By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Pacific Northwest-based author Lori Tsugawa Whaley visited Southern California to give talks on Chiune Sugihara and bushido (the way of the warrior) on Feb. 9 at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute and Feb. 10 at Union Church of Los Angeles.
Whaley, a Sansei, wrote “The Courage of a Samurai,” which is being reissued this year by Tuttle Publishing as “Seven Samurai Secrets of Success.” She uses the stories of notable Japanese and Japanese Americans to illustrate such principles as courage (yuuki), respect (rei), honesty (makoto), and loyalty (chuugi).
She was invited by Mitchell Matsumura of Sansei Legacy, who has been presenting a series of programs in Gardena and Los Angeles, including documentary film screenings and panel discussions.
Sugihara, a diplomat stationed in Lithuania with his wife and children during World War II, is known as “the Japanese Schindler” because he saved thousands of Polish Jews from the Holocaust by issuing transit visas that allowed them to leave the country before the arrival of the Nazis. He did so against the orders of the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, and it is believed that he lost his job after the war because of this incident.
Stories like these are an example of “what my passion in life is about — finding out about my heritage,” Whaley said. “Because at one time I didn’t like being Japanese American, being raised away from the community and then being teased and bullied. I wanted to be anything but what I was, but learned to embrace what I am … I’ve traveled to Japan quite a few times.”
She first became aware of Sugihara in 1994 when she saw an exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. “It just moved me to think of this man who had nothing to gain and everything to lose, and he had no connection with the Jews outside of [the fact that]he was a humanitarian.”
Holocaust survivor Solly Ganor, author of “Light One Candle,” recalls meeting Sugihara as a young boy at a store in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1939. “He was rather sad because he didn’t have money to go to the movies … so Mr Sugihara gave him the money,” Whaley said. “Solly Ganor says, ‘Oh no, I can’t take this money. I’m not related to you.’ He goes, ‘Well, consider me your uncle.’
“So from then, they formed a friendship … and he says, ‘Well, since you’re my uncle, why don’t you come to our family Hanukah celebration?’ And so the Sugiharas did.”
Getting to know the Jewish community “was really, I think, one of the factors that made him decide to write the visas, even though he was told not to do by the government of Japan,” Whaley said. “He knew he was risking his life, his family, his career. His wife even said, ‘If we were in Germany and did the same thing, I don’t know if we’d be alive today.’”
Sugihara was ordered to leave Lithuania to take on a new assignment, but in the time he had left, “he wrote visas tirelessly … day and night. I’ve heard 16 to 20 hours a day,” Whaley said. “And not wanting to implicate his wife. He did not want her to be involved with it because she could be implicated and put in prison later …
“He wrote about 200 a day and wrote over 2,000 visas, saving over 6,000 lives … They would hand visas out as they were in the hotel [preparing to leave]. They would put it on a piece of paper that he’s stamp his name on … and give it to people, just hoping that they would be able to use that visa …
“So his life just really encouraged me to write this. And the more I thought about him, the more I studied about him … Sugihara was a samurai warrior, yet he did not handle a gun or sword. He brought about change without going to battle. He was strategic yet peaceful, decisive yet compassionate, and determined yet gentle. He was a peaceful warrior. And not every warrior has to be a battlefield-hardened soldier to be a true warrior and hero.
“There are many positive attributes in Chiune Sugihara’s life. You can then emulate which one would you choose. He also said that he would rather obey God than his government …He always thought of other people and he taught his children to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and make that decision. So he was a true humanitarian and a maverick, too.”
Not long before his death in 1986, Sugihara was honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. His wife Yukiko carried on his legacy until her passing in 2008, as did their four sons. Only one son, Nobuki, is still alive.
Whaley also cites the Nisei soldiers of the 100th Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team and Military Intelligence Service as examples of samurai principles. “Here you are behind barbed wire — your brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents. And yet you want to prove your loyalty, and they many proved it with their blood … They were the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service. And the highest casualties too.”
She added that the Issei and Nisei in general persevered through the war years. “Most people … don’t remember their parents complaining about it … My father, in the book, actually talks about it … ‘This is what happened and we made the most of it.’”
The 522nd and Dachau
The 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, part of the 442nd, liberated the Dachau death camp, and this is where the Nisei soldier story intersects with that of Solly Ganor, Whaley said. “Because they [Ganor’s family] were Russian, they were unable to obtain one of the Sugihara transit visas, so the family was taken to Dachau, and we all know what happened there. Many were beaten, starved, annihilated. But Solly happened to live through that.
“Towards the end, they put the remaining prisoners on a death march … [to]get rid of the evidence. So it was it snowy and cold and Solly Ganor was on the side of the road … People would have thought he was dead. But some soldiers of the 522nd came through and one of the ones that saved him was Clarence Matsumura, who is Mitchell Matsumura’s uncle …
“Solly Ganor looked at these American soldiers and he couldn’t figure it out because … they’re speaking English and he thought they were Japanese from Japan. And Clarence … convinced him [otherwise]. He says, ‘You’re free … We’re here to help you.’”
Decades later, Ganor and other survivors were reunited with Matsumura and other 522nd veterans, Whaley said. “Over 40 years later … all they could do was cry. And he said his psychiatrist or a psychologist told him that he was like an emotional amputee, a psychological amputee, because he had seen so much horror, so much death and human brutality that … he couldn’t talk about it. But it wasn’t until he was reunited with the men of the 522nd … embrace and hug and have a joyous reunion, that he was able to finally cry and talk about it.
“And then he wrote that book … It tells his story and he also credits Clarence for rescuing him … So it’s a wonderful story, full circle from that little boy in the Lithuanian grocery store to being on the side of the road in Dachau.”
The 522nd did receive their due until recently, Whaley said. “Unfortunately, when the Japanese [Americans] were in there to liberate the prisoners, they were told to step aside and the [white]Americans took over, just like in Rome, [where]they were not allowed to march in the parade.”
In 2017 in Seattle, Whaley participated in a three-part program, “The Holocaust and Japanese American Connections,” initiated by 442nd veteran Tosh Okamoto. She facilitated a talk about Sugihara while historian Eric Saul discussed the 522nd and the liberation of Dachau. Partners included Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity, the Nisei Veterans Committee, the University of Washington Department of American Ethnic Studies, and the Consulate General of Japan in Seattle.
“It was a wonderful event and brought more people knowledge about what happened … and brought people together, bridging that gap, because with the Japanese and the Jews, there’s that connection,” Whaley said.
Others profiled in the book include “Years of Infamy” author Michi Nishiura Weglyn, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Merrill’s Marauders veteran Roy Matsumoto, and the author’s mother, Mable Tsugawa.
Collectively, their stories show that “in spite of that discrimination, prejudice … it’s gambatte, gambaru, try your hardest, do your best, never give up, and go for broke,” Whaley said. “And so that pain that I felt being Japanese, I’m now embracing and I want to share it with others, and hopefully the next generation, Yonsei, Gosei, can appreciate what their ancestors did for them and they can be proud to be Japanese and American.”