Israel and Japan on Monday posthumously honored Tatsuo Osako, a Japanese travel agent who helped rescue Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
Osako worked as a travel agent in the Japanese coastal town of Tsuruga between 1940 and 1941 when thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing German-occupied Europe via Vladivostok in the Soviet Union arrived at the Japanese port by ship.
Although the Japanese Empire was allied with Nazi Germany, Osako welcomed refugees upon their arrival in Japan and distributed the aid money it received from Jewish relief organizations while using its connections to ensure the safe passage of refugees to Japan.
Osako, who died in 2003, is one of a handful of Japanese citizens whose contribution to saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust was belatedly recognized by the Israeli government.
In February, the legislatures of Israel and Japan held an event for the first time to commemorate Japanese citizens who helped Jews during World War II.
In honor of the event, three special certificates of appreciation were issued, and Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov presented them Monday during his diplomatic visit to Tokyo.
On normal days, Osako was tasked with escorting tourists traveling from Russia to Japan, but during the war he helped transport thousands of Jewish refugees to safety. Its strategic position at the port was key in distributing refugee aid money.
He kept in touch with the Soviet port city and ensured the safety of asylum seekers when boarding ships and on their journey to Japan.
Some of the people who received help from Osako gave her family photos with personal dedications as a sign of gratitude. Some of these photos have been kept in a museum in Tsuruga to this day.
Using these photos, the Israeli Embassy in Japan, in cooperation with the Yad Vashem Memorial Museum, managed to trace three of the people appearing in the photographs.
A close friend of Osako was inspired by his work and embarked on a long journey to gain recognition for his actions.
Official recognition of the contribution of Japanese citizens came considerably late. Until a decade ago, their story was relatively forgotten and unverified.
Tourism Minister Razvozov presented a special certificate of appreciation to the chairman of JTB – Japan’s largest travel agency and Osako’s employer – as a formal token of gratitude for the travel agent’s actions during the ‘Holocaust.
To date, only one Japanese national has been recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations: Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued thousands of visas to Jewish refugees during the war.
“The Jewish people’s gratitude to the angels who helped save Jews during the Holocaust is a primary Jewish value and an essential part of our efforts to commemorate and remember hell,” Razvozov said.
“During the Holocaust, atrocities took place that reveal the most terrible side of humanity, alongside stories like that of Mr. Tatsuo Osako that showcase the best of humanity. I am proud and very excited to be here on behalf of the State of Israel and to present the certificates.”