NAGOYA, Japan — “Even a hunter cannot kill a bird that flies to him for refuge.” This Samurai maxim inspired one gifted and courageous man to save thousands of people in defiance of his government and at the cost of his career. On Friday I came to Nagoya at the invitation of the Japanese government to speak in honor of his memory.
The astonishing Chiune Sugihara raises again the questions: What shapes a moral hero? And how does someone choose to save people that others turn away?
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Research on those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust shows that many exhibited a streak of independence from an early age. Sugihara was unconventional in a society known for prizing conformity. His father insisted that his son, a top student, become a doctor. But Sugihara wanted to study languages and travel and immerse himself in literature. Forced to sit for the medical exam, he left the entire answer sheet blank. The same willfulness was on display when he entered the diplomatic corps and, as vice minister of the Foreign Affairs Department for Japan in Manchuria in 1934, resigned in protest of the Japanese treatment of the Chinese.
A second characteristic of such heroes and heroines, as the psychologist Philip Zimbardo writes, is “that the very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds.” While the world around him disregarded the plight of the Jews, Sugihara was unable to ignore their desperation.
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