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Defying Expectations

An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive

Suitable for Whole School (Sec) - Church Schools


To consider the story of Chiune Sugihara.

Preparation and materials


Leader: How easily can you be made to feel embarrassed? Listen to this poem. You might well have heard it before - if you have, what do you think about it now?

Reader: Read the poem ‘Warning’ by Jenny Joseph, available at:

Leader: This is a popular poem in primary schools. Many little kids like the idea of being naughty. Even in primary school, there is terrible pressure to conform and succeed. The idea of escaping from that restraint, even for a moment, is really appealing. But how do you feel about it? At secondary school, there is still pressure to conform and succeed, but there is also a huge fear of being embarrassed in front of your friends. Can you really imagine wearing absolutely stupid clothes - and not caring in the slightest what your friends think? Is it a coincidence that teenagers, more than any other group, spend time in front of the mirror checking that theyve got the right look?

About 80 years ago, there was another society characterized by the drive to succeed and the fear of embarrassment. The person we are thinking about today, Chiune Sugihara, was a product of that Japanese culture. A descendant of Samurai warriors, he was a civil servant in the Foreign Ministry - a place where, if you wanted to succeed, it was essential to smile and please your superiors. In March 1939, his conformity paid off and he was appointed Japanese vice-consul in Lithuania. It should have been the first step in a brilliant career. However, very soon afterwards, Hitler invaded Poland from the west and Stalin invaded from the east. Tens of thousands of Polish Jews fled into Lithuania - and found themselves trapped. No other countries would allow them to enter. One of the few places on Earth where there was a possibility of escape was, absurdly, a couple of islands in the Dutch West Indies, where no visa was required. The Dutch consul granted visas, but the only way to get there was by fleeing east, via Japan. As the vice-consul, Chiune Sugihara had to decide what he would do. He decided to telegraph Tokyo for permission to issue visas to the Jewish refugees. This was the reply.


Leader: Chiune Sugihara telegraphed Tokyo twice more for permission to issue visas, but each time, permission was refused. He had to make a decision. Either he could refuse to conform to the direction from Tokyo, which would certainly end his career and lead to serious trouble, or he could help thousands of Jewish people who were fleeing for their lives. Sugihara decided to ignore orders. For 29 days in July and August, he, along with his wife, spent every day writing out visas by hand. Crowds of people besieged the embassy hoping for one of these precious pieces of paper. The couple managed about 300 per day - the equivalent of a normal months work. As the bombs fell on Lithuania and the family was forced to flee, Chiune Sugihara continued to hand out freshly written visas from the train window. He even handed over the embassy stamp so that those left behind could forge visas.

It is thought that about 6,000 people survived because of Chiune Sugiharas visas. But what happened to him? With a reputation for disobedience, he was, in 1945, summarily dismissed from the Japanese diplomatic service, which was a terrible disgrace. His story was forgotten for over 25 years, until he was found by one of the refugees he saved. Over the years, more Sugihara refugees came forward and told their stories, which eventually led to the government of Israel recognizing Sugiharas efforts and awarding him the honour of Righteous Among the Nations, in 1985.

Time for reflection

Lets think for a moment about all the pressures on us to conform to other peoples expectations. Our parents and teachers want us to do well at school. Our friends want us to fit in with them. They want us to make the best of our lives; but there are times when it may be right to consider other standards, standards that are not set by either group. Chiune Sugihara thought that the most important thing was to obey God - not the government.

Jesus had to face similar conflicts. He was even rejected by his own family - they thought he was mad not to conform to ordinary standards and to live a quiet life at home.

In a few moments of quiet, lets pray for the courage and insight to know what we ought to do, and to do it, even if it means going against conventional expectations.

Publication date: September 2023   (Vol.25 No.9)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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