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Reflections on Sugihara's Motives

In the film, The Rescuers, Sylvia Smoller, whose life was saved by Sugihara, reflects on the diplomat’s actions: 

SYLVIA SMOLLER: What on earth made him do it? He had no particular tie to the Jewish people. I really think he was a very decent man and he didn’t spring into being a decent man full-blown, like Venus from the half shell in Botticelli’s painting. He got there [through] all the small choices that he made throughout his lifetime, and when he was faced with a choice like this one, that was a habit of his character. To do the right thing. He was that kind of person through all the life choices he had made.

In 1998, Diane Estelle Vicari, who directed the film Sugihara: A Conspiracy of Kindness, interviewed East-Asian languages and culture expert Carol Gluck. Vicari asked Gluck why Sugihara took the actions he did:

VICARI: One of the things that has come up several times regarding Sugihara is this notion of the Bushido code, or the traditional Samurai code . . . . What are your thoughts on that?

CAROL GLUCK: The Bushido code . . . has, to my mind, nothing to do with Sugihara.

VICARI: What then do you believe were the influences that prompted Sugihara’s actions?

GLUCK: If anything, the things that formed Sugihara were actually his experiences outside Japan, not any national code inside Japan. He grew up outside Japan, he went to school outside Japan, he spent most of his life outside of Japan and that made him a cosmopolitan person—for whom Bushido would be as irrelevant as carrying two swords. . . . This is a man who was cosmopolitan from the inside out and from the bottom side up. And that is the most important thing about his background before he ever got into the foreign ministry. . .

VICARI: So when these Jews came to Sugihara as the consul in Lithuania, what do you think was going through his mind?

GLUCK: I think he responded to the need—to the human need. I think he also had friendly relations with the Jews whom he knew in Kaunas, but I think he saved them because they were people—not because they were Jews.1

Years later, when Sugihara was asked about his motives, he said the following:

You want to know about my motives, don't you? Well, it is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees the refugees face-to-face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees there were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went as far as to kiss my shoes. Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. . . . People in Tokyo were not united [on a refugee policy]. I felt it kind of foolish to deal with them. So I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. . . . If anybody sees anything wrong in the action, it is because something “not pure” exists in their state of mind. The spirit of humanity, philanthropy, . . . neighborly friendship. . . . With this spirit I ventured to do what I did.2

Citations

Connection Questions

  1. How does Sylvia Smoller explain Sugihara’s actions?
  2. In the excerpt from the film, Sylvia Smoller, one of the people who benefited from Sugihara’s visas, says that Sugihara did not become an upstander overnight. Nor did he help the Jewish refugees because of his connection to Judaism. “He got there [through] all the small choices that he made throughout his lifetime and when he was faced with a choice like this one, that was a habit of his character.” What do you think she means? Her reflection on Sugihara is similar to an observation made by genocide scholar and psychologist Ervin Staub. Staub writes"“Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren‟t born…What starts as mere willingness becomes intense involvement.” How might making small choices helps individuals to confront larger moral dilemmas?
  3. In the interview above, Gluck discredits the idea that the Japanese honor code known as Bushido had anything to do with Sugihara’s choices, as some researchers have claimed: “If anything, the things that formed Sugihara were actually his experiences outside Japan, not any national code inside Japan. He grew up outside Japan, he went to school outside Japan, he spent most of his life outside of Japan and that made him a cosmopolitan person.” Do you find this explanation compelling? Why? Do you think it underestimates the contribution of Japanese culture to Sugihara’s humanism? Do you think that in his case (or any other), the two are mutually exclusive? In what ways?
  4. What does Gluck mean when she describes Sugihara as a cosmopolitan? Why might being cosmopolitan influence the way Sugihara responded to the Jews who came to him in need of his help?
  5. What does Sugihara say about his motives?
  6. What is similar in the different attempts to explain Sugihara’s motivation? What differences seem most striking? Which of these accounts makes the most sense to you? Why?

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