In times of extreme geo-political conflict, the law of the jungle naturally promotes an ‘every man for himself’ kind of attitude, as a core way of self-preservation. Of course, there is the occasional individual sacrifice and collective war effort to be seen, but there is also much tribalism, the protection of one’s own interests vehemently over those of others. The promotion of social tribalism, the ‘sticking within your prescribed group’ mentality is making a comeback globally through the rise of populism and the extreme left, and it feels that something has gone missing as a result. We live in volatile and uncertain times, and this certainly has shaped the way in which we interact with one another. This recent form of interaction, to me, has resulted in a real lack of community spirit and increasingly wavering support for people that we do not readily identify with. Fighting for your own cause has dominated many civil rights movements of today, but I feel a tendency to forget the humanities of others that don’t exactly think, look or have values that align with our own has filtered into our mindsets, and has made us less compassionate and tolerant.
Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese government official who was stationed out in Kaunas, Lithuania working as a consulate. He was always a bit of a non-conformist, rebelling against his father’s wishes of him to be a physician by deliberately failing the entrance exam by only writing his name on the paper. He was a vital asset in the Japanese Empire’s foreign affairs, speaking fluent Russian to form close ties with the Soviet Union and was stationed around the world working in several Japanese embassies. In 1939, he was placed as a vice consul in Kaunas, tasked with reporting on the movement of Soviet and German troops. At a time where the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, many Jewish refugees from Poland and neighbouring countries were trying to acquire exit visas to flee persecution, and without the visas, it was extremely dangerous to travel and reach a place of safety.
The Japanese government required that these exit visas were only issued to those with the relevant immigration checks and could afford it, but many refugees came nowhere near to meeting such criteria, and almost no countries in Europe offered exit visas to Jews. Sugihara, in need of some guidance on the matter, contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry three times for assistance, and each time they responded with strict restrictions on the issuing of exit visas, and provided that there were no exceptions available to anyone that could not satisfy the requirements. Fearing that the Jews were in imminent danger if they continued to remain in Lithuania, Sugihara completely disregarded his orders and began issuing exit visas to Jews in an unbelievably indiscriminate fashion. His disobedience hit such extraordinary levels, that he was reportedly producing a month’s worth of visas every single day, and even going so far as to issuing blank pieces of paper with just his signature and the consulate seal. Given the stern bureaucracy of the Japanese government at the time, this act of defiance during a highly precarious geo-political conflict seems wholly inexplicable. But Sugihara was always something of a rebel, and he’s certainly not stranger to signing just his name on a blank sheet of paper.
It is estimated that the stamps of Sugihara single-handedly saved the lives of approximately 6,000 Jews, and around 40,000 descendants of those people continue to live on today. The cultural, political and religious differences between the Jews and the Japanese in the 1930s were stark and have been forged in divergence for thousands of years. But an identity meant nothing to Sugihara when he was confronted with families wanting to escape persecution. Many would have been a stickler for procedure out of professionalism or simply just saving one’s own back over a race of people that were being killed all over the continent. If the Germans caught wind of Sugihara putting himself in between the Nazi Party and the Holocaust, it would have meant a disappearing act where he might have never stepped foot in Japan ever again. But that didn’t matter to him. All that mattered was that what he was doing what was right, irrespective of the repercussions him or his own country might have faced.
It is easy to be a hero or morally good when it helps us directly. Going out of your way to help people you don’t know or even disagree with demonstrates an understanding that despite all superficial and socially constructed labels, true morality is independent and does not discriminate. This is what I feel is becoming dissolved with the ever-growing realm of identity politics. Isolating and preserving yourself by simply your race, gender or sexuality is too singular, and it doesn’t reflect the complex, multi-faceted identities that we are made up of. Many attribute this application of identity politics to the downfall of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Where she was keen to suggest that she was the clear vote for women, blacks and members of the LGBT community, Donald Trump advertised himself as a man for Americans, because of course, not all women, blacks and LGBT people have the same experiences, thoughts and outlook on life. Although you can endlessly criticise his brash and often grossly insensitive demeanour, what you cannot deny is that the demagogue appealed to simply the humanity of Americans, rather than a prescribed identity that assumes that individuals are cattle in an easily-shepherded herd.
We all filled with prejudices, from what is passed down from older generations, our own experiences and the mass media. No one can escape that reality, and no matter how well-intentioned we are, we might sometimes act on these prejudices consciously in our life. So much like Sugihara, I’m aspiring to be better than the narrative and to see such identities as a decoration, and not the true representation of the person in front of me. There has been much propaganda spread about Jewish people which even filters into society today, and I’m sure Sugihara himself didn’t encounter many Jews prior to his relocation to Lithuania. But when it came to helping strangers in the middle of a fiercely divisive moment in history, he did not hesitate.
He saw them as Jews second, and as people first.
“The spirit of humanity, philanthropy, neighbourly friendship. With this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation – and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage”
– Chiune Sugihara
What if you’re right, and they’re wrong?