The Japanese Schindler

As today is Rosh Hashanah, I’d like to write about a man whose actions had an impact on many people’s lives for the better. 


Chiune Sugihara was a diplomat in the 1940’s whose bravery saved many Jewish families by giving them transit visas out of Lithuania as German troops were advancing. For me his selfless behavior in helping others in distress without seeking recognition even in later years, reflects many of the positive facets of neo-Confucianism in Japanese culture.

Sent as the vice consul to Lithuania, Sugihara found that hundreds of Jews stood outside of the consulate  looking for exit visas to escape German armies that were soon to conquer the country. Ignoring direction from the Foreign Ministry Sugihara began systematically writing visas to anyone who came, allowing many to travel across the Soviet Union to Kobe, Japanese controlled Shanghai and other destinations willing to provide refuge for the desperate families.

With the annexation of Latvia by the Soviet Union and the inception of hostilities with Germany, Japan was forced to close its consulate and Sugihara prepared to leave his post. In perhaps 35 days including a final all night of work at the hotel and on the train as it was departing, Sugihara managed to  hand out visas to thousands of people struggling to escape.

In all between 6,000 to 10,000 people are estimated to have been saved by his courageous actions.

After the war Sugihara was dismissed from the Foreign Service and worked in a variety of odd jobs selling light bulbs door to door in Fujisawa and working as a janitor. In the 50’s his fluency in Russian allowed him to live and work in the Soviet Union for over a decade in total obscurity.  Located in 1968 by recipients  of his visas, Sugihara was awarded the Righteous among Nations by the Government of Israel and recognized for his humanitarianism despite his own disinterest in perceiving himself as a hero.

For those interested in learning more about this story, PBS has an excellent site for a documentary it aired called  “Sugihara, conspiracy of kindness”, and the Visas for Life Foundation works to actively identify survivors and descendents of Sugihara’s visas.

Monuments to Sugihara have been erected around the world including this one in LA’s Little Tokyo, but surprisingly none that I’m aware of in big Tokyo. In a typically Japanese paradox, the bureaucrats who run democratic Japan seem to be uncomfortable with a civil servant who didn’t follow orders while the Right Wing champion him as representative of the unheralded benevolence of the previous military dictatorship.

From the latter perspective Japan is usually thought to have been baited into attacking Pearl Harbor by the US despite its best intentions. However a professor coincidentally named Sugihara makes an intriguing postulate that points the finger at the Japanese Foreign Ministry as the real culprit. According to the professor’s thesis, the indifference to Sugihara in official Japan is but one point in the Ministry’s long campaign of disinformation aimed at the Japanese people to deflect responsibility for its own incompetence.

In actuality the Japanese government of that time had a relatively benign perspective of Jews and saw them as useful in developing its newly acquired colonies and influencing American policy favorably. One set of policy recommendations suggested inviting American Rabbis to visit Japan and highlighting the supposed similarities between stridently monotheistic Judaism and Shamanistic Shinto beliefs (!?). A greatly exaggerated retelling of these unimplemented recommendations can be found in a book called  The Fugu Plan which appears to be short on facts and long on supposition.

Digg This

Back to the Bakufu

This week’s announcement that China had surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world produced an interesting  response by Professor Norihiro Kato of Waseda University. Professor Kato posits an Eschersque tableau of the present flowing into past and the young in an aging society, leading the way to the maturity of old age.

Confusingly inscrutable in the oriental manner as this seems, his thesis comfortably rests in the post recession reality of globalization where winners are few and losers are plentiful. For the Professor, Japan’s response to it’s descendency is not simply a repudiation of the post war economic miracle but of the Meiji era’s push onto the international stage and striving for what it considered Japan’s rightful place in the world. One hundred and fifty years later he sees a Japan comfortable in its smallness and seeking its quiescence in inward reflection rather than outward competition.

The model then is the time of the Shogunate or Edo Bakufu, which isolated Japan for 250 years until Commodore Perry’s arrival sounded it’s death knell and ushered in the Meiji era’s transformations. In a self contained political and economic vacuum, Japanese culture and the arts developed in their own manner looking recursively back on themselves, a pattern I’ve mentioned in connection with the Rinpa School of artists.

The professor’s thesis brings up the question of whether its even possible in this age to separate from the global economy and if so what the political ramifications would be. After all the original reformers of the Meiji era such as Katsu Kaishu felt that integration with the world was necessary if Japan was to survive as an independent nation rather than becoming a colony of Western powers, as had befallen 19th century China and India.

Also if growth is not the goal of a society, is decline the logical outcome in people’s minds, making this a setting sun paradigm? In this vein I read a recent article about a village in rural Japan whose residents  like many others in the countryside, are all senior citizens. This community however decided to forego the usual push for repopulation by younger migrants from the city and instead hired an American manager to oversee its extinction when the last resident dies.

Elsewhere Professor Kato has discussed the work of artist Takeshi Murakami and how it fits in with Japanese pop culture. I’m curious about his opinion on Murakami’s thesis that Japanese culture lost the virility it had with its defeat in WWII, leading to a preference for imitation rather than innovation and stability to the point of stagnation as a societal goal.

Space, the Final Frontier

For my 50th post on this blog I’d like to talk about space, or particularly the lack of it in Japan and its effect on the culture.  The WSJournal had an article on an innovative business two women have begun in Tokyo capitalizing on the exodus of foreigners after last year’s financial meltdown. In fashionable neighborhoods like Harajuku and Roppongi, they’ve taken vacated apartments and split them into 8-10 smaller living spaces with common facilities for single women.

This is a somewhat new concept for Japanese who are used to self-contained spaces that though connected with the whole are not so openly integrated between public and private spaces. An American resident makes this point in that each person has their own neatly marked kitchen soap container rather than share one communal soap dispenser paid for jointly by all. The personalization of space limited as it maybe though, is an aspect of the Japanese ethos reflected here in the theme oriented decoration that each apartment is subject to.

I experienced this use of space in a beautifully packed bento this past week which showcased each dish in its own little space next to its neighbor and three dimensionally above the rice which acts as a common foundation, eaten with each item.

Kennin-ji garden of fundamental shapes

Japanese gardens are commonly said to represent this idea of space integration and for me this one in Kennin-ji is a great example, as it represents the whole universe through the three fundamental shapes.

Kennin-ji garden of fundamental shapes sign
The interpenetration of space meanwhile is another well known aspect of  Japanese design seen in the movable shoji screen that creates a personal space in the midst of larger areas. In Shoren’in this design is integrated with the outside by having the seating area brought into the garden, while ikebana in the alcoves bring  the garden into the viewer’s room. A stream with koi meanwhile meanders through the garden creating a flow in the space.

Shoren-in koi

As my friend is about to move  to China for an assignment, I’m looking forward to hearing about the perspectives on space of a large though crowded country.

Take a Bow

President Obama wrapped up his trip to Asia this past week and raised eyebrows back home by lowering his head dramatically while bowing to the Emperor of Japan.
As with all things in Japanese society, the act of bowing (ojigi) is ruled by the all pervasive yet unstated rules of joshiki, the societal sense of proper behavior in any situation that Japanese possess. The inscrutability of this code for most foreigners leads to gaffes large and small when dealing with people in Japan.
In bowing for instance, the angle, duration and method of the bow are based on a variety of factors related to the relative position of the participants in the social hierarchy. The Emperor being at the head of this pyramid, is subject to and associated with a mind numbing array of protocols too complex for most human beings to grasp. Foreigners are usually not expected to conform to these rules of etiquette though with some notable exceptions.

One such case occurred in 1862 in the Namamugi Jiken or Richardson Affair, when British sightseers crossed paths with the party of the Regent of the Satsuma Han on the Tokaido Highway. Rather than dismount and bow as was expected of them, the Englishman deliberately stayed upright incurring the fatal wrath of Satsuma retainers who killed the Englishmen for their disrespectful behavior.
The resultant bombardment of Satsuma’s capital city Kagoshima by British warships was a factor in forward thinking Samurai realizing that modern military power was necessary for Japan to maintain its independence from Western powers.
In contrast to these incidents, the importance of symbology in Japanese culture was cleverly realized by another American leader in his interactions with the Emperor of his time.

This picture was taken at the first meeting General Douglas MacArthur in his role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers and Emperor Hirohito after the war. General MacArthur insisted that the meeting be held at his residence in the Dai Ichi Kangyo building, forcing the Emperor into the unprecedented position of visiting another party and obviating the layers of protocol in the Imperial palace.
At the onset of the meeting, a photographer was brought in to take this picture which was then sent to all newspapers in the country to make the obvious point of the relative power of the participants and their respective countries.