Vancouver playwright and actor Manami Hara never learned about Chiune Sugihara when she was growing up in Japan.
This is rather surprising, given that the former Japanese diplomat saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Second World War.
As a vice consul in Lithuania in 1940, Sugihara made transit visas to Japan freely available to Jewish people wanting to flee the Nazis.
Several who received Sugihara visas made their way to Vancouver, escaping the Holocaust.
“He had such a big heart—and he always said that this is not a special thing that he did,” Hara tells Pancouver by phone. “He did not have a hero complex.”
Hara knows this because she talked at length with Sugihara’s descendants while researching a new play about him called Courage Now. The Firehall Arts Centre, in association with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, will premiere the Amiel Gladstone–directed production later this month.
One of those who shared recollections of Sugihara was Michi Sugihara, the former diplomat’s daughter-in-law. Hara also spoke to her children, Chihiro and Madoka.
“They accepted me with open arms, answered all my questions, and provided so many inside stories,” Hara reveals.
Sugihara died in 1986 and his widow, Yukiko, passed away in 2008.
Jane Heyman encouraged Hara
The playwright became aware of Sugihara’s story from her former teacher, colleague, and mentor, Jane Heyman. Heyman’s Warsaw-born parents, Stefan and Marta, received visas from Sugihara, enabling them to come to Vancouver. Heyman’s brother George is B.C.’s minister of climate change strategy.
On the online Chiune Sugihara Memorial Wall, Heyman wrote: “Sugihara is carved in my mind as a humanitarian person who followed justice and faith. I want more people to know his story.”
Meanwhile, mathematician and UBC professor emeritus George Bluman has revealed that 24 members of his family survived thanks to Sugihara. He’s posted names of many others on his website who owe their lives to Sugihara.
“Against orders from his superiors in Tokyo, he issued transit visas that saved over 2000, mostly Polish, Jewish refugees who would have been otherwise murdered,” Bluman wrote. “About half went to Shanghai prior to Pearl Harbor. About 15% of the survivors eventually came to Canada.”
Heyman informed Hara more than a decade ago that a Japanese playwright had written a script about Sugihara. Heyman wondered if Hara could translate it into English so it could be performed in Vancouver.
“That’s how it all started,” Hara says.
But after doing a couple of workshops, they realized that it wouldn’t work. Fortunately, the playwright gave Hara permission to adapt it. But again, it still didn’t work.
“I put it away for a good three years,” Hara recalls. “I just didn’t know what to do with that.”
Hara plays role of Yukiko
Then one day, she had an epiphany.
“It came to me that I was interested in hearing a woman’s voice, namely Sugihara’s wife—Yukiko,” she says.
In addition to writing Courage Now, Hara plays the role of Yukiko.
Then Hara built on that idea, deciding to present the play from Yukiko’s perspective. Then Hara layered on top of that the perspective of a female child survivor named Margaret, played by Advah Soudack.
“Those people come together, talk about their lives, and recount what Sugihara did,” Hara continues.
Yukiko shares the difficulties that her husband encountered in giving away so may transit visas. Plus, the audience learns what happened to him after the Second World War.
“He was not a stereotypical, old-fashioned, mainstream Japanese man,” Hara emphasizes.
Many people are familiar with the story Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest in 1944 before disappearing into the Soviet penal system.
Sugihara, on the other hand, is less well-known. Remarkably, Sugihara acted in the name of the Japanese imperial government, an ally of Nazi Germany.
Sugihara witnessed cruelty against Chinese people
Hara believes that Sugihara’s motivations came, in part, from what he observed when he was a diplomat in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. The imperial government created and controlled this new “country” a year after invading Manchuria in 1931.
“He witnessed incredible cruelty toward Chinese people done by the Japanese military and he did not agree with that,” she says. “So, he left his position as a protest.”
Hara says that that he probably wished he had done more in the 1930s to assist the Chinese people. And this likely influenced him to go much further in 1940 to save the lives of Jews in Lithuania.
“I’m all about laying out the facts to make peace,” Hara declares. “To actually move forward, you need to know everything—bad things, ugly things—and don’t hide behind those tragedies.”
She notes that when she was growing up in Japan, the government refused to come to terms with its wartime record against other Asian countries. Hara sees a parallel with Canada’s history of subjugating Indigenous peoples.
Now, as a Japanese Canadian, Hara feels obliged to learn about the horrors of the Indian residential-school system.
She never knew anything about this—nor Canada’s internment of Japanese Canadians—when she moved to Vancouver at the age of 18 and enrolled in Langara College.
“That is part of my duty—my responsibility—to do the best I can to dig in and find the facts,” Hara says. “Without it, the foundation is not strong to move forward.”
She expresses deep appreciation that Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, a.k.a. vACT, and its former artistic director, Donna Yamamoto, for nurturing Courage Now.
“Donna was the absolute champion for making sure that I had funds and time to write this play,” Hara says. “Throughout her reign at the vACT, she gave me so many opportunities and support. Without her vision and support, this play would not be here.”
The Firehall Arts Centre, in association with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, presents the world premiere of Courage Now from November 19 to December 4. Opening night is on November 23 and post-show talkbacks are on November 24 and December 1. For tickets and more information, visit the website.