-long wait is especially painful for those with first-degree relatives in Israel, and is further compounded for those with relatives serving in the Israeli military.

“Jews in Ethiopia are extremely concerned about their [family members’] welfare as the IDF [Israel Defense Fores] battles Hamas terrorists” in Gaza, he explained. “They are especially concerned given the vastly disproportionate number of Ethiopian Jewish soldiers killed in Israel during the current conflict.” Jews in Ethiopia, he averred, comprise “one of the most Zionist communities in the world.”

Since Oct. 7, there has been no indication as to how many Ethiopian Jews will be brought to Israel and when. Those with relatives in Israel were struck with another blow when Israel’s economy took a hit following the Hamas onslaught, and many of those who rely on remittance from their loved ones in Israel stopped receiving money.

“This has left the Jews in Ethiopia in a dire situation, with food and medical care hard to come by. Living in squalor, without access to clean water, electricity, or even bathrooms, the malnourished Jews in Ethiopia suffer untold horrors,” Feit said.

Despite the grim depiction, Feit struck a more positive note about the upcoming holiday.

Ethiopian Jews eating matzot in synagogue last year. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

“Given that most of the year they’re feeling despair at their lack of redemption, at least Passover is a time to celebrate the possibility of redemption and reunification,” he said. “Being able to celebrate with thousands of their friends and family members in a joyous celebration of Passover is a welcome relief.”

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