Doing the right thing, and ‘doing it anyway’: the case of Chiune Sugihara

Sam emails to tell me about Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat based in Lithuania during WWII. He wrote exit visas for six-thousand Jews (putting them through on his signature alone; an act which could have gotten him and his family executed for treason in Japan) because he got tired of waiting for Tokyo bureaucracy to get back to him.

This keys into my thing about ‘doing it anyway’ when inefficient bureaucracy fails to grant permission (see On Autonomy in Issue 3). Try doing anything of worth and they’ll set a million hoops for you to jump through, often prohibiting the entire venture. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.

In this case, Chiune Sugihara saw that there was a moral imperative to act without permission. With hindsight he obviously did the right thing, but it must have taken superior nerve to snub the authorities in this way and risk being killed for treason. He says:

You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.

People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly 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.

Issue 6 (I know, Issue 5 isn’t out yet, but it’s being printed as we speak) will be about Escapological morals. It will be called A Rebours.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

One Response to “Doing the right thing, and ‘doing it anyway’: the case of Chiune Sugihara”

  1. […] Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania wrote thousands of transit visas to Jewish refugees during the summer and fall of 1940.  Upon the closure of the Japanese consulate that September, Chiune and and wife Yukiko tossed blank visas out the window and turned over the consular stamp to a refugee as the Sugiharas’ train departed the Kaunas rail station.  The man himself described his actions, credited with saving at minimum 6,000 lives, this way: […]

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