Saturday, August 20, 2005

Japanese "Schindler" was an Orthodox Christian

Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese "Schindler"

I've seen several mentions of Chiune Sugihara in documentaries... but no mention was made of one interesting fact -- he converted to Orthodox Christianity while in Harbin, China.

Chiune Sugihara: His conscience gleams out of the darkness

Special to The Japan Times

Exactly 60 years ago, during the evening of Aug. 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito recorded the speech of surrender to be broadcast to the Japanese nation the next day at noon.
Aug. 15, 1945 found Chiune Sugihara, his wife, Yukiko, and their three little children in Romania, interned there by the Red Army. It was unclear what their fate would be. Japan had been officially at war with the Soviet Union, albeit for only a few days.

Who was Chiune Sugihara, and how did he come to be in Bucharest at the war's end? At a time when Japan is being branded in some quarters as the unrepentant perpetrator of cruel misdeeds during World War II and before, a look at the life of this man of conscience may serve to lighten this dark image. It may also be a guide to Japanese people living today: proof that an individual can make a difference, even in the most callous of times.

I was fortunate to have known Sugihara's eldest son, Hiroki, who was named after Koki Hirota, the prime minister in 1936 when Hiroki was born.

The elder Sugihara was a diplomat who was posted to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, in November 1939. He was soon to be presented with a striking dilemma.

"My father woke up one morning in late July, 1940, to see a great crowd of people milling outside the gate of the consulate," Hiroki told me in July 2000. "I remember staring down at them from the second-story window. They were Jews, and they had come to get exit visas from my father."

Strict instructions
Sugihara was under strict instructions from his superiors at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo not to issue any Japanese visa other than a transit visa, and this only when the applicant had a valid visa to a subsequent destination.
However, Sugihara deliberately disobeyed those instructions, issuing more than 2,000 visas, some of them covering more than one member of a family, to Jews who were desperate to escape the Nazi terror that had overtaken Poland and was gradually moving eastward.

"The consulate was shut down on Sept. 4 that year," Hiroki told me, "but my father continued to pen visas even at the railway station, throwing the last stamped passports out of the window of our train to Jews whose lives would, thanks to him, be spared."

The more than 2,000 refugees traveled by train across Siberia and on to Japan, from where they eventually made it to Shanghai, Australia, the United States or other destinations. Incidentally, those Jewish refugees were treated humanely while in Japan, despite general Japanese sympathies for the Axis cause.

Meanwhile, Sugihara made his own way from Kaunas to posts in Prague, Konigsberg and, eventually, in 1942, Bucharest, where he remained until 1945.

Born on Jan. 1, 1900, in the village of Yaotsu in Gifu Prefecture, Sugihara went to Waseda University in Tokyo in 1918, but dropped out the next year to join the Foreign Ministry. After being sent by the ministry to Harbin in China, he converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity and married a White Russian woman named Klavdia.

In Harbin, Sugihara studied Russian and became, it was said, the best Russian-speaker in the Japanese government. He also negotiated, on terms exceedingly favorable to Japan, the agreement with the Soviet Union that allowed for the expansion of Japan's Northern Manchurian Railway. Then in 1935, after divorcing Klavdia* (who died several years ago, age 93, in a Russian nursing home in Sydney), Sugihara returned to Japan and married Yukiko Kikuchi, Hiroki's mother.

The Soviets were not well disposed to Sugihara, given his hand in the railway negotiations, and disallowed his proposed next posting, to Moscow. He was dispatched instead to Helsinki and then to Kaunas where, with his linguistic skills (he had studied German as well as Russian), he was invaluable to the Japanese foreign service.

Pure humanity
Why did Sugihara go out on a limb to save those Jews? His son, Hiroki, saw it as a matter of personal conscience.
"My father made a decision based on pure humanity. If you had the power to save people and didn't, what kind of a man were you?"

In 1946, Sugihara, his wife and their three children, found themselves on the same trans-Siberian train line ridden by the Jewish refugees he saved. They were finally repatriated in April 1947. Before long, however, Sugihara was relieved of his duties at the Foreign Ministry, in what some have interpreted as a rebuke for his disobedience. This explanation fits into the stereotypical view of the conformist Japanese, but I believe it was not the case here. Instead, Sugihara was simply let go in the postwar changing of the guard that saw a third of the Foreign Ministry's staff receive their marching orders in those chaotic years.

Afterward, Sugihara found various jobs, one of them as manager of a PX on an American base. Eventually he took up a position with a trading company and moved, alone, to Moscow, where he lived for 16 years. He passed away in Japan on July 31, 1986.

"I think that my father may have felt more at home with Russians than he did with Japanese," Hiroki told me. "I guess he wasn't very much at home in postwar Japan."

There are tens of thousands of people around the world today who would not have been born had it not been for the compassion of Chiune Sugihara.

On a day such as this one, perhaps it will help both Japan and those who genuinely wish this country well to remember that the devils of the past were not alone in their undertakings. There were angels in their midst. Thanks to Japanese like Chiune Sugihara, "Lest we forget" may justifiably be said in the same breath as "kindly remember."

* It should be noted that it was actually Klavdia who initiated the divorce, because she feared having children, and he wanted very much to have children.

Nothing has changed ...

Yesterday was the feast of the Transfiguration, and is also the 14th anniversary of the fall of communism in Russia. As I have mentioned, the Russian Orthodox Church is in the process of healing divisions that resulted from the Bolshevik take over. There are those who oppose this process who say that nothing has really changed in Russia. This little news item from yesterday shows how ridiculous this is:

2005-08-19 15:04:00

Russian defense minister attends the Holy Transfiguration Day celebrations led by Patriarch Alexy in Valamo

Valamo, August 19, Interfax
- Russian Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov attended the divine liturgy celebrated by Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia at the Cathedral of the Holy Transfiguration in the Valamo Monastery on Friday.

The minister, who came to Valamo at the invitation of Patriarch Alexy, will visit the Sixth Air Force Army special radar company deployed in the island.

The Defence Ministry information office noted that the special company is manned by the General Staff according to the list sent in by the abbot of the monastery, Father Panrkaty, through the Moscow Patriarchate. This practice has been observed since 1995.

The company is distinguished for the absence of any violations of army discipline in it. Diocesan priests come to the company for a talk with the staff every day. There is an iconostasis in the leisure room and mess for novice soldiers to pray before it.

The foundation of a chapel has been laid in the territory of the unit. The construction of the chapel is planned to be completed next year.

The company is fully staffed and there are no problems of supply or domestic equipment. Twelve servicemen of the company are novices of the Valamo Monastery

Under the communists, soldiers were closing monasteries and rounding up monks to shoot them, or send them off to die in a gulag. Now you have soldiers who are also novice monks, and the Russian military is clearly encouraging this.

No... nothing has changed. There is none more blind than he who will not see.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Bono is no Bonehead

Click here to read more about a new book of conversations with U2 singer Bono. Many conservatives assume he is a typical dope-smoking liberal rock-and-roller, but since the begining days of U2, he has always identified himself as a Christian, and often this is reflected in his songs. In fact, U2's October Album is probably more overtly Christian than most of what passes for Christian music these days. I was a big fan before most people in America had heard of them, and I remember when they first hit the big time how the press made quite an issue of the fact that Bono was a Christian, who wasn't sleeping with his girl friend, or smoking pot back stage. I saw them in concert twice, and they were great shows... and quite clean.

Jesse Helms has even taken a liking to Bono, and when they talked about this on 60 minutes, he commented that Bono was a great student of the Bible. 60 minutes probably thought that meant that he knew how to fool a conservative Republican Senator, but that is not the case.

I wouldn't defend everything Bono has ever said or did, but I do believe he is a sincere believer.... and his music is cool too. (:)

Here's an excerpt from the book:

Bono: My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don't let my religious world get too complicated. I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond [sighs] in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that's my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love. Now that's not so easy.

Assayas: What about the God of the Old Testament? He wasn't so "peace and love"?

Bono: There's nothing hippie about my picture of Christ. The Gospels paint a picture of a very demanding, sometimes divisive love, but love it is. I accept the Old Testament as more of an action movie: blood, car chases, evacuations, a lot of special effects, seas dividing, mass murder, adultery. The children of God are running amok, wayward. Maybe that's why they're so relatable. But the way we would see it, those of us who are trying to figure out our Christian conundrum, is that the God of the Old Testament is like the journey from stern father to friend. When you're a child, you need clear directions and some strict rules. But with Christ, we have access in a one-to-one relationship, for, as in the Old Testament, it was more one of worship and awe, a vertical relationship. The New Testament, on the other hand, we look across at a Jesus who looks familiar, horizontal. The combination is what makes the Cross.

Assayas: Speaking of bloody action movies, we were talking about South and Central America last time. The Jesuit priests arrived there with the gospel in one hand and a rifle in the other.

Bono: I know, I know. Religion can be the enemy of God. It's often what happens when God, like Elvis, has left the building. [laughs] A list of instructions where there was once conviction; dogma where once people just did it; a congregation led by a man where once they were led by the Holy Spirit. Discipline replacing discipleship. Why are you chuckling?

Assayas: I was wondering if you said all of that to the Pope the day you met him.

Bono: Let's not get too hard on the Holy Roman Church here. The Church has its problems, but the older I get, the more comfort I find there. The physical experience of being in a crowd of largely humble people, heads bowed, murmuring prayers, stories told in stained-glass windows …

Assayas: So you won't be critical.

Bono: No, I can be critical, especially on the topic of contraception. But when I meet someone like Sister Benedicta and see her work with AIDS orphans in Addis Ababa, or Sister Ann doing the same in Malawi, or Father Jack Fenukan and his group Concern all over Africa, when I meet priests and nuns tending to the sick and the poor and giving up much easier lives to do so, I surrender a little easier.

Assayas: But you met the man himself. Was it a great experience?

Bono: … [W]e all knew why we were there. The Pontiff was about to make an important statement about the inhumanity and injustice of poor countries spending so much of their national income paying back old loans to rich countries. Serious business. He was fighting hard against his Parkinson's. It was clearly an act of will for him to be there. I was oddly moved … by his humility, and then by the incredible speech he made, even if it was in whispers. During the preamble, he seemed to be staring at me. I wondered. Was it the fact that I was wearing my blue fly-shades? So I took them off in case I was causing some offense. When I was introduced to him, he was still staring at them. He kept looking at them in my hand, so I offered them to him as a gift in return for the rosary he had just given me.

Assayas: Didn't he put them on?

Bono: Not only did he put them on, he smiled the wickedest grin you could ever imagine. He was a comedian. His sense of humor was completely intact. Flashbulbs popped, and I thought: "Wow! The Drop the Debt campaign will have the Pope in my glasses on the front page of every newspaper."

Assayas: I don't remember seeing that photograph anywhere, though.

Bono: Nor did we. It seems his courtiers did not have the same sense of humor. Fair enough. I guess they could see the T-shirts.

Later in the conversation:
Assayas: I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?

Bono: Yes, I think that's normal. It's a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.

Assayas: I haven't heard you talk about that.

Bono: I really believe we've moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.

Assayas: Well, that doesn't make it clearer for me.

Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It's clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I'm absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that "as you reap, so you will sow" stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff.

Assayas: I'd be interested to hear that.

Bono: That's between me and God. But I'd be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I'd be in deep s---. It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity.

Assayas: The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.

Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there's a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let's face it, you're not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That's the point. It should keep us humbled… . It's not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.

Assayas: That's a great idea, no denying it. Such great hope is wonderful, even though it's close to lunacy, in my view. Christ has his rank among the world's great thinkers. But Son of God, isn't that farfetched?

Bono: No, it's not farfetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn't allow you that. He doesn't let you off that hook. Christ says: No. I'm not saying I'm a teacher, don't call me teacher. I'm not saying I'm a prophet. I'm saying: "I'm the Messiah." I'm saying: "I am God incarnate." And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You're a bit eccentric. We've had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don't mention the "M" word! Because, you know, we're gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you're expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah. At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says: Oh, my God, he's gonna keep saying this. So what you're left with is: either Christ was who He said He was—the Messiah—or a complete nutcase. I mean, we're talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson. This man was like some of the people we've been talking about earlier. This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had "King of the Jews" on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain! I can take it. I'm not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that's farfetched …

Bono later says it all comes down to how we regard Jesus:

Bono: … [I]f only we could be a bit more like Him, the world would be transformed. …When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my s--- and everybody else's. So I ask myself a question a lot of people have asked: Who is this man? And was He who He said He was, or was He just a religious nut? And there it is, and that's the question. And no one can talk you into it or out of it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

New Epistle Lectionary

The Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies has published a new Epistle Book (aka Apostolos, or Apostol). It uses the King James text, which I prefer. The text it uses for the prokimena and alleluia verses is their own translation. It is layed out in the Greek Style. The Slavic Apostol has all the books from Acts through Jude, with the complete texts, and with notes that tell you how and where to begin and where to end each reading. The Greek style has the readings in the order they are used in the liturgical year, with text exactly as it would be read in Church, which eliminates the need for all of those notes. The problem for those who follow Slavic practice is that these readings do not always precisely match where the Slavic readings begin and end.

The biggest draw back is that this is published only in paper back, at present... which means the text will not last long under heavy use. However, this also makes the text much more inexpensive than it would otherwise be. It is only $25.00, which makes it practical for individuals to purchase it for their own use.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Farewell to Welfare

Note: The comments expressed on this blog, are the views of a private citizen, and do not represent the views of any state agency.

After working for 13 years for what was until recently the Texas Department of Human Services (in the Food Stamps, Medicaid and TANF programs), I am transferring to the Office of the Attorney General, Child Support division later this month. I am doing this for two reasons:

1). The ongoing down-sizing of permanent (and well trained) staff, without any decrease in workload, has made things increasingly unmanagable.

2). We have had to deal with long hiring freezes in the past, as well as high stress levels; but unlike the past, this time around, the only thing we have to look forward to is busting our chops for the next year, and then eventually getting a position at reduced pay… if we get one at all.

Given those two realities, I decided it was best to create my own options, and find a position in another agency entirely.

This wouldn’t bother me so much if this was happening because the state had decided to cut welfare programs, and so fewer staff were needed to do the work. It also would not bother me so much if I thought that the new system would work, and save the state money. However, I am firmly convinced that this new system will be a boondoggle of historical proportions when all is said and done. I am also convinced that the day will come that the state will have to rebuild the agency that they are now dismantling… but at a huge cost, because they will have lost all the infrastructure that they had both in terms of facilities and equipment, and in terms of experienced staff who knew how to get the work done. This is bad business for the state, and a shameful way to treat staff that have maintained one of the most cost efficient state welfare agencies in the United States.

Up until now, I suppose some might have thought my complaints were due only to selfish concerns, but now that I will now longer have a personal financial interest in the matter, I hope those who think so will reconsider what I have been saying.

I will continue to keep an eye on how things develop, though in the future, from the outside looking in.

People who have never had to work with these programs really have no idea of what it takes to make them work. I think, because the people we deal with are generally poor and less educated, the assumption is that those who work with them must be as well. Also, because we have long been the red headed step child of state government, and have thus been chronically underfunded and understaffed, that the fact that our offices did not run like clock work was due to our incompetence, rather than due to the reality into which we had been placed. Recently the Fort Worth Star Telegram had an editorial praising the new system that is being implemented as a model of how government should work, and one can certainly detect such attitudes in that article. They of course assume that the state really will save money, and that services really will be more accessible to those who need those benefits. It is good to see recently that the Federal Government is finally expressing some of the same concerns that I have been blogging about, and has serious doubts about both of these assumptions… which the Fort Worth Star Telegram accepted as established facts. The Federal Government is unconvinced that the new software will actually function as promised, or that the state will actually save money, and is threatening to withhold funding. Unfortunately, I doubt that the politicians will allow these concerns to stop Accenture from getting its hands on that billion dollars the state has promised them, but it is nice to see that at least someone is beginning to take these issues seriously who is in a position to be heard. (If you have Adobe Acrobat, you can click here to read the actual letter from FNS to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission).

The worst thing of all for me personally is that I will be leaving the people I have worked so closely with for the past 13 years, who have become like extended family, and that those who are not fortunate enough to find work elsewhere, will have to remain in an increasingly difficult mess that was entirely avoidable, but seems inevitable now.

I will miss these people very much, but will keep them in my thoughts and prayers.