February 26, 2020

Self-styled historian seeks clues to Japan’s Holocaust survivors

Akira Kitade is a former Japanese tourism executive who still relishes the opportunity to show a newcomer the cultural sights of Tokyo. He also delights in showing off photos of his new grandchild and extended family.

But it’s the aging black-and-white snapshots of seven Jewish refugees dedicated to his late boss, Tatsuo Osako, and a memoir written by Osako detailing his experiences rescuing Jewish refugees, that have inspired Kitade to delve deeper into a little-known aspect of Japanese-Jewish history.

“I was profoundly moved by what I had read in this book, not only because of what the refugees experienced, but also harsh, wintery conditions Mr. Osako, his colleagues and the refugees experienced on the journey through Russia into the Sea of Japan,” Kitade said. “With the album, Mr. Osako added impact to his words through these interesting, powerful images of life on the boat and of the people he helped rescue.”

Kitade, who is writing a book about Osako and other like-minded Japanese citizens who aided Jewish refugees during World War II, is hoping to identify the people in the seven snapshots and speak with them or their descendants.

Kitade’s search took him across the United States in 2010, which included speaking with Jewish refugees who had traveled to Japan during the war and a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He plans to return for a trip that would include the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

So far, he has yet to find any of the Jewish refugees in the photos.

In the meantime, he pores over articles, interviews and old manifests that document the Japan Tourist Bureau’s rescue operations, and speaks throughout Japan about the righteous actions of his former boss.

“It is my responsibility to educate others about people like Mr. Osako, who worked behind the scenes and did it without searching for fame or recognition,” Kitade said.

In July 1940, Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania, defied his government and issued Japanese transit visas to Jewish refugees. Despite the Soviet closure of consuls and embassies in Lithuania, Sugihara remained in Kovno and continued to issue visas, the last of which were handed out from the window of his train to refugees as he departed for Berlin on Sept. 4. Known as Japan’s Oskar Schindler, Sugihara is estimated to have saved approximately 6,000 Jews.

After the refugees traveled thousands of miles along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok in Manchuria, the Japan Tourist Bureau, with funding from American Jewish organizations and the support of various Japanese government agencies, arranged to transport the refugees to Japan.

From September 1940 until March 1941, Osako, a tourist bureau employee, served as an escort and clerk aboard the Amakusa Maru, a ship that ferried more than 2,000 Jews carrying visas issued by Sugihara — and obvious forgeries — between Vladivostok and Japanese ports every two weeks.

A few of the refugees helped by Osako gave him their photograph with inscriptions of gratitude.

“My best regards to my friend Tatsuo Osako,” is written in French of the back of one snapshot, which is signed I. Segaloff and dated March 4, 1941.

On the back of another snapshot, a woman has written in Polish, “A souvenir to a very nice Japanese man.”

Once in cities like Kobe or Yokohama, Tadeusz Romer, the Polish ambassador in Tokyo, arranged for Jews to immigrate to the United States, Canada, Australia and Israel, among other countries. (Those who remained in Japan were eventually deported to Japanese-controlled Shanghai, China.)

Kitade first learned of Osako’s role in the rescue in 1988. While reading a book about the Japan Tourist Bureau’s history, he stumbled upon a short section detailing the bureau’s role in transporting Jews out of Russia. Kitade, who had worked under Osako for more than 20 years, said his former boss’ name jumped off the page. But with Kitade stationed in Seoul and Osako retired, it would be another 10 years before the two reconnected. When they did, Osako presented Kitade with a memoir detailing his observations aboard the Amakusa Maru.

According to the memoir, life on board the ship was often stormier than the sea itself, with food shortages, the stench of illness and Spartan shared living conditions. In his observations, Osako was struck by the refugees’ shared optimism and the respect the crew had for their charges. Kitade said the feeling is best captured in one passage in Osako’s memoir, when he describes coming out on deck and seeing the first rays of sunshine in weeks, recognizing a better day was dawning for refugees escaping the darkness of war.

Given that Japan was allied with Germany, Kitade says it’s natural for people — particularly Jews — to believe all of Japan was pro-German and that the culture may still be anti-Semitic. He hopes his efforts will shed new light on the efforts of Japanese citizens who continued Sugihara’s heroic deed.

“A greater understanding of Osaka’s motivations, actions and relationships with these refugees will wash away that impression and reveal there were several brave Japanese people besides Sugihara who thought otherwise,” Kitade said.

Although he has yet to find the seven survivors aided by Osaka, who died in 2003, Kitade says he is thankful for the moral support he receives from people he has met in the United States.

“They give me continued encouragement, saying things like, ‘Kitade-san, I’m looking forward to reading your book. Ganbatte! (Do your best!),” he said.

To contact Akira Kitade, e-mail him at kitadeakira@hotmail.com.