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Japanese Diplomats and Jewish Refugees: a World War II Dilemma.

by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger, 1998. xvi, 188 pp. $49.95 U.S. (cloth).

During World War II, Japanese diplomats helped tens of thousands of Jews flee western Europe. The assistance of one consul, Sugihara Chiune, has attracted widespread attention for over twenty-five years, and the grateful government of Israel has acclaimed him "Righteous Among the Nations of the World." Sakamoto sets Sugihara's courageous acts in the larger context of Japanese foreign policy. Germany goaded its Japanese allies to persecute Jews as the Germans did. Rather than comply, the Japanese government sheltered Jewish refugees, finally moving them to China. Sakamoto demonstrates how Japan's acceptance of the Jews, complicated relations with other countries.

Sakamoto starts in 1938 with the first recorded instance of what would become an ongoing problem. Members of the White Russian Jewish community in Harbin approached the Japanese consul. The Japanese army, having seized Manchuria, had set up a puppet government called "Manchukuo." The Japanese Foreign Ministry handled Manchukuo's foreign affairs. At this time, the Jews complained of anti-Semitic remarks by their fellow White Russians. The consul, hesitating, reflected what became the major problem the Jews posed to official Japan. The Jews sounded like good people: hard working, with strong family ties, deeply religious--just like the Japanese. In addition, they were wealthy: in short, the sort of settlers the Japanese army wanted. Manchuria had been artificially closed to immigration for almost three centuries after the nomadic Manchus had conquered China in 1644. Vast plains invited cultivation while rugged mountains promised valuable minerals. Grateful Jewish immigrants, the generals calculated, would finance development. Japanese consular officials wanted to help the army further its plans, but soon learned how unsuited these refugees were to settlement. Most had no money; few had usable skills; worst yet, prejudice sharply limited the ongoing destinations Jews could choose once they reached Japan.

The few options quickly lessened. In November 1938, widespread organized vandalism in Vienna wrecked all the synagogues and many Jewish shops. When Jews started to emigrate, few nations would accept them. Even with an immigrant visa, they first had to escape Europe. Ten months after the Vienna riots, the German invasion of Poland and the western European nations' consequent declaration of war against Germany ended chances for normal departure through France. Italian ships still linked major cities of the world, but Italy's entry into the war on the side of Germany in June 1940 eliminated that possibility. The last option led through the Baltic states of northwestern Europe. The Soviet takeover of these countries in 1940 and the German advance into the Soviet Union in June 1941 cut off the route along the Trans-Siberian Railway through Vladivostok to Japan. Sakamoto's study describes how the Japanese Foreign Ministry reacted as Jews sought refuge from early 1938 to spring of 1941.

Japanese Consulates and the Foreign Ministry tried to balance the conflicting interests of the Japanese government at home, the Japanese military in Manchukuo and simple humanity to assist increasingly desperate Jews who sought to escape. They wanted to enter Japan only to reach somewhere else. Before it granted transit visas, the Japanese Foreign Ministry required that its consuls see evidence of permission to enter some other country.

Here Sakamoto introduces the remarkable Sugihara Chiune, the single diplomat in the new consulate of Kaunas, Lithuania. Japan had no interests in this comfortable and respected provincial city except its location. The Foreign Ministry had established the consulate to track military developments that would lead, they felt certain, to war between Germany and the Soviet Union. Sugihara, fluent in Russian and known for his analyses of Russian developments, had the right research background, but little consular experience. No one could have been more surprised when hundreds of Jews camped at his front door and requested transit visas. Attempting to help them, he looked for countries that would accept them and then for Soviet permission to use the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. Sugihara's efforts finally succeeded. He discovered that the tiny Dutch island of Curacao in the Caribbean did not require an entry visa. Those who listed this as their destination would not, therefore, need a visa, and the Japanese would let them enter Japan. It did not matter that few ships called at Curacao, for none of those to whom Sugihara gave visas ever got that far.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs archives in Tokyo displays a list of 2,139 visas issued by Sugihara in July-August 1940. Those holding them disembarked on the west coast and were sent to Kobe where the tiny Jewish community took them in. The Foreign Ministry then treated them without reference to their race, despite what the Germans said. As conditions in Japan worsened, the government moved the refugees to Shanghai's larger Jewish community, already burdened with thousands who had come directly from Europe. All of them stayed there for the rest of the war.

Chance encounters with a few actors in this drama, Shaul (or Shoul) Eisenberg, David Bagley, and Alexander Nagai, brought this history to my attention. In 1947 I was entertained in the Tokyo home of Eisenberg. He was then helping the Japanese sell, among other things, housewares to Occupation authorities as they built Western-style homes for the families of Occupation troops. Eisenberg described his escape from Germany and how he had evaded authorities by sleeping in graveyards until he embarked first for Shanghai and then Kobe. There he married a Japanese woman and with her started a family. The Japanese people had been good to him, he continued, and he wanted to repay them. When he died in 1997, his trading empire based in Tel Aviv and Tokyo had made him one of the world's wealthiest men. My second acquaintance, Rabbi David Bagley of Toronto, had received a visa from Sugihara and recalled sixty years later that Eisenberg, just then turning twenty, had become the "heart and soul" of the effort by the Kobe Jews to support their thousands of fellow refugees.

In 1953, chance introduced me to Alexander Nagai who served in Japan's Berlin Embassy for two decades until the end of World War II. At that time, embassies acted with much greater autonomy than now. Members of the Berlin staff must have helped formulate Japan's policy of tolerance toward the Jews and personally warded off German demands to change it. Nagai had reason through his own experience to understand racial intolerance. His Japanese father had married a German wife with the result that Nagai had become bilingual and bicultural. In Berlin he served as a member of the group that resisted intolerance toward Jews. (I acknowledge and thank my colleague Nobuo Katagiri, who checked the files of the Foreign Ministry for information on Sugihara and Nagai.) After he left the Foreign Ministry in 1946, he, like Eisenberg, acted as a middleman between Occupation officials and contractors who built homes for American families. They both helped the Japanese economy revive and, through their careers, demonstrated the benefits that accrued to Japan by the process Sakamoto describes.

One error requires correction in future editions. Page 83 quotes Japan's delegate to the "United Nations" in 1933. Context indicates that Sakamoto refers to the League of Nations. The United Nations was founded at the end of World War II, and the Japanese names of the two organizations are almost identical.
John F. Howes
University of British Columbia
COPYRIGHT 2002 Canadian Journal of History
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Author:Howes, John F.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2002
Words:1230
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