Visas for Life

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  John 10:10b

Chiune Sugihara

Most people have heard of the World War II German industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who was made famous by the award-winning movie “Schindler’s List.” Schindler was credited for rescuing 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust, but few realize that he had a Japanese contemporary who played a similar key role by saving many Jewish lives during those tumultuous times.

Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who served in Lithuania from 1939 to 1940 as a vice-consul for the Japanese Empire. At the time, Lithuania was occupied by Russian forces. Many Jews already resided in the tiny Baltic country or had fled there from other parts of Europe to escape persecution. Sugihara had been stationed in Lithuania because of his expertise in Russian affairs, his military background and his command of the Russian, German and English languages. As a student at the famous Waseda University, Sugihara joined a Christian fraternity and later openly converted to Christianity (Russian Orthodox Church) when he married. Later on, while carrying out his assigned governmental duties, Sugihara began to experience conflict between some of his ingrained cultural values and his growing Christian conscience when he observed injustices perpetrated by the Japanese. This inner turmoil eventually led Sugihara to actually resign his position as the Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchuria in 1935 as a protest against the inhumane treatment of local Chinese by the occupying Japanese army.


Sugihara’s radical and rather risky action seemed to set the stage for the chain of events that later unfolded in the summer of 1940. In direct disobedience to his orders from Japan, Sugihara san issued transit visas to Japan for Jews stranded in Lithuania and seeking safe passage from war-torn Europe. For a period of one month, he and his wife tirelessly worked twenty-hour days to painstakingly handwrite and grant visas for long lines of desperate refugees begging for help. When Sugihara was ordered to leave his post on September 4, he still continued to issue visas in route to the train station and even tossed them out the window to eager recipients as his train departed. Towards the end of the war, Sugihara and his family were cruelly imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp for 18 months before finally returning to Japan where he lived out the remainder of his days in obscurity and poverty. Although it is impossible to confirm how many visas Sugihara issued, conservative estimates place the number at around 6,000, which means roughly 40,000 descendants of those original refugees owe their existence to Sugihara’s heroic efforts. In 1985, the State of Israel finally recognized Chiune Sugihara, bestowing upon him the title “Righteous Among the Nations” for his selfless and sacrificial actions on behalf of the Jewish people.


Some people have referred to Sugihara’s coveted transit visas as “visas of life” for those fortunate recipients. In the Bible, Jesus frequently affirmed that He is the ultimate source of life for those who follow Him (cf. the Gospel of John) and as such, Jesus offers us the only available “transit” to heaven. Through Chiune Sugihara’s sacrificial advocacy for others, he provided “visas of life” for those who would otherwise perish. But through the cross, God provided the far more important “visa of eternal life” to escape the coming judgment of sin. Therefore, God has bestowed upon Jesus the title, “The Righteous One” (I John 2:1), who brought salvation to His people.

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