As the Nazi war machine steamrolled across Europe in 1940, thousands of Jews sought refuge in the Lithuanian capital of Kaunas, where Sugihara was Japan's vice-consul. Defying orders from Tokyo not to get involved in the refugees' plight, Sugihara wrote illegal visas for 2,000 families, enabling them to escape from the Nazis. After the war, Sugihara resigned from the Foreign Ministry, where his efforts were never acknowledged, let alone praised. He spent the rest of his life broke, hopping from job to job until he died in obscurity in 1986. Since then, a Sugihara revival has taken hold in Japan, where he is now the subject of school lessons, statues and books. He has become Japan's very own Oskar Schindler.
One book, howeverChiune: In Search of Sugihara, by Boston University sociology and religion professor Hillel Levinehas become a touchstone for controversy. Part biography, part spiritual quest, Chiune ponders the way history forces an ordinary man to make extraordinary choices. Levine sees heroism in Sugihara's defiant issuance of visas, yet his version of Sugihara remains a complex and flawed creaturea man with a weakness for women and wine, and whose job included spying on Russia.
Although such revelations, if true, might seem innocuous to a casual observer, they are heretical to Sugihara's staunchest defenders and have triggered a ferocious legal and rhetorical response. In August, a libel suit for some $83,000 was filed in Tokyo against Levine's Japanese publisher, claiming that the book is a farrago of lies designed to discredit Sugihara and his memory. Levine calls the accusation preposterous, telling TIME that his real intention was to "make well-known the glorious meaning of Sugihara." A new round of hearings is set to begin this month.
Watanabe's version of Sugihara is an almost cartoonish figure of pure benevolence, more at home in the Lives of the Saints than the pages of 20th century history. He harbors no failings, suffers no fears, operates under no other motivation than altruism. Watanabe says he doesn't understand how Levine's habit of "praising (Sugihara) the first minute, putting him down the next" honors Sugihara's achievements. Levine, for his part, says he simply has a different philosophy of history. "As a historian, I took a critical stance," which he insists does not diminish Sugihara's bravery.
According to Watanabe's Sugihara Study Group, however, Levine's critical stance created junk history. The group claims to have discovered nearly 1,000 inaccuracies in his book, 300 of which they submitted to the court as evidence. Many of the alleged mistakes would appear to be unfortunate but hardly dire factual lapsesmisspelled names, erroneous dates and cultural misunderstandings. Graver charges include the accusation that Levine fabricated entire interviewsincluding one with Sugihara's now deceased first wife, Klaudia, whose existence remained unknown even to some of Sugihara's family until they read Levine's book. Levine says he hasn't seen the court document yet but doubts he could have made 300 errors and says he's insulted by any accusations of malicious intent or fabrication.
Strangely, even the Sugihara family is divided on the case. Nobuki Sugihara, the hero's youngest son, has denounced the lawsuit as an exploitation of his elderly and infirm mother. But Yukiko's daughter-in-law Michi Sugihara calls Nobuki's position "foolish." Hollywood may also be entering the fray. Both authors are developing separate Sugihara film projects, though they deny that the lawsuit has anything to do with their cinematic endeavors. For now, it's anyone's guess which version of Sugihara's List will make it to the multiplex near you.