The other night I watched a deeply moving documentary on PBS, “Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness,” about a heroic Japanese consul who saved thousands of Jewish lives during WWII:

As Japan’s consul to Lithuania, Sugihara risked career, disgrace, his life, and the lives of his family defying Tokyo by writing transit visas for refugees desperate to escape persecution. In August 1940, Sugihara spent upwards of sixteen hours a day issuing visas, until Soviet-occupied Lithuania forced the final shutdown of the country’s last remaining consulates. In the end, more than 2,000 Sugihara-stamped passports allowed hundreds of families to flee Europe through Russia to safe havens abroad. Today it is estimated that more than 40,000 people owe their very existence to Sugihara’s heroic acts of humanitarianism.

(You can find many more details, as well as video clips, at the website.)

His full name was Chiune Sugihara, but after the war, when the Japanese government fired him and he was forced to take any job he could get, he wound up working in Moscow under the name Sempo Sugiwara. I wondered about the relationship between the names, and now Bill Poser of Language Log explains what’s going on in a detailed post (hint: the pairs of given names and family names are identical, but in different ways). I’m glad he posted about it, both because it informed me and because it gave me a chance to post on this topic and urge everyone to read about a nearly forgotten man.


  1. Interesting. Very Japanese of Sugihara, as he apparently assumed no foreigners, or at least Russians, would ever read Japanese language documents about him since his name in Japanese had not changed at all.

  2. Very Japanese, or just very perceptive? Because apparently, no-one ever did! (Or at least if they did, they didn’t make the connection, or didn’t care.)

  3. His beneficence is really worth exalting, compared with what those Japanese had done when invading other Asian countries…

  4. The Language Log post to which our host refers intrigued me, because admirers of the work of Hayao Miyazaki were treated a couple of years ago to a film that used the very same multiple kanji reading as a plot element. (I am commenting here because Language Log does not permit comments.)
    The movie was released in the US as Spirited Away, but the Japanese title was Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. If I had to render that into English literally, it would be something like The God-hiding of Sen alias Chihiro.
    The movie follows the adventures of a girl originally named Chihiro; the first element of her name is the same as the first element of Chiune, and means “thousand”. She is imprisoned (well, not exactly, but the story line is complicated: see the movie) in a bath-house for gods, and part of the magic binding her there is a name-change: the witch who runs the bath-house takes away the hiro element of Chihiro’s name, and gives her the new name Sen. The linguistic subtlety is probably lost on most non-Japanese viewers, who don’t realize that sen is the onyomi (Sinitic reading) for the same character whose kunyomi (native Japanese reading) is chi.
    Now that I think of it, I wonder whether Miyazaki wasn’t paying a subtle tribute to Sugihara.

  5. kim whitham says

    I just saw the documentary on KCET-PBS Tv on Mr. Sugihara.
    I knew about some Jewish people saved by going to Shanghai then on to America or Isreal but i never knew about Mr. Sugihara.
    An amazing story.
    Simply amazing.
    Kim Whitham

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