In our first Spotlight article last year, we profiled the life and times of Chiune Sugihara, the man who became known as the “Japanese Schindler” after he defied government orders to save the lives of thousands of Jews in Lithuania. Two years prior to his heroic act, there was another Japanese man who risked his career to rescue Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis. Lieutenant General Kiichiro Higuchi is not as well known or as acclaimed as Sugihara, probably due to his military career, yet his actions were just as courageous and important. Here we look back at his story.
The eldest of nine siblings, Higuchi was born on the island of Awaji in Hyogo Prefecture on August 20, 1888. His father ran a small shipping business that fell into ruin following the spread of steamships. At the age of 11, Higuchi’s parents divorced, and he was subsequently raised by his mother’s family. He went on to enroll at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy, during which time he studied Russian at the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages. He became fluent which led to his posting in Vladivostok in 1919.
During his time there, Higuchi lived with a wealthy Jewish person and often socialized with several Jewish residents who spoke to him about the difficulties they faced. Discrimination against Jews, which was rife in Europe at the time, was something Higuchi regularly saw during his years in Warsaw, Poland, where he served as a military attaché between 1925 and 1928. After leaving Poland, Higuchi visited Tiflis (now Tbilisi) in Georgia on an inspection tour. While there, a Jewish toy shop owner spoke to him about the persecution of the Jews, while calling the Japanese emperor “a savior of Jewish people in our hour of need.”
A Powerful Anti-Semitic Speech
Those experiences abroad no doubt had an impact on Higuchi’s decision to help the Jewish people in 1938. As did the time he spent in West Germany a year earlier, where he witnessed the country’s anti-Semitism firsthand. Towards the end of 1937, Higuchi left Europe to head to Harbin, the largest city in the Imperial Japanese Puppet State of Manchukuo. Chief of the special branch there, the Japanese man was invited by Russian-born Zionist Abraham Kaufman to speak at the first Far East Jewish Congress in the city on December 26, 1937.
“You are no lesser than any other ethnic group either in science, industry or any other field,” Higuchi told the packed crowd. “History proves this. However, in the 20th century we see some places in the world where Jews are being expelled. Being witness to this, I am deeply sorry for what is happening. It is a humanitarian emergency. Expulsion without designating a destination is a treatment, which amounts to mass murder.” The 1,000 in attendance cheered and clapped when the speech had finished.
The Otpor Incident
News that an important member of the Japanese army had given a speech criticizing West Germany soon spread. Nazi officials were furious while it was also seen as a big scandal for Japan, a key country in the Axis alliance. For many Jewish people, however, China was now seen as a potential destination to find refuge. In March 1938, just over two months after Higuchi’s speech, Jewish refugees began appearing in Otpor near the USSR-Manchukuo border. The diplomatic mission of Manchukuo, though, initially refused to let them enter. Then Higuchi stepped in.
With temperatures below -20 degrees, the refugees were in serious danger of freezing to death. There was no time to think about the political consequences. After consulting with Kaufman, Higuchi decided to act. Working alongside Yosuke Matsuoka, president of South Manchuria Railway, he requested a special train for those stuck at the border and provided them with exit visas. His subordinates, meanwhile, gave them food, clothing and medical equipment. The Japanese government then opened an escape route to Shanghai which became known as the “Higuchi Route.”
It’s estimated that up to 20,000 people traveled this route between 1938 and 1940. Once again, the Nazis were livid, with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the country’s minister of foreign affairs, launching an official protest. Fortunately, Hideki Tojo, then head of Japan’s Kwantung Army, rejected the complaints, stating that Higuchi was only doing what was humanitarian. “Of course, my grandfather could have refrained from helping the refugees out of concern for his future career and self-interest. He could have been swayed by the disputes around him. However, in the end he trusted his own judgment,” said his grandson Ryuichi Higuchi, a former professor at Meiji Gakuin University.
Leading His Troops into Battle
Later in the year, Higuchi was recalled to Japan and became the commanding officer of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 9th Division in 1939. In 1942, he led the invasions of Kiska and Attu in the Aleutian Islands, part of the territory of Alaska. It marked the first time in over 130 years that US soil was under occupation by a hostile country. The campaign proved disastrous for Japan with Higuchi’s unit resorting to a last-minute banzai attack in Attu. He then evacuated the 5,200 Japanese troops in Kiska before the 34,000 American and Canadian soldiers could attack.
On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito officially announced Japan’s surrender. Yet for Higuchi and his troops in Hokkaido, the war wasn’t over yet. Three days prior to the famous announcement, the lieutenant general had described the Soviet Union as Japan’s “shukuteki” (arch-enemy). Having specialized in Russian affairs, he was aware that Joseph Stalin intended to occupy Japan’s northernmost prefecture. Ignoring a ceasefire order from the Imperial Headquarters, he gave his own orders to resist Soviet forces when they landed on Shumshu Island on August 18. In doing so, he delayed the USSR’s capture of the Kuril Islands and thwarted their plans to invade Hokkaido.
Higuchi’s Death and Legacy
After the war, Higuchi lived for a short time in Hokkaido, before settling in Miyazaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. According to his grandson, he led a reclusive life and didn’t like to talk about the past, though did pray for the souls of the war dead every morning. He passed away on this day in 1970, shortly after moving to Tokyo. He was 82. In September 2020, the Higuchi Kiichiro Memorial Hall was opened in his honor in the city of Ishikari, Hokkaido.
A ceremony was held today to unveil a bronze statue of the general in his hometown on Awaji Island. “Higuchi took the initiative with bold and courageous action in a time of turmoil and unpredictability,” said Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook author Edward Luttwak, who was part of the committee to raise funds for the statue. “Many among the 20,000 saved became ambassadors and scientists, because of his help. But as you know, Higuchi is not recognized as a hero by Yad Vashem (the world Holocaust remembrance center). There are always good soldiers everywhere you go, in every country, every era. Higuchi deserves to be widely honored.” Though not recognized by Yad Vashem, Higuchi is included in the Golden Book of Jerusalem.