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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 32 - One Monkey, Two Giant Balls, and 6,000 Eastern Europeans (Japan Week)

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: 'The Japanese Schindler' Chiune Sugihara, also known as Sempo.

But first, some honourable mentions from the wonderful world of Japanese folklore.

Aka Manto or The Red Cape – A Japanese urban legend about a man who hides in the last stall of the women's bathroom in public toilets. When you sit down, he pops up and demands that you choose a sheet or red paper or blue paper.

As long as its double-ply I'm happy.

If you choose red, you get flayed, if you choose blue, you get strangled.

If you choose another colour, you get dragged down into the pits of hell. Apart from yellow, which will get you bog washed.

Supposedly the only way to survive is to run, or to just ignore him. Which does seem like a fatal chink in his armour.

Hanako-San – Is a widely believed legend about the ghost of a girl who haunts school toilets. Apparently she died whilst playing hide-and-seek in an air raid in world war two. She doesn't really do much other than spook in an appropriate fashion – leaving the toilet seat up eerilie, flipping the loo roll round the wrong way, and clogging the bowl with massive ghostly turds. Nevertheless, it's quite common for groups of kids to go into the toilets in Japan at break time and try to summon her.

There's also the slit-mouthed woman – Who is apparently spirit of a mutilated woman who wears a veil with only her lips showing. Late at night she asks passers by if they think she is pretty. If they say no, she produces a giant pear of scissors and stabs you. If you say yes, she takes off the veil to reveal she's been cut from ear to ear like the joker in batman. She then asks you again if you think she is attractive. Answer no, and you'll get stabbed. Answer yes, and she'll use her scissors to do the same to you.

The only way to survive? Apparently it's to tell her she's average looking and give her a sweet.

Chiune Sugihara

So today for my main story I'm going to talk about something very rare indeed. And that's a positive outcome to Japan's role in WW2.

Because 99.99% of the time, Japan in WW2 was thunderously awful. They murdered approximately the same number of civilians as the Nazis in the holocaust, encouraged forced prostitution and slavery, conducted hideous medical experiments and had a scorched-earth policy. It was incredibly sadistic – If you've never read up on the rape of Nanking, have a go, just not whilst eating. Or wanting to sleep. And, unlike Germany, they've never really apologised for it and it's still a contentious issue in Japan today.

BUT I wanted to try and avoid the relatively well-known horrors of WW2 and introduce a rare beacon of light and hope. And that beacon is Chiune Sugihara or Sempo as he's known in the West. The Japanese Schindler.

He was born on January 1st 1900, which is very easy to remember and makes working out how old he was when he was doing things very easy. And despite being from a well-off family he had a bit of a disrupted childhood. His Dad was a tax official and the family moved around a lot, living between rented houses and rooms in temples.

Anyway, he was a very bright kid but had an innate rebellious streak. His Dad put him up to take university entrance exams to become a doctor, but Sempo apparently deliberately flunked the test. Which is an excuse we've all used when we fuck up an exam, but he must have really dicked it up, because he only wrote his name on the paper. And only writing his name and nothing else will pop back towards the end of our story.

He deliberately failed because he had no interest in medicine or science, being far more into the arts, languages and learning about foreign cultures. So instead, he went to study English, and after graduating, took the entrance exams to join the foreign ministry. After a brief stint in the army stationed in Korea, he was snapped up due to his excellent understanding of Russian and English, and German languages and cultures, and posted to Harbin in Japanese-occupied China, which had an exiled Russian population, and converted to Orthodox Christianity. He pretty quickly quit the Foreign ministry in Harbin though at the abysmal treatment of the locals by the Japanese and local puppet Government – Harbin was home to Unit 731 – the Japanese medical experiment unit who took thousands of locals and used them as human test subjects for biological and chemical weapons, as well as newly developed bombs and grenades. Really fucking horrible.

Anyway, Sempo quit and went back to Tokyo in 1935, and in 1939 was sent on as the Japanese Vice Consul to Lithuania, where his job was to report on German military movements and gather intelligence on any possible upcoming German/Soviet war.

Now, Lithuania had a huge Jewish population in 1939. It's estimated roughly half the urban population was Jewish, and they were joined by an influx of Polish-Jewish refugees, all of whom could see the writing on the wall and were desperate to leave German-occupied Europe by any means possible. Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to get exit visas – the only people writing them were rebelliously-minded diplomats who could see what was happening and went behind their own Governments backs to write transit visas through their countries to far-flung destinations. And fortunately, Sempo was a rebelliously minded diplomat with a conscience!

After asking for instructions and being told no-one could enter Japan as a refugee unless they had a confirmed onward destination and a lot of cash, Sempo did something very un-Japanese, and ignored his orders. He got in touch with the Soviets who confirmed that they'd let refugees in to travel on the trans-siberian railway to Japan, for a mere five times the normal ticket price. Bloody bleeding-heart lefties.

So, knowing he could get the people to Japan, Sempo started writing visas. 300 of them a day in 20-hour shifts, more than he'd usually write in a month. And he was giving them to heads of households, who could then take their families.

It's estimated he managed to get over 2,000 visas written, officially helping more than 6,000 people escape between July 18th and August 28th 1940, when the consulate stopped official work and was due to close down. Even then, he started simply stamping blank sheets of paper and writing his name at the bottom, a throw back to his medical career, and handing them out in huge wads to be forged by the refugees. Even as he boarded the train with all his belongings, he was throwing blank visas out of the window to the crowds of refugees waiting on the platform.

The refugees started fleeing in their thousands – fortunately the Soviets just wanted them out of the USSR as soon as possible so basically took the money for the train tickets, gave the visas a cursory glance and shoved the families on trains to Vladivostok, where they boarded boats either to Kobe in Japan or Shangai, both of which had existing Jewish communities. Unlike the Chinese citizens under their 'protection', the Japanese had no interest in abusing or killing off the refugees, and after discovering that all their transit documents were fake, allowed them to either stay in Japan until they had somewhere to go, or shipped them off to Shanghai. Some people did get caught in the crossfire, one large extended family, the Goldbergs – 30 people all travelling on one visa, ended up being shipped back and forth several times from Japan to Shanghai and were stuck on the boat for weeks due to irregularities with their possibly forged visa. Most of the rest either settled in Japan or found their way on the USA, Dutch Colonies or Middle East.

Meanwhile Sempo pretty much got away with it – his seniors knew he'd broken the rules but had no idea by quite how much until literally thousands of people started rocking up, and needed people with understanding of European politics. So he was shipped around Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania before being captured by the Soviets in 1944. He and his family were held in a POW camp for 18 months until he was finally released and travelled home in 1946, and unceremoniously made redundant shortly after his return. The Foreign Affairs Ministry claimed it was just due to post-war downsizing, but it's widely believed it's because they had finally cottoned on to just how many fraudulent visas he had written. And it really was a lot – he was pretty much single handedly responsible for an entire new refugee camp in Kobe.

He lived a pretty poor life after that, resorting to selling lightbulbs door-to-door at some point and then spending 16 years flitting around the USSR. Eventually he was tracked down by some of the children he'd saved and was given the Righteous Among the Nations award, for non-Jewish people who helped save members of the community during the holocaust. He's the only Japanese recipient.

In all, he's credited with saving up to 10000 people, though 6,000 is a more reliable number – it's hard to tell because so many people traveled on one visa, and it's estimated some 40,000 more people are alive today because of him.

Tom's notes: Journey to the West, also known as ‘Monkey; a folk tale of China’

o An English translation

· Published during the 1590s and classed as one of the Four (sometimes 6) Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature


· I stumbled across this whilst researching Japanese folklore and it is a very popular story in Japan; they’re have been 5 televisions adaptation of it since the 1970sAttributed to a chap called Wu Cheng-en

o This is by no means certain

o It was originally published anonymously possibly because it was written in the vernacular; something deemed vulgar

· The book tells the story of a Chinese Buddhist Monk called Xuansang or Tang Sanzang or Tang Seng

o He is a real historical figure

o 7th Century

o He was frustrated by the poor quality translation of Buddhist texts available in Ming China so set out on a journey to India to get some better one

§ He started in the East of China, went west, through the stans (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan), down through Pakistan and into India

· Along well established Silk Roads

§ This journey took around 17 years and although he left when the Emperor had a ban on travel (he had managed to sneak out) he was warmly greeted on his return.

· The story version

o Buddha believes that Tang China is full of sin so he sends one of his bodhisattva (an apprentice Buddha) to find someone to bring back the original Buddhist scriptures to this land to purify the people of sin

o On his journey, Tang Seng encounters lots of demonic spirit creatures determined to eat him to cleanse their beings; presumably you are what you eat, and he’s a nice, pious chap with good heavenly prospects

o Luckily for Tang Seng, he has lots of disciplines who are as good at getting Tang Seng out of trouble with these demons as he is at getting into trouble

§ These disciples are a rag-tag clan of heavenly rejects

§ A Buddhist Expendables if you will

o Here is a list:

§ Sun Wukong

· An intelligent and violent monkey. Tang Seng manages to control this monkey with a golden ring that caused headaches with Tang Seng recites the ring tightening mantra

o Teresa May performing a strip tease

· The monkey is found under a mountains where he was trapped for 500 years for being a bit of a toe rag

o He’s made guardian of the heavenly peach garden and spends his time eating all of them

· He’s quite the disciple

o He can lift around 8000kg with his staff (which incidentally he stores in his ear)

o He can somersault around 14,000 miles

o He can transform into most things

o He can summon clones of himself

o He can make the weather do what he wants on occasion

o He has icy breathe that can freeze people

o I bet he’s a role play nerd’s dream

§ Zue Wuneng

· Half pig half man

o Reincarnation fuck up with the reincarnation wheel

· 36 possible transformations

· Former naval commander of the heavens in the Milky Way

o A bit of a divine boondoggle

§ Great depression, New Deal, Works Progress Administration, FD Roosevelt

o Surely an airforce would be more useful

· This pig loves being lazy, eating and women

§ Sha Wujing

· A river ogre

· A bit of a boring character which is probably why he was a heavenly curtain lifting general

§ Yulong

· A son of the Dragon King of the West Sea

· He appears as a horse that Tang Seng rides

o When they finally reach their destination; Vulture Peak in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Buddha gives them their texts and rewards the travellers with being made Buddhas, or deities, or in the case of piggy, he’s made chief alter cleaner

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