They say prefecture 46, Fukui, is the happiest in Japan. If that’s the case, then it’s true in spite of the weather. Winter here consists of snow, sleet, hail and rain, usually within a few minutes of each other. Still, the people are happy – it’s a very different place in summer, apparently. Historically, though, there’s no doubting that the place has seen its fair share of glee. Take 1940, for example, when there was a sudden spike in happiness – a leap from misery to joy.
By then the Second World War was well under way in Europe. Germany was stretching out its black fists to pulverise its neighbours; France raised the white flag, and with America swithering over whether or not to get involved, Britain was beginning to feel very isolated.
On the opposite side of Europe, the situation was altogether more dire. Polish Jews, already on the run from the Nazis, now found their country invaded from the East as the Soviet Union began a big, red march into the continent. With nowhere else to go, the Jews fled to Lithuania to buy themselves a little time. There they found themselves trapped, with every border country having strong allegiances one way or another.
Salvation, when it arrived, came from an usual source: Chiune Sugihara, the vice consul of the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas. A deal was struck with Russian troops, allowing any Jewish Pole to pass all the way through the vastness of Russia and get on a boat to Japan, so long as they held the relevant documentation and bought a ticket on the Trans-Siberian railway at an inflated price.
Though Japan was not yet part of The Axis, the orders were not to help Jews in any way. But Sugihara was a man of conscience – and he had to pass the stricken refugees every day. So, in an act of gross disobedience, the man from Gifu started issuing visas. Thousands of them.
It’s not certain exactly how many thousands of people he saved from the Nazi camps and Siberian prisons, but save them he did. After ending the mammoth train journey in Vladivostok, the majority of the refugees immediately boarded a boat to Japan. In those days, Tsuruga, Fukui was an important port town and so it was here that salvation was finally found.
The dishevelled Poles must have been quite a sight as they shambled through town, and there are some alive today who still remember watching these strange, wretched gaijins disembarking.
Though she was already in her late teens by then, Eiko Takagi doesn’t actually remember that day. Perhaps she was out of town, perhaps she was doing something else. Who knows, but at 89, we’ll forgive her the slight memory lapse.
She still lives in the rainy little town by the sea, making dolls as she has done since her youth. Yet, what started as a hobby all those years ago is today a high art form. Implausibly made exclusively from paper, Takagi’s figurines have a vitality about them that Pixar would envy. Each little diorama depicts an seasonal scene – flying kites in an autumnal breeze, throwing snowballs, preparing for New Year celebrations – that changes throughout the year. They almost always involve children, and though the dolls are faceless, they are absolutely full of life. Takagi doesn’t sketch the scene before she creates them, she just makes what she sees in her mind’s eye.
So content is Takagi with her work, that she doesn’t feel the need to sell it. No, she just teaches other people and occasionally does temporary exhibitions for department stores. She doesn’t need more than that – she’s content, you see? Happy.