Yaotsu is a small rural town in the hills of southern Gifu. Every spring they stage an impressive festival with floats, food stalls and more flowing sake than the small population could ever manage to drink, although they give it their best shot. The fireworks in summer burst over the Kiso river which thunders along the deep gorge it has carved through the centre of the town. It’s a popular spot for barbecues and for hiking. The hills are full of shrines, caves, blood red bridges and snakes.
It’s so small and out of the way that the only train line serving the residents was recently closed down. A bus route is still in operation, but you really need a car to visit Yaotsu. Yet why would you want to visit? Lovely as it is, there are hundreds of similar towns in Gifu alone, never mind the rest of the country.
For those who like their history full of honourable characters, valiant deeds and moral lessons, Yaotsu has a famous son for you. On New Years Day 1900, this unassuming town saw the birth of Chiune Sugihara, the man who would go on to become known as ‘the Japanese Oskar Schindler’.
After studying in Waseda University, Tokyo, he learned Russian and became a Foreign Ministry expert of Russian affairs. In 1938, after a posting to Finland, he was appointed consul to Lithuania with a brief to gather as much intelligence about the Soviet Union as he could.
Soon after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Lithuania, which shares a border with Poland, received a huge influx of Jewish refugees. Many thousands came to the Japanese Consulate seeking transit visas. The idea was to escape east across Asia and from Japan sail on to safer havens. Sugihara requested permission from the Foreign Ministry to grant the visas, but they refused. Germany was poised to become a Japanese ally, and the government wanted nothing to do with the refugees.
Sugihara ignored his orders and over the next few weeks issued somewhere between 5000 and 6000 transit visas. He also negotiated with the Russian Consulate for passage through their territory. The refugees made the hellish journey, and eventually reached Japan, landing at Tsuruga in Fukui. From there they were sent to Kobe and then dispersed. Some went to Japanese-controlled Shanghai and some to Hong Kong. A few chose to remain in Kobe and were granted permission to stay by the Governor of Hyogo.
Today “The Hill Of Humanity” is dedicated to his memory, and a memorial hall and museum tell the story. It is a beautiful, peaceful spot overlooking the town, the heavily wooded hills and the winding river. There is considerable pride taken in the town over Sugihara, and the story is told not only as an example of how one man’s compassion and empathy could save so many lives, but also as an example of how not all Japanese bowed down to the often inhuman orders of their rulers. Sugihara is remembered both as a humanist and as a rebel.
Chiune Sugihara’s mutiny was rewarded with dismissal, but in 1985 the Israeli government honoured him as “Righteous Among Nations” for “his contribution to the foundation of the State of Israel.” He died in 1986. His wife, Yukiko, wrote a book called Visas For Life. A film was also made of his life, called Visas and Virtue. It won the 1998 Oscar for Best Short Film.