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War of words over 'Japan's Schindler'
US scholar sued for frank book about diplomat
Jonathan Watts Tuesday November 12, 2002 The Guardian
It was intended as a tribute to human goodness:
the moving biography of an altruistic Japanese diplomat who risked his life to save 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust.
But a groundbreaking book about Chiune Sugihara is likely to expose the less noble side of human nature when its Jewish author is challenged in a Tokyo court by the family of his Japanese idol later this month.
Hillel Levine, a professor of religion at Boston University, is being sued for allegedly besmirching the reputation of Sugihara, one of the few Japanese diplomats to have emerged from the second world war with his reputation enhanced in the west.
The court case promises to be a remarkable event in Japan, where legal challenges for libel and defamation are extremely rare.
Sugihara is often referred to as "the Japanese Schindler" because, like the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, he helped to rescue thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps and Soviet gulags.
In 1940 he used his position as vice-consul at Japan's diplomatic mission in Kaunas, Lithuania, to issue life-saving transit permits for Jewish families fleeing from Poland.
His deeds went largely unrecognised in his own country before his death in 1986, but Sugihara's story became well known through the reminiscences of his wife Yukiko, who described how she and her husband fought their own foreign ministry to get travel visas granted.
Prof Levine's work - In Search of Sugihara - paints a more complex picture.
Instead of a heroic individual putting his conscience before his country, he describes Sugihara as a spy who may have issued the visas on government orders.
It also relates anecdotes about Sugihara visiting a brothel and using his impressive capacity for alcohol to win over Soviet commissars.
He also reveals the existence of a Russian woman who married and divorced the diplomat in his youth.
Prof Levine says his aim was to show that Sugihara was an ordinary, vulnerable man who was nonetheless a "stellar practitioner" of goodness.
The Sugihara family, however, see things differently.
"My mother became ill after reading this book," says Michi Sugihara, the daughter of Chiune and Yukiko.
"It is full of mistakes and exaggerations, distorts the image of my father, and damages our family's reputation."
Many of the complaints appear to be the result of miscommunication and cultural misunderstandings between Prof Levine, who cannot speak Japanese, and Yukiko Sugihara, who cannot understand English.
The family was upset not to have been sent a copy of the English version of the book, which came out in 1996.
In also suing the publisher, Shimizu Shoin, they argue that the 1998 translation gives an impression of Sugihara as a larger- than-life, American-like figure at the expense of his Japanese character.
"It's written in an entertaining way that might appeal to a first- time foreign reader.
But the man of mystery in the book is not the real Chiune," says Ms Sugihara.
They also claim that Prof Levine has made more than 300 factual mistakes and fabricated interviews with Sugihara's two wives
Prof Levine says such accusations are absurd:
"In the United States this would be laughed out of court.
My intention as a scholar is to tell the truth about Sugihara, to put him in the class of Gandhi and other great heroes."
Because the lawsuit comes four years after the Japanese translation of the book was published, he says it may be an attempt to discredit him in a battle for film rights.