Chiune Sugihara was born on the first day of the twentieth century, in a rural part of Japan, to a middle class Samurai family in Gifu prefecture. He received high marks through school and his father wanted him to become a doctor. Chiune took after his artistic mother, however, and wanted to study world languages and culture and maybe someday work overseas. He intentionally failed his medical entrance exams by writing only his name.
This was Chiune’s first major disobedience. He was raised with traditional respect for hierarchy, duty to one’s family, and the empire of Japan, but as we will see throughout his story, Chiune retained a morally guided rebellious streak. At key points in his life, he defied his father, his culture, and even the law to do what he felt was right. And the world is a better place for it.
Chiune was accepted to Waseda University in 1918 as an English major. He joined a Christian fraternity for extra opportunities to practice the language. The very next year he was recruited by the Japanese Foreign. Office and assigned to Harbin, China to learn intelligence gathering and further his language proficiency. He studied German and Russian and became an expert on Russian culture.
In 1931 Chiune again defied cultural expectations, by marrying a white woman, Klaudia Apollonova. Japan remains one of the most homogeneous nationalities in the world, a reality made possible in part by a pervading belief in Japanese racial superiority. The two divorced with no children four years later, before his return to Japan. At some point, he converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity, a faith he held onto for the rest of his life.
Chiune was assigned to negotiations with the Soviet Union to buy the Northern Manchurian Railway, in Japanese controlled Manchuria, China. He secured a deal favorable to Japan but he was troubled by his nation’s aggressive foreign policy. He ultimately resigned this post in protest of Japanese mistreatment of native Manchurian Chinese. Again this can be seen as exceptional disobedience, a determination to honor his own moral code above his orders.