Hi everyone! In this blog post I will write a little about who Chiune Sugihara was and about my visit to his grave in Kamakura, Japan. Please continue reading to find out more about this amazing man, who, sadly, many people have never even heard of.
Chiune Sugihara (1900 – 1986) was a diplomat at the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania in the years 1939 – 1941. During World War II, he saved about 6,000 Jews by giving them transit visas. Even after his superiors in the Japanese government told him that he should not provide the visas, he put his own honor and livelihood on the line by going against orders and providing these Jews with life-saving transit visas. His actions caused him to be dismissed from his job and disgraced in Japanese society, and from that point on he led a difficult life trying to earn a living for his family.
In 1985, after one of the Jewish people Sugihara saved found him after a long search, the State of Israel gave Sugihara the highest honor by naming him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. It was years later that the Japanese government finally realized Sugihara for the great man he was and his honor was restored.
I no longer remember at what point I learned about Sugihara, but I do remember that I stumbled upon info about him when I became interested in the Japanese language and culture. I was shocked that I had never heard about him before, and I read as much as I could about him. As a Jew, I feel especially thankful to him for saving my people and I would really like more people to know about his amazing deeds. Since then, one of my dreams was to visit Sugihara’s grave and pay my respects to him. I have finally been able to realize this dream on August 20th, 2018, shortly after my study abroad program at KCP ended. I would like to share my experience with you, teach you a little about Japanese grave visiting etiquette, and show you how to get to his grave.
In Japanese, a grave visit is called “Haka Mairi” literally meaning “grave visit” (haka=grave; mairi=visitation). Usually, family and close friends of the deceased visit the grave every year on the day the person died, in addition to a visitation during the Obon. Of course, the grave may be visited at any time, but these are the main times when Japanese people do so. In Japan, the custom is to have the body cremated and put the ashes in a jar. This jar is placed inside of the family tomb, which often includes many family members. Some of the ashes are taken and put in a separate jar to keep at home, in the personal family shrine.
Now, there are some customs to keep in mind when visiting a Japanese grave. First, using a brush and a special bucket and ladle filled with water that can be found in most graveyards, the grave is scrubbed clean and then rinsed using the ladle. Then fresh flowers are put into the vases on the grave and incense sticks and a candle are burned in the appropriate holders. The candles should be white and similar in shape and size to a birthday candle. Food that the deceased person liked during their lifetime and/or alcohol (usually nihonshu, which is Japanese rice wine) is put on the grave as an offering and prayers are said. Before leaving, the incense sticks and candle must be completely burned, and the offerings and trash must be removed from the grave and thrown away (to prevent attracting animals). All of the things mentioned above can be found in most Japanese grocery stores (even the flowers). Many cemeteries also sell them (especially the larger ones).
So, now that I’ve told you about the Japanese grave visiting customs, let me share with you some Jewish ones. The grave is cleaned (though not with so much formality as the Japanese way with a bucket and ladle – just a bottle of water is fine). Flowers are not put on graves, rather plain stones found on the ground are placed on top of the tombstone. A 24-hour candle is lit and put in a special slot in the grave. This flame represents the soul. Prayers are said, especially from the Book of Psalms (written by King David).
I know, the stone custom is a little strange. Why would you put just a plain ol’ rock on a tomb? Sounds kind of rude, deshou? But never fear, it has a deep meaning (several actually). My favorite interpretation of this odd custom is this: flowers represent the ephemerality of human life – beautiful while alive, but too soon wilt and die. A stone, on the other hand, which can last for eons, is a representation of the everlasting soul and the simple fact that the memory of that person never dies. Beautiful, ne?
Here’s a more practical reason: stones were placed on the gravestone as a marker that the grave was visited. The more stones on the grave, the greater the chance that a Jew stopping by the cemetery would also stop to pray by that person’s grave. It’s something like, “Wow, that person must have been righteous to be so well loved. Let me stop to pray at their grave so that I may merit from their holy presence as well”. FYI – when a Jew prays next to a grave, they pray for the deceased person’s soul. These prayers help lift the soul to a higher place.
When I visited Sugihara’s grave, I performed a mix of customs. I first scrubbed and rinsed the grave (Japanese style with the bucket and ladle) and put new flowers and added some stones to the ones that were already placed there by others. For religious reasons, I decided not to light incense or put any offerings on the grave, but I did light a small tealight each for Chiune and his wife Yukiko. Then I prayed for about an hour, collected the trash, and left.
If you are thinking of visiting a Japanese grave, just try your best to be respectful. If you feel uncomfortable with certain customs, that’s ok. Whether it’s for religious reasons or other personal reasons doesn’t matter. Just do your best in your own way.
So, how does one get to Sugihara’s grave? Sugihara’s grave is located in Kamakura Cemetery (鎌倉霊園 = kama-kura-rei-en) in the city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, about 2 hours away from Tokyo by public transportation. This is the exact address: 512 Jūniso, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken, 248-0001, Japan. In Japanese: 〒248-0001 神奈川県鎌倉市十二所５１２. To get there from Tokyo you can take the Yokosuka line or another train till Kamakura Station and then the 23 or 24 bus till the Kamakura Cemetery bus stop. Kamakura Cemetery is huge, and it’s hard to locate Sugihara’s grave if you don’t know how to find it. Here’s a map that you can find in many places in the cemetery.
Also, it’s quite the climb to Sugihara’s grave, so make sure you wear comfortable shoes and clothes. Sugihara’s grave is located in section 29 (29区) row 5 (5列). The grave number is 46. I’ve provided photos to make it easier to find.
The kanji, or Chinese characters, for Sugihara are 杉原 (sugi-hara). On the grave it says 杉原家 (sugi-hara-ka) which means Sugihara Family, since it’s a family grave. The family crest is shown under the kanji in the picture below.
Sugihara is one of my personal heroes. If I could go back in time to meet just one person, it would be to see Sugihara and thank him while he was still alive (with my newly gained Japanese skills, of course!). I hope that you have learned something new from this blog post. If you are ever in Japan and have the time, please visit Sugihara’s grave. Also, there is a museum dedicated to him called Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall in Yaotsu, Gifu Prefecture. It’s a great way to learn more about this amazing person. In addition, here are a few books and movies about him:
Books: Visas for Life by Yukiko Sugihara (Chiune Sugihara’s wife); In Search of Sugihara by Hillel Levine; A Special Fate by Alison Leslie Gold; Passage to Freedom by Ken Mochizuki (this is a children’s book);
Movies: Conspiracy of Kindness (PBS); Persona Non Grata (This film is in Japanese).
Ja, mina-san, Sayonara! Goodbye! Wherever you go, I wish you safe and insightful travels! Just remember to keep your heart and mind open and you will be able to see and learn so much more!
P.S. – Did you know? The Japanese believe that the spirits of the dead take the form of a butterfly. Butterflies represent the eternity of the after life. When I left the cemetery, I spotted a large black butterfly (about 3″ x 3″) near the gate. Was it Sugihara sending his regards? Who knows? It will always remain a mystery…