(Town Hall Square, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. This photo by Marcin Bialek)
To most Japanese people, the Baltic countries are distant and unfamiliar lands that lie thousands of kilometers away from us in Europe. But some may remember the name of a Japanese diplomat who helped thousands of fleeing Jews by issuing transit visas in 1940 when he was stationed in Lithuania. From this perspective, I have picked this small Baltic country; how do they manage to survive?
First, a little bit more about the Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara (1900-1986). Germany invaded Poland in 1939, starting the Second World War. Some of the fleeing Polish Jews went to Lithuania that bordered with Poland. It was obvious that the German troops would march on to Lithuania at any moment; the frightened Jews sought the only possible escape route through the east (using the Trans – Siberian Railway to reach the U.S.A. via Japan). So, all of a sudden Sugihara faced hundreds of Jews applying for transit visas one morning. To this, Sugihara decided to issue the visas to all in defiance of the instruction from Tokyo: in just more than one month, some 6,000 visas were issued to them.
Lithuania was occupied by the Germans until 1944 when the Red Army took over the country and made Lithuania a part of Russia (as a matter of fact, for the second time: the first time it was under the Tsar). The people of Lithuania finally achieved their independence in 1990 after a bloody skirmish with Russian troops. In 2004, Lithuania and two other Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia, joined NATO as well as the EU.
Here is some data on today’s Lithuania, which is the biggest of the three Baltic countries in terms of population and area. Its inhabitants are around 3.4 million (slightly less than Yokohama’s 3.7 million) living in a territory of about 65,000 km2 (roughly twice the size of Belgium). Lithuania shares borders with four other countries: Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east and south, Poland to the south west (only a small section of), and surprisingly enough with a Russian enclave to the south west. It faces the Baltic Sea to the west.
So, from the national security point of view, Lithuania has set itself firmly as an active NATO member; it has a 15,000 strong standing armed forces supported by reserve forces of 100,000, which are quite substantial for a small country. Economically, the country is determined to thrive within the EU; specifically it’s trying to become one of the knowledge oriented centers in Europe, focusing on biotechnology, mech-atronics and IT.
Lastly, a few words about what happened to Sugihara. He was criticized within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for what he did in Lithuania, but remained as a diplomat in Europe until the end of WWII. He returned to Japan in 1947 but was “forced” to resign from the Ministry soon afterwards. It would only be in 2000 that the Japanese government would officially apologize to Sugihara, thus redeeming his honor.