[TODAY]The Japanese hero was a mutant

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[TODAY]The Japanese hero was a mutant

Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese consul in Lithuania in 1940 when Nazi Germany was taking over Eastern Europe. Thousands of Polish Jews fleeing Nazi persecution had flooded into Lithuania. But it was only a matter of time before Lithuania would also fall under the control of the German Army. In July and August 1940, Sugihara wrote out more than 6,000 transit visas for Jews, defying his government's orders not to do so. Japan and Germany were allies of the Axis.

When Mr. Sugihara was hurriedly transferred to Romania by the Japanese government, Jews followed him to the train station on his day of departure. Even while boarding the train to Berlin, he was signing visa documents and throwing them out the window to desperate Jews running alongside. Five thousand visa holders were able to take TSR trains across Russia to Vladivostok, where they boarded ships to Japan and other countries like the United States, Canada and Australia.

What awaited Sugihara himself when he finally returned home in 1947, after 18 months in a Soviet Army concentration camp in Romania, was a demand for his resignation. It was only in the 1970s that his story began to be told widely. Often called the Japanese Schindler, Sugihara received Israel's highest honor. In 1985, a year before he died, he was recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations" by the Holocaust Memorial authority in Jerusalem. In 1991, a monument was erected and a street named after Mr. Sugihara in Kaunas, Lithuania.

More than 60 years later, a similar scene with a different ending played out. It took place in the yard of a Japanese consulate as before, but this one was in Shenyang, China. A North Korean woman cried out and struggled in vain to hold on to the bars of the gate as Chinese officials drag her out of the compound. A girl of 2 or 3 years of age, probably her daughter, watched round-eyed as the woman was carried out. A Japanese diplomat who had been silently witnessing the scene kindly picked up a police officer's cap that had fallen to the ground and offered it to him after the woman was carried out.

How more different could they be -- Mr. Sugihara, who gave a passage of life to 6,000 desperate Jews in Lithuania, and this Japanese diplomat in Shenyang, who refused to offer a helping hand to the desperate North Korean woman and her daughter?

Mr. Sugihara was a diplomat for the Japanese military government during wartime, and yet he had the moral courage to ignore his government's orders and save the lives of innocent people in danger. Many even see Mr. Sugihara's actions as braver and more altruistic than those of Oscar Schindler. Schindler had at least a partial economic motive for saving Jews, making them work in his factories, as depicted in the 1994 movie "Schindler's List." Moreover, Schindler would have had developed personal attachments with Jews, having grown up with them in his childhood. Mr. Sugihara had no economic or sentimental reasons to risk himself and his family to save complete strangers.

He helped the Jews not because they were Jews but because they were humans being chased by the devil. He helped them as a human being should have. Things would have been different for the North Korean woman in Shenyang had Mr. Sugihara been the Japanese diplomat watching her that day.

If Mr. Sugihara is the exceptional Japanese, a mutant Japanese, then the diplomat in Shenyang is a typical Japanese, a Japanese faithfully representing the narrow-minded policies of his government toward asylum seekers and the indifference of Japanese society to human rights.

Japan was the least forthcoming among Asian countries, not only affluent countries, in accepting boat people that poured out of Vietnam for 10 years beginning in 1975. The government guideline that no unidentified person, including asylum-seekers, be allowed inside Japanese diplomatic compounds hails from that traditional unwillingness to help.

The Japanese government said officially that no employee of the consulate general in Shenyang helped the Chinese police carry out the North Koreans. But the Japanese media and public find that hard to believe. After all, this is the government that ousted Mr. Sugihara for his heroic actions instead of praising his heroism.

More than half a century has passed since Mr. Sugihara's exploits, and Japan has yet to change and accept global standards of human rights protection. This face of Japan was plainly seen in the incident in Shenyang. Japan faces criticism as a culturally and morally backward country if it does not change its position on refugees, stateless people and political exiles.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie

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