By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
A screening of the documentary “Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness” on Aug. 26 at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum was attended by more than 220 people and raised over $3,200 for disaster relief in Japan.
The film profiles Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who was stationed in Lithuania during World War II. Acting against orders from Tokyo, he issued visas to more than 6,000 Jewish refugees, enabling them to flee the country before the Nazis arrived. Sugihara, who lost his job upon returning to Japan after the war, is remembered for putting his career and his family’s welfare on the line in order to save lives.
An estimated 60,000 people are alive today because of Sugihara’s actions. He was recognized by Israel shortly before his death in 1986, but his story became more widely known in recent years through his family’s efforts.
A “Unite for Japan” public service announcement featuring actor Ken Watanabe and several well-known American actors was also shown.
Akemi Kikumura Yano, in one of her final appearances as JANM’s president and CEO, addressed those visiting the museum for the first time, pointing out that it includes a historic building, the former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple; the Pavilion, where a pre-screening reception was held; and the Tateuchi Democracy Forum, which opened in 2005, the year the Sugihara film was released.
“I want to invite you back here again and again. Please bring the family,” she said.
Rinban Noriaki Ito spoke on behalf of the sponsoring organizations, Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, the U.S.-Japan Council, and the Go For Broke National Education Center, thanking everyone for participating “in our effort to collectively help the victims of the disastrous earthquake and tsunami in Japan that occurred on March 11.” (The Little Tokyo Community Council also provided support.)
Ito introduced filmmakers Robert Kirk and Diane Estelle Vicari, who took questions from the audience after the screening. “We thank Diane and Robert for bringing this movie out of the vault for a one-time screening here,” Ito said. “It took Diane and Robert 10 years to make this movie, and during that time they became very close to the Sugihara family, earning their blessings and support. Diane Estelle promised to Hiroki, their son, before he died (in 2001) that she would continue to do everything she can to spread the story of his father’s courageous acts of kindness and humanity.”
While the film is not new, “the story remains timeless,” Ito said.
Roz Wolfe, a senior officer at the Consulate General of Canada, described Vicari as “a distinguished and enormously talented Canadian” and praised her for “her compassion and her resolve to work tirelessly to help the victims of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.”
Wolfe reported that Canada has “extended a hand to the Japanese people in their time of need. Private citizens reached into their own pockets to contribute $20 million to relief efforts through cash and in-kind donations.”
In addition to providing 25,000 blankets, 5,000 dosimeters and 150 portable radiation survey meters, “we also deployed two nuclear experts to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s efforts in Japan,” she said. “Our space agency shared satellite imagery with Japan to aid in the response to the earthquake. Our embassy is working closely with non-governmental organizations and volunteer groups from the local Canadian community to … support relief efforts in the affected regions.”
Canada has started a program that will enable 150 youth from the Tohoku area to study English or French in Canada for a month at no cost, Wolfe added. The first group of students is expected to depart Japan in early October.
Sugihara’s story, which shows “how pivotal one person may be in saving the lives of many,” is very meaningful for Wolfe. “My parents, both Holocaust survivors, were spared during the war as a result of the kindness of individuals,” she explained.
Her mother was in a labor camp that was to be closed, with the prisoners likely to be transferred to a death camp. A secretary to the labor camp’s commander contacted businessman Oskar Schindler (of “Schindler’s List” fame) and persuaded him to expand operations at his munitions factory so that the camp would remain open.
Wolfe’s father and his brothers were saved by Christian neighbors who hid them under a barn for a year and a half. “This young couple risked their lives and those of their children to do the unthinkable,” she said. “As soon as he was able, my father and his family brought the young Polish couple and their two children to live in Canada as part of our extended family.”
Consul General Junichi Ihara, making one of his final appearances before returning to Japan, said that he never met Sugihara but is familiar with his humanitarian deed. “For government officials like me, his case presents a fundamental conundrum that we may face. When we believe the instructions we receive from our government are wrong, should we follow these instructions nonetheless? That is a very difficult question, and Mr. Sugihara found himself in an extreme situation. Thousands of lives were at stake, and at the end he decided to follow his conscience …
“Even if I don’t agree 100 percent with Tokyo, I try to be obedient. That is the way to survive the bureaucracy. But I think that sometimes one has to face a defining moment in one’s career … I’m going back to Tokyo. I don’t know what kind of responsibility I have to assume. But I’m afraid that I will encounter such a moment this time … Not everybody can be as courageous as Chiune Sugihara, and I’m not sure if I can make a good judgment in an extreme situation like the one that Sugihara faced in Lithuania.
“But his compelling story teaches us that we are human beings before government officials or corporate representatives or whatever. So in this sense, his story continues to be relevant to us.”
Fundraising Through Film
Vicari and Kirk also screened their film at an earthquake relief fundraiser on June 23 at the Skirball Cultural Center, raising about $4,000, plus an anonymous donation of $2,000. Over 200 people attended; speakers included representatives from the Japanese, Canadian and Israeli consulates.
June Aochi Berk, co-producer of the August event, attended the June event and asked Vicari why so few people from the Japanese community showed up. “I explained to her that I tried to reach out … but somehow we just couldn’t get people to go all the way to Skirball. It’s quite far from Little Tokyo,” Vicari said in an interview. The two decided to hold a screening in Little Tokyo. An upcoming screening in Las Vegas will also raise funds for relief efforts.
“I would like to have as many screenings as possible because I would like to help make a difference in Japan right now,” Vicari said. “It’s a humble difference, but I think every step counts … I’ll go into any community that wants to show the film to fund-raise for Japan.”
Asked if the film has ever been shown in Japan, Vicari replied, “I’m not sure. We have license for the entire world except for Japan. So it’s a Japanese company that has the copyright of the film in Japan, and it’s up to them to show it or not.”
The Canadian Consulate in Los Angeles has sent the film to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, she said. “Hopefully it will happen and I will show it there … I’d love to.”
Sugihara Kizuna Friendship Circle Sponsors
Helen Funai Erickson
Sandy Toshiyuki and Frank Soracco
Friends of Sugihara Sponsors
Brewer & Tominaga, CPAs – Ron Yamashiro
Centenary United Methodist Church
Fugetsudo – Brian Kito
Gifu Prefectural Association
Toshio “Terry” and Toshiko Handa
Yukino (Mrs. Joe) Harada
Los Angeles-Nagoya Sister City Association
Jane and Katie Viventi
The J. Morey Company – Joshua Morey
Zenshuji Soto Temple – Daisuke Rumme
Former Nisei Week Queens: Tracy Ahn, Carol Kunitsugu Itatani, Faith Higurashi Ono, Dulcie Ogi Kawata, Frances Shima Matsumoto, France Yanai Wong, Tamlyn Tomita