Japan's NTV television station recently aired a special on History's 100 Greatest Heroes. The list is worldwide, but since it was based on viewer polling, the top leans heavily towards Japanese military heroes.
I've always had a decent sense of the broad outlines of Japanese history, but less knowledge of the particular men (and it's almost all men) who played a part in the major events that shaped Japanese history. It's fascinating to read accounts of the lives of different figures in, say, the Meiji Restoration. But the most astonishing story to me, no less because I was surprised that I hadn't heard it before, is Chiune Sugihara's, Japanese consulate to Lithuania in the years just before and during World War II:
After the Soviet Union takeover of Lithuania in 1940, many Jewish refugees from Poland (Polish Jews) as well as Lithuanian Jews tried to acquire exit visas. Without the visas, it was dangerous to travel and impossible to find countries willing to issue them. Hundreds of refugees came to the Japanese consulate in Kaunas, trying to get a visa to Japan... At the time, the Japanese government followed an officially neutral policy towards the Jews, but demanded that visas be issued only to those who had gone through appropriate immigration procedures and had enough funds. Most of the refugees did not fulfill these criteria. Sugihara dutifully contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry three times for instructions. Each time, the Ministry responded that anybody granted a visa should have a visa to a third destination to exit Japan, with no exceptions.
From July 31-August 28 1940 Sugihara began to grant visas on his own initiative, after consulting with his wife. Many times he ignored the requirements and arranged the Jews with a 10-day visa to transit through Japan, in direct violation of his orders. Given his post and the culture of the Japanese Foreign Service, this was an extraordinary action without precedent. He spoke to Soviet officials who agreed to let the Jews travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian railway at five times the standard ticket price.
Sugihara continued to hand-write visas (reportedly spending 18–20 hours a day on them, producing a normal month's worth of visas each day) until September 4, when he had to leave his post before the consulate was closed. By that time he had granted thousands of visas to Jews, many of them heads of household who could take their families with them. According to witnesses, he was still writing visas while in transit in hotel and after boarding the train, throwing visas into the crowd of desperate refugees out the train's window even as the train pulled out.