Hiroki Sugihara, son of Japanese Schindler, dies at 64

Even at 5 years old, Hiroki Sugihara had his priorities straight.

It was July 1940, and panicked Jews were frantically crowding the streets near the family's home in Lithuania, where Hiroki's father, Chiune Sugihara, served as Japan's consul general.

"For three days I watched them through the window, [among them] children my own age. My father said if we did not help them, they would be killed," Hiroki Sugihara told the Bulletin in 1995. "He asked me what I thought [he should do]. I said, 'Help them.'" Chiune Sugihara went on to write over 2,100 family visas, which saved the lives of at least 6,100 Jews.

Hiroki Sugihara, who spent much of his life publicizing the deeds of his father, died Tuesday in his native Japan after a long bout with stomach cancer. A San Francisco resident since 1995, he was 64.

The tireless work of Hiroki and his mother, Yukiko, helped rescue Chiune's legacy from the ash heap of history. Upon returning to Japan in 1947, Chiune — who disobeyed direct government orders in issuing visas to Jews — was fired from his diplomatic position.

When Chiune's deeds became widely recognized in the 1990s, he was often referred to as the "Japanese Schindler" — although, it should be noted, Sugihara rescued five times as many Jews as Oskar Schindler, and did not profit from it financially as the Czech businessman did.

After holding various jobs in both Japan and the Soviet Union, Chiune Sugihara died in 1986 at age 86.

In 1995, Hiroki and his mother traveled to the United States for a month-long tour, during which they were the guests of honor at many events including a sold-out reception at the Herbst Theatre.

"We were driving them to the airport," said Lani Silver, former executive director of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project. "When we got there, Hiroki said, 'I think I'm going to stay.'"

Hiroki, who attended community college in Sacramento while living here for a few years as a young adult, spoke excellent English and translated his mother's autobiography. A commanding, humorous orator, he sprinkled Yiddish into his many speeches about his father.

"He spoke at hundreds of schools and conferences about his father. He was a tireless Sugihara educator," said Silver. "He told his story beautifully. I was always on the edge of my seat and I heard him speak over 200 times. He was always hysterical and insightful. He worked very hard to keep the memory of his father alive."

A small businessman for most of his life, Hiroki became involved with the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project in 1994, giving hundreds of family photos to Silver and research partner Eric Saul. His donation helped create "Visas for Life," a photo exhibit that has graced 117 museums worldwide, and helped to unearth hundreds of other diplomats who saved Jews.

"He, like a lot of people, thought his father was virtually the only diplomat in Europe to save Jews, but we've found them in Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belgium, all over the place," said Saul, now project director for an organization that honors diplomats who saved Jews, also called Visas for Life.

"He always laughed and said he didn't realize so many diplomats were like his father. He said his father would have been proud to be in the company of all these other men."

Hiroki's final public appearance came at the "Silent Voices Speak" exhibition in San Francisco this April.

"He was very sick by that point," said Saul, who introduced the ailing man to the families of Swiss and Chinese diplomats who saved Jews. "He was really pleased by that."

Hiroki Sugihara, the eldest son of Chiune Siguhara, is survived by his 87-year-old mother, Yukiko of Kamakura, Japan; his younger brother Chiaki, also of Kamakura; his youngest brother Nobuki, an Antwerp jeweler educated at Hebrew University in Israel; his wife Michi of Tokyo, three grown children and two grandchildren.

Hiroki was cremated and rests in the family plot near his father. In the words of Nobuki Siguhara, "he is with his father now."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.