Summary: A trip to visit the Sugihara Museum yields unexpected beauty, joy, and several opportunities to foster positive international relations.
One of my goals was to travel to the Sugihara Memorial Museum at his birthplace in Yaotsu, Gifu Prefecture, about 30 km northeast of Inuyama, the town where my cousin lives.
Chiune Suigara was an amazing man who has been credited with saving the lives of thousands of Jews fleeing from Europe during World War II. While he was serving as vice-consul for Japan in Lithuania, hundreds of Jews came to the consulate begging for visas to Japan. Sugihara asked if he could issue the visas to those who requested them, despite the fact that few met Japan’s strict visa requirements. He was told no.
After reportedly sleeping on it a single night, Sugihara-san decided to disobey orders, and began granting the visas. Thousands of Jews fortunate enough to receive them made the long journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, then by boat to Tsuruga (which, coincidentally, was the city where my cousin grew up with his adoptive family).
For his courageous act of civil disobedience, Sugihara-san was demoted and worked simple jobs in obscurity until the late 1960s when one of his beneficiaries finally tracked him down. For his deeds, he was named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel in 1985, a year before he died. He is the only Japanese citizen upon whom this honor has been bestowed.
I wanted to see the museum, but I knew it might be difficult. Research revealed no train to Yaotsu. Personal reports indicated there might be a bus, but specific details were not readily available. Once we arrived in Inuyama, my cousins who knew we wanted to make the trip presented us with the details. It would require two train rides and two bus trips to make it to the museum. They prepared maps and scribbled down notes for each leg. Here were the directions:
- Take a train from Inuyama to the Shin Kani station
- Take a train from Shin Kani to the Akechi Station
- Take a bus from Akechi Station to the Yaotsu Family Center
- Take a shuttle bus from the Yaotsu Family Center up to the Suighara Museum
Our cousins walked us to the Inuyama train station, then boarded the train with us. I supposed they were going to get us started on our way. My cousin was pretty tired out from previous day’s exertions, so I expected they would head back after they had gotten us onto the second train.
At the Shin Kani station, a group of about 50 grade-school kids, all wearing their yellow caps, were seated on the ground, waiting for the train. They waved at us and said “Hello!” When our train arrived, they boarded too. Although they were in the next car, many of them would peer at us and wave through the car door that separated us.
Our cousins joined us for the second train leg, and it became clear they had decided to make the whole trip. Although Yaotsu is only 30 km away, they had never made the trip and were now interested. It was a beautiful day, and as we got farther from Inuyama (a “farming town” in our cousin’s opinion but still pretty urban in our eyes), houses became smaller and more spread out, and flat, low lands gave way to hills, valleys and rivers.
The sun reflected off the Kiso River and we admired the beautiful scenery. The last stop was the little Akechi Station, and our grade-school travelers exited the train along with us. Our cousins surmised they were visiting the Kani Hana Festa Park to view the flowers and trees.
At our last train stop, we boarded the bus (the only bus we could catch) bound for Yaotsu. A student in uniform (high school?) let us know we should get off at the “Yaotsu Family Center,” the last stop on the route, which we did. Whatever gave it the name “family center” eluded us. It looked like a large parking lot surrounded by various medium-sized buildings, perhaps municipal buildings with a cafe and a small grocery mart that was closed.
Passing through Yaotsu proper, we saw posters and signs with Sugihara-san’s face. Exiting the bus, we saw several beautifully painted taxis with designs of flowers, fireworks, and Sugihara-san. We had a choice to wait for the shuttle bus up to the museum, or take a taxi. We opted for the taxi, and after filling two vehicles, we drove the final curvy and hilly stretch up to the museum.
The museum was instantly recognizable to me from the pictures I’d seen online: It has a large, diamond-shaped wooden lattice above the entrance. Across from the museum was a sculpture that looked like a large pipe organ bathed in the warm sunlight. We purchased our museum passes, which looked like passports, and entered.
No photographs are allowed in the museum. The main halls are two stories tall with natural light from above shining through second-story windows. One passes through a simple labyrinth of partitions and walls, each showing dates and figures to outline Sugihara-san’s life, and the developments in Europe that brought his path and the paths of thousands of Jews together. The exhibits were in three languages: Japanese, English, and Hebrew, and after each section, a tablet computer on a pedestal repeated many of the exhibit items with additional material.
At the far end of the museum was a room made to look like Sugihara-san’s vice-consul desk, complete with a heavily used desk blotter, a large antique telephone, and a bookshelf containing language books. Upstairs, one could view the scenic mountainous countryside as well as look down upon the other museum visitors. I did not perceive any non-Japanese guests apart from our own party, but I did see at least two Buddhist monks or priests making their way through the exhibits.
One story that really struck me was about a little boy in the town of Tsuruga. As the hundreds of poor and hungry Jews arrived at the dock, they didn’t know what to expect. They had escaped Europe and Russia, and were now in a strange new country. A little boy of about five had a box of apples which he offered to the newcomers for free. That small act of kindness moved so many that they never forgot the legend of the “apple boy.”
At the far end of the second floor I found a room the others in my party missed. In it were letters written by Jews who had been saved by Sugihara-san, thanking him, and thanking the museum for honoring this great man. Many had lengthy personal accounts that described the events which led them to Sugihara-san’s desk, as well as their perilous journey afterward.
The letters were in English, Hebrew, Japanese, and Yiddish. The general statistics and pictures from the first floor, though at times horrific, were easier to steel oneself against because of their cold, calculated presentation. These personal accounts, however, struck me. The stories packed an emotional punch to the heart and the stomach.
After exiting the museum, I took a moment to look at the river valley to the southwest. Then my brother and I crossed the street to inspect the sculpture. It is called “Sound Out World Peace ” and is constructed of 160 pipes to represent the 160 member states of the United Nations at the time of its construction. It sits on the grounds of the “Hill of Humanity Park.”
We then went into a nearby building to enjoy some tea and lunch. A couple of our traveling companions went outside to smoke, and after a bit, one of them came in and bid me come outside to lend assistance. Apparently, a lady had driven her little car over the corner of a curb and high centered herself. A small crowd was gathering to look, but no one was taking any action. The driver was beside herself, probably a combination of panic and mortification at her predicament.
We two Americans, both standing at least a head taller and likely outweighing all the natives by at least 50 pounds, took a look at her tiny car. One idea was to dead lift it off the curb, but two of us could not do that. I fetched my brother, and after some discussion, decided it would be best for her to put the car in reverse, and with our assistance, we were able to help lift the front over the curb and free the car.
That was easily done, to everyone’s relief, but now it was clear that the accident had caused her front right tire to go flat. We motioned her to drive the car forward into a parking spot, and as she did, we heard a rhythmic “pssss!” sound as additional air was squeezed from her tire. In short order we located her spare (even tinier than her already small standard tires), her jack, and the requisite wrenches.
The three Americans quickly jacked up her car, removed the flat, installed the spare, and tightened the lug nuts. Once done, we got applause from all the onlookers and she bowed deeply and repeatedly thanked us for the help. With a suggestion that she drive really slowly down the mountain and get it fixed, she quickly agreed, and promptly left.
We felt good having lent our help, and I remarked it felt very appropriate that we, three visitors to this country, should do something good, something helpful to further international respect and gratitude just steps away from the Sugihara Museum.
We took the shuttle bus from the museum back down to the Yaotsu Family Center (instead of the colorful taxis), and from there repeated our travel legs in reverse back to Inuyama. At Akechi, the same group of schoolchildren we had encountered in the morning had gathered for their return trip. My cousin and I walked up to them, and I explained in my severely limited Japanese that I was an American (eliciting a big “ehhhhh?!” of wonder from the kids). I said further, pointing to my cousin and I, that the two of use were “itoko” (“cousins”). That got them really excited.
Then, with some encouragement from their teachers and chaperones, they sang out “Hello!” and waved at us, delighted when we waved back. This continued on the train ride back to Shin Kani, and when we went our separate ways they sang out “bye-bye!” and “see you!” — offering upraised palms for a high five.
It was a beautiful day trip, filled with natural beauty, the joy and innocence of schoolchildren, the inspiration of a single, courageous man, and our own small helpful good deed. Chiune Sugihara provides us an example: a reminder of what a powerful impact a single person may have. There is so much need and opportunity for even small deeds to have tremendous impacts today. May his story inspire others to act with courage and compassion.