The Japanese Diplomat who Saved Thousands from the Nazis

On this day in 1940, Japanese diplomat Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara and his Yukio began helping write and issue visas to help Jews flee certain death in the Second World War.

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As Japan’s vice consul in Lithuania, Sugihara risked his career and his life to help the hundreds of Jewish refugees that came to his consulate desperately seeking a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the hyper-nationalist Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.

Aware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual—and risky—within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania—though not yet at war with Japan—he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan.

He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, often with Yukio’s help, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce.

After a couple of months, Sugihara had to leave his post, as the consulate was to be closed. He was witnessed frantically writing visas while going from his hotel to the train station. As he prepared to depart, he told those around him “Please forgive me, I cannot write anymore. I wish you the best” and bowed deeply. Having run out of paper, he desperately used blank sheets of paper with only a consulate seal and his signature Even as the train was leaving, he flung visas out the window.

There was never any official retaliation to Sugihara’s actions by the Japanese government. In 1984, he was recognized as a Righteous Among Nations for his rescue efforts. In 1985, a year before his death, he was asked why he disobeyed his orders and issued visas until the very end:

“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.”

As the New York Times points out in a wonderful profile of him, Sugihara’s character is par for the course of those “righteous among nations” who went above and beyond to save complete strangers.

Research on those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust shows that many exhibited a streak of independence from an early age. Sugihara was unconventional in a society known for prizing conformity. His father insisted that his son, a top student, become a doctor. But Sugihara wanted to study languages and travel and immerse himself in literature. Forced to sit for the medical exam, he left the entire answer sheet blank. The same willfulness was on display when he entered the diplomatic corps and, as vice minister of the Foreign Affairs Department for Japan in Manchuria in 1934, resigned in protest of the Japanese treatment of the Chinese.

A second characteristic of such heroes and heroines, as the psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes, is “that the very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds.” While the world around him disregarded the plight of the Jews, Sugihara was unable to ignore their desperation.

[…]

Mr. Zimbardo calls the capacity to act differently the “heroic imagination,” a focus on one’s duty to help and protect others. This ability is exceptional, but the people who have it are often understated. Years after the war, Sugihara spoke about his actions as natural: “We had thousands of people hanging around the windows of our residence,” he said in a 1977 interview. “There was no other way.”

As many as 6,000 people were saved by the Sugiharas, and perhaps 100,000 are alive today because of his boundless heroic imagination. The world is all the better and more alive because of it.

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

On this day in 1945, Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press took the iconic photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, which depicts six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the final stages of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.

The U.S. had invaded Iwo Jima four days prior as part of its island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan. The island was located halfway between Japan and the Mariana Islands, where American long-range bombers were based, and was used by the Japanese as an early warning station. Capturing the island would weaken this warning system and also provide an emergency landing for damaged bombers.

As the highest point on the island, Mount Suribachi allowed the Japanese to spot and target American forces, and was thus the tactical priority. There was never any question the U.S. would win—the Americans had overwhelming numerical and logistical superiority, plus complete air supremacy—while the Japanese were low on food and supplies nor could retreat or reinforced. Yet the battle was nonetheless brutal, grinding on for over another month after the photograph was taken.

In fact, half the marines later identified in the photo were killed shortly after: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley.

Uniquely among Pacific War Marine battles, total American casualties (both dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese, though Japanese combat deaths were three times higher than American fatalities. (Of the 21,000 Japanese on the island, only 216 were ultimately taken prisoner, with many fighting to the death, often through various cave systems.)

This was actually the second time the U.S. flag was raised on the mountain; the first instance had occured earlier in the morning, but in the early afternoon, Sergeant Strank was ordered to take Marines from his rifle squad to bring supplies and raise a larger flag on the summit.

“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication. It is perhaps just as well known for its the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial in 1954, which honors all Marines who died since the founding of the Continental Marines of the Revolutionary War in 1775.

For me, one of the more compelling stories from the episode was that of Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American from Arizona who, like so many indigenous Americans, volunteered readily to fight for the county. He disliked the fame he received, feeling survivor’s guilt for the marines who didn’t make it back, descended into alcoholism, most likely due to what we now know as PTSD.

Johnny Cash, known for his advocacy for Native Americans, dedicated a song to him that remains one of my favorite.

The World Cup’s Classiest Countries

Senegal and Japan would seem as far apart culturally as they are geographically: the West African nation of 15 million is poor, highly diverse ethnically and linguistically, and predominately Muslim; the East Asian island nation of 125 million is among the wealthiest and most homogeneous societies in the world, and is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Confucian thought.

Yet this year’s World Cup brought to light one unlikely but endearing similarity: both cultures share an appreciation for cleanliness and etiquette, even amid the highly competitive (and often very messy) environment of federation football.  Continue reading

An Award Winning Map of the World

As I have discussed here before, most maps of the world are spatially wrong, due to the inherent difficulty of projecting a spherical planet into two dimensional form. Some landmasses end up looking far larger than they are (notably Greenland and Antarctica)  while others appear much smaller (such as Africa and Australia). Continue reading

Why Japanese Kids Go Out in Public Alone

The very thought of allowing one’s children to wander far from home is an anathema to most American parents (at least in urban areas). But the average Japanese doesn’t bat an eyelash at the sight of a child as young as nine riding the train or running errands, even in a sprawling megacity like Tokyo.

As The Atlantic reports, this practice is deeply rooted in Japan’s culture.

What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance”, according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others”, he says.

This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties. This “distributes labor across various shoulders and rotates expectations, while also teaching everyone what it takes to clean a toilet, for instance”, Dixon says.

Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.

It makes sense when you think about it: in a society that values community spirit and teaches everyone to be responsible to each other, one can enjoy considerable safety. Not only is it unlikely that you will be victimized, but you can count on total strangers to look after you if something goes wrong.

Even the country’s infrastructure lends itself well to self-reliance.  Continue reading

The Making of a Japanese Kokeshi Doll

This is one of the most interesting and relaxing videos I have seen in some time: an artisan named Yasuo Okazak creates a wooden kokeshi doll by hand, using tools and methods that have remained largely unchanged for centuries.

The amount of precision and skill required is captivating — he makes the wood look as malleable as clay, and the whole process looks so easy (the result of literally a lifetime of apprenticeship in the art). You can visit his official website here.

Hat tip to InspireMore.com.

Happy Birthday Akira Kurosawa! Watch Free Movies In His Honor!

To commemorate the legendary director’s 103rd birthday, Hulu is streaming 24 of his films for free until the end of the day. I know it’s short notice (I only just found out!), but it’s well worth a shot, and there’s still about 9 hours left until the offer expires, so that should cover at least 3 or maybe 4 of his films.

My personal recommendations are Ikiru, Rashomon, Drunken Angel (his breakthrough film)Seven Samurai (his most well-known), and his final underrated feature, Madadayo. I’d get into his life and source of acclaim, but there’s little time left — you’ve got films to watch! Hope you enjoy!

The World’s Greatest Sushi Chef

Jiro Ono, a Sushi Artisan

The Hollywood Reporter discusses an interesting documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which is about an 85-year-old sushi chef Jiro Ono who’s perfectionism and artistry to food preparation is legendary. The subject of the film is just as unique as the premise itself (it’s not often we find a documentary about a chef).

Shooting mostly in the 10-seater basement restaurant Sukiyayabashi Jiro (whose menu starts at around $300 minimum) in Ginza, the feature itself is largely squashed inside the chef’s small, meticulously routine world. Interviews with Jiro, his sons, his apprentices and food critics concur on his perfectionist attitude — not surprising if one is familiar with Japanese reverence for “shokunin” (artisan’s) dedicated work ethic.

Still, the lengths Jiro takes to maintain and improve his standards — from never taking a day off except to go to funerals, to massaging an octopus for 50 minutes, to customizing plate layout for left-handed customers — have their amusement value. Conversations with his sons Yoshikazu and Takashi elicit sympathy for the pressure one would expect they’re under to sustain the restaurant’s reputation in the long term. The most touching anecdote comes from an apprentice’s account of how he wept when Jiro finally gave his approval to his egg dish after rejecting the previous 200 he made.

This man is serious business. I have tremendous admiration for people who ply their craft with this level of devotion and personal commitment. He takes food preparation to a whole other level I didn’t even think possible.

Below is a clip from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, a culinary and travel show.

Needless to say, I need to save up and eat there someday. I’m sure the unique experience would be worth the entry-level cost of $300. If anyone else knows of similar culinary masters, please share.

The Events in Japan and the Epicurean Paradox

Epicurus and his paradox

This post might be a bit disjointed for some of my readers, as I’ll be combining my assessment of a current event with a philosophical question that I believe is contextually relevant. But I believe that many events in the world can and should be looked at not only analytically, but philosophically. Almost everything that happen to humanity, be it the work of man or of nature, bears some sort of ethical, existential,  or philosophical significance that must be taken into account and understood.

The tsunami that stuck the Northeast coast of Japan was brutal, which is to expected from an earthquake that has broken many records, including being the fourth strongest since 1900, and the strongest known one in Japanese history (needless to say, it is a good thing such a quake didn’t strike the mainland). As expected, the devastation has been immense.  Entire towns have literally been wiped out, and it is believed that upwards of ten thousand people may have been killed, and hundreds of thousands remain homeless and without basic amenities. Japan’s elderly population has borne much of the brunt of this catastrophe, as they make up most of the population of the rural areas that were affected.  They could not outrun the waves, and their age makes them particularly vulnerable to the injury and dearth of supplies that usually affect survivors of such disasters. Many of them are even recalling the horrors of the air raids in World War II.

Relating to that event, Japan’s prime minister has called it the most difficult time in Japan’s history since the end of that war, and various estimates of damages rage from $14.5 billion to over $100 billion, all at a time when the Japanese economy has been stagnating and the government struggling with public debt larger than the country’s collective GDP.  Needless to say, this crisis could very well affect Japan for years to come.

There has also been much attention focused on the fate of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which has been damaged by the tsunami and is experiencing a series of explosions as the authorities try to avert a meltdown. As typical of news reports following disasters, there are many unknowns and misconceptions muddling up the facts. From what I’ve gathered as of the time of this post, the chances of a nuclear meltdown is minimal, though the Japanese authorities admit that some of the individual reactors within the plant may have already experienced meltdowns.

There is also much concern about radioactive contamination, with levels of radiation higher in the surrounding Chiba prefecture being 10 times the normal limit. It is even higher than normal in Tokyo, 155 miles to the south,  not yet high enough level to cause any health problems there. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in response to this “disaster within a disaster.” Many are viewing this development as a validation of the idea of weaning off of nuclear power, and closing down most of all plants.  Others, however, are taking a more apologetic view.

In any case, I feel that the Japanese, given their advanced technology and communitarian values, would be better suited to handle this situation than most other nations. Indeed, it so far seems that a lot more people would’ve died had it not been for it’s better preparedness and advanced early warning system. Japan’s long and tragic history of geological disasters has given it  a lot of experience with the matter.  I can only hope that it does indeed amount to something, given the unprecedented difficulty of this catastrophe.

But now I must shift to my second topic in this post. As with every major disaster that befalls humanity, an inevitable thought in most people’s minds is: what role, if any, did the divine play in all this? It’s typical, almost reflexive, for people to speak of praying for those affected, or asking God for mercy. Less benignly, many people will try to link such occurrences to an act of God, as punishment for some sort of mortal transgression perpetrated by either those affected, or by humanity as a whole. Of course, I understand that not all religious people think this way. In fact, I am fortunate for not personally knowing anyone who holds such a disturbing and demented notion, not least because of how utterly irrational it is: a loving, benevolent God striking down his own children as a lesson for their misbehavior? It’s wrong on too many levels to fit in this one post.

However, there is a different sort of response that many others, myself included, that these sort of events elicit: where exactly is God in all this? Why would he let this happen? What does he think about these tragedies? It’s something I’ve heard both theists and secularists ponder alike. It’s an age-old theodicy problem that nonetheless continues to haunt humanity to this day. How does the problem of evil fit with the notion of a transcendent, benevolent, and omnipotent God? I suppose my reflection is best summed up in a paraphrase of the Greek philosopher Epicurus’s riddle:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Another variation of this, also attributed to Epicurus, goes like this:

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

For the sake of accuracy, note that this sort of trilemma was raised by many of the ancient Greek skeptics, and may have been falsely attributed specifically to Epicurus by Lactantius, an early Christian theologian. In any case, he has long been most associated with this statement, and many philosophers have since posed similar paradoxes, with many more trying to address it. I’ve read my fair share of counter-arguments and “solutions,” but none have thus far been satisfying. I would share them here myself, but I have little time to do so at the moment (I’ll likely update this post later, if anything).

So instead, I pose this question to you dear reader. Give me your take on this ancient theodicy problem.