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The Forgotten Story of the Japanese 'Schindler's List'

Chiune Sugihara, sometimes called the "Japanese Schindler," was a diplomat living in Europe during WWII who defied his own government and issued thousands of transit visas to Jews facing execution. The overlooked hero is the focus of a new biopic.
January 30, 2016, 5:00am

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Just next to a Starbucks in downtown Los Angeles's Little Tokyo sits a bronze statue of a man in a suit holding a small piece of paper. On the base is a phrase from the Talmud: "He who saves one life, saves the entire world." The memorialized man is Chiune "Sempo" Sugihara, often referred to as the "Japanese Schindler." A Japanese diplomat tasked with opening a consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1939, Sugihara ended up defying his own government and put his family at risk by issuing 2,139 transit visas to some 6,000 Jews who had migrated to Lithuania after the Nazis invaded Poland, and again needed to migrate or else face execution. In Los Angeles, thousands pass this statue each day without knowing anything about the man who saved thousands of lives roughly 70 years ago.

Sugihara's largely overlooked story is now being told on the big screen in the form of an emotional and sweeping biopic directed by Japanese-American filmmaker Cellin Gluck. Persona Non Grata, which premiered in Japan this past December and will be released in the US at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on January 31, tracks the man's moral awakening and heroic acts during World War II. Unlike Oskar Schindler, the famed German industrialist whose motivation for saving the Jews was initially profit-driven, or the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who was sent to Hungary with the explicit purpose of saving Jews, Sugihara had no motivation or directive to help them other than his own empathy and decision making.


It's estimated that 40,000 descendants of the Jews who received Sugihara's hand-written visas are alive today. After ultimately being dismissed by the Japanese Foreign Service, Sugihara lived a quiet life in obscurity. It wasn't until he was tracked down by one of the Jews he had saved that he was eventually brought to Israel and given a hero's celebration. He is the only Japanese person recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli government, an honor bestowed in 1984, just two years before Sugihara passed away.

Gluck, who has worked as an assistant director on Hollywood blockbusters such as Contact, Remember the Titans, and Transformers, and also directed the Japanese version of Sideways in 2009, deftly directs an international cast that includes Japanese Academy Award-winning actor Toshiaki Karasawa, as well as Koyuki, Borys Szyc, and Agnieszka Grochowska. On its opening weekend, Persona Non Grata topped the Japanese box office, bringing in $1.2 million (USD). VICE spoke with the director about empathy, directing a multilingual and international cast, and how he imagines Sugihara would respond to a film being made about his life.

Cellin Gluck on the set of 'Persona Non Grata'

VICE: When did you first learn of Sugihara's story?
Cellin Gluck: After Schindler's List came out, there were reports of other Schindlers around the world who had gone above and beyond to save Jewish refugees who were seeking to get out of German-occupied territories. I had heard of "the Japanese Schindler," but it wasn't until a friend of mine gave me a copy of Marvin Tokayer's The Fugu Plan, a book about the Japanese and Jews during World War II, that I really put the name Sugihara to the story.

What moved you most about his story?
I was moved by the fact that Sugihara seemingly did everything out of his own volition and without any recompense, except that to his conscience. He didn't set out to become or prove himself a hero—he just did all that he could and felt was right for his fellow man.


What do you imagine he would think of his life story being told on the big screen?
I believe that were he here today, he would have graciously accepted any accolades sent his way while simultaneously marginalizing any attempts to put him on a pedestal.

In the film and in real life, he had a relationship with a Russian woman named Klaudia, prior to meeting his Japanese wife. Aside from being unusual at the time, how do you think the relationship helped inform his worldview?
I believe that the time that he spent in Manchuria studying at the Harbin Institute, and his time with Klaudia, helped him to at least grasp the idea that though there may be differences in culture, ultimately we are all the same.

Sugihara issued as many visas as he could, even up until the last moments before he was forced to evacuate the country by train. And he wasn't sure the visas would guarantee safe passage. Where did the Jewish refugees go after leaving Lithuania?
With the help of the Polish Ambassador in Tokyo and several Jewish relief organizations, many of the refugees were able to get visas to the United States and Canada, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and to the British Mandate of Palestine. Many Jews who were left [in Japan] were eventually deported to Shanghai, which already had a substantial Jewish population and by then was under Japanese control. There were those who also stayed in Japan.


Is Sugihara's story widely known in Japan?
Most people in Japan are not aware of the name Sugihara or of his exploits. I've heard that some students in Japan read a story about him in English class, but except for the Gifu Prefecture area, where Sugihara was born, he's not really talked about that much.

Prior to being sent to Lithuania, the Russian government declared Sugihara persona non grata, citing intelligence activities, making it impossible for him to assume his post at the Japanese embassy in Moscow, which was his dream. Why was this significant for the film's title?
Our producer actually came up with the title early in the process and thought it appropriate that a man who had himself been ostracized for reasons greater than himself, would, in the end, empathize with others who were trapped in a situation beyond their control.

Can you tell me about what it was like to direct such an international and multilingual cast?
I am thankful that my producer, Kazutoshi Wadakura, enabled me to shoot in Poland, where I was truly able to get the best of both worlds. That is, I was able to bring some of Japan's top actors to Poland, and also choose the European country's best. Although much of the actual events took place in Lithuania, it made perfect sense to shoot with Polish actors as the majority of the refugees Sugihara gave visas to and subsequently saved were from Poland.

How did your background as someone of Japanese and Jewish descent inform the telling of this story?
I felt that I could empathize with both worlds having been exposed to them while growing up. But more importantly, there was something within me compelling me to tell his story.

The film is premiering in the US at a time when many people are feeling like a "persona non grata," even in their own homeland. What can Sugihara's story teach us about the past, present, and where we are headed in the future?
I believe that people should at all times do what they believe to be the right thing to do, rather than standing around hoping that someone else would step up to the plate. The prevailing feeling that it's all right to ostracize a group of people simply because of their beliefs or where they come from needs to be eradicated.

Watching the film, I couldn't help but relate it to the current refugee crisis and lack of empathy by so many individuals and nations. How can films like yours help create change?
I would hope that if nothing else, films have the power to cause people to reexamine their beliefs and, thereby, even their actions. If Persona Non Grata could make people take pause and reflect on the way they feel, I would be incredibly satisfied.

Persona Non Grata premieres in the US at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, January 31, 2016.

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