BOOK REVIEW Hidden eyes and ears Spies for Nippon by Tony Matthews
Reviewed by George Amurao
The persistent image of a Japanese intelligence agent in World War II Southeast
Asia is usually that of a military secret police officer arresting civilians
suspected of being involved in guerilla activities and torturing them brutally,
often until the victims die.
Or it may be the oft-repeated tales from our elders who survived the war about
how the Japanese gardeners or general store clerks in their neighborhood in
pre-war days turned out to be high-ranking intelligence officers in disguise
once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. They had been sent years earlier to
Southeast Asia to
serve as the empire's eyes and ears.
Tony Matthews' new book, Spies for Nippon, shows that not only did these
two types of undercover agents exist, but also that Japan deployed the classic
cloak-and-dagger agent, who - protected by diplomatic immunity - was out to get
information and plot subversive actions against the Allies.
Spies for Nippon is less about Japanese intelligence operations in Asia
and more about the activities of Japanese spies in Europe. Early in the war,
American crypto-analysts had cracked the Japanese encryption code, known as
"Purple" (based on the German "Enigma" system), enabling the United States to
eavesdrop on communications between Japanese diplomatic missions in Europe and
South America and the Japanese Foreign Office in Tokyo.
Interception of these messages enabled the US to be forewarned and forearmed,
not only about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor and the movement of ships
in what would later be known as the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, but
also about troop movements, arms production, and tactical plans in both the
European and Pacific theaters of war. The intercepted messages also included
Japanese diplomats' routine reports about their then German Axis allies.
These archived US intelligence materials came to be collectively known as the
"Magic Summaries". They are believed to be the only available copies as the
Japanese destroyed communiques shortly before the end of the war. More than 50
years later, much of the intelligence remains classified. What has been made
publicly available became the basis for Matthews' book.
The book affords its readers a new perspective on how Japanese spymasters
posing as diplomats ran their agents, gathered intelligence on the Allies,
transacted with their fellow Axis partners and plotted against the Americans,
British and Soviets. It also gives a glimpse of the challenges faced by these
spymasters and agents, as well as their victories and defeats.
A typical intercepted message would often contain chillingly accurate
information, as seen in this excerpt from a transmission sent in early 1942 to
Tokyo from the Japanese legation in Madrid, Spain:
A certain powerful
individual has informed me that the American War Department has decided upon
plans for the occupation of the Pacific and preparations are already complete.
The objective is to occupy the Aleutians, Timor, Java and other islands that
have been lost. These bases of operations for this action will be New Zealand
and Australia and the Coral Sea, and soldiers and material and airplanes in
great numbers are already in position.
The book's strength,
however, is also its shortcoming. As much as readers may appreciate the
re-telling of what went on behind the scenes at various Japanese embassies and
legations in Europe and South America, the book glaringly lacks details on the
actual operations of individual spies.
The dramatis personae in this account include diplomats like Yakichiro Suma of
the Japanese legation in Madrid, his counterpart in Lisbon, Morito Morishima,
and Japan's ambassador to Germany, Hiroshi Oshima. Also noteworthy in the
account is Ramon Suner, an erstwhile Spanish foreign minister who supported
Japanese intelligence activities in his country.
These Japanese diplomats ran spy rings from their respective embassies and
legations, using either countrymen or foreigners to work for them, even before
Japan entered the war. Spain and Portugal, albeit nominally neutral during
World War II, proved to be ideal bases for Japanese spies to operate.
Spain under dictator Franco was sympathetic to the Axis powers due to Germany's
support for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Though
he was known for his pro-Third Reich stance, Suner's willingness to help the
Japanese spymasters in Madrid was also a reflection of national government
Japanese operations in Madrid and Lisbon were instrumental in establishing spy
rings in Latin American countries like Argentina, Chile and Mexico. In the
event that the US and Japan went to war, the proximity of these countries to
the US border would have been invaluable not only in monitoring American
activities but also for slipping agents into US territory.
On the doorstep
According to the "Magic Summaries", the Japanese did succeed in fielding
agents, even by recruiting Americans, to spy on the US. Whether the efforts of
those spies were successful, however, was another matter. Matthews recounts
some of the cases, all of which were seemingly thwarted by US authorities.
The book also showed how neutral countries Spain, Portugal and Switzerland
performed a tough balancing act, as they were anxious not to provoke the Allies
with their unofficial support of the Axis. The relationship between the
Japanese and their Spanish hosts, in particular, was sometimes thorny. It
became strained as Japanese military actions in Southeast Asia reached across
thousands of miles, causing diplomatic repercussions far and wide.
Early in the war, Spain lodged diplomatic protests with the Japanese embassy in
Madrid over Tokyo's policies in the Philippines, including the banning of the
Spanish language, harassment and imprisonment of Spanish Catholic priests,
barriers imposed on Catholic churches and Spanish companies in transmitting
funds to Spain, and the seizure of Spanish-owned properties. It got worse in
early 1945 when the Americans advanced into Manila.
The diehard Japanese Marines and sailors trapped inside the capital staged a
last stand, resisting the Americans for a month while engaging in an orgy of
violence. Some 100,000 Filipino civilians died in the Battle of Manila, roughly
10% of the city's population at the time. Among the dead were expatriate
Spaniards who were then residing in Manila. This further strained the two
countries' relationship to breaking point. Japan was also under pressure from
Portugal due to its occupation of the Portuguese colony of Timor.
The book shows clearly the disconnect between the Europe-based Japanese
diplomats' view of the overall situation with that of their paymasters in
Tokyo. Yakichiro Suma in Madrid sounded exasperated as he sent a note to the
Foreign Ministry: "I told you last year in the Philippines action Japan should
be very careful to respect Spain's position and to do nothing to harm her
culture there. I think the same advice is still pertinent, so will you please
consider it seriously." This note was sent months before the bloody Battle of
Japan's spies, mistaken in their belief that it was their German friends who
had cracked their espionage codes, continued to use the "Purple Code" to
transmit their reports, unwittingly handing the Allies such intelligence gems
as the effects of the bombing of Germany on German morale.
Morito Morishima, Tokyo's man in Lisbon, meanwhile, pleaded with his government
to withdraw Japanese troops from Timor: "If Japanese troops remain in Timor,
America might conceivably use that fact as a pretext for demanding that
Portugal turn over Macao for use as a base ... Lisbon is a valuable center for
obtaining intelligence, particularly about the enemy's movement of troops in
the Far East, and a rupture in relations between Japan and Portugal should
therefore be avoided." Tokyo remained steadfast on its stand not to withdraw
its troops from Timor, however.
As the tide of war turned against the Axis powers, Spain and Portugal began
putting more pressure on Japan. It did not help that the US was also using a
carrot-and-stick approach to prod the Spanish to close down the Japanese
legation and stop Axis agents from using Spain as a base. As Japanese diplomats
in Berlin faced relentless Allied bombings, their counterparts in Portugal,
Spain and even Switzerland faced the threat of expulsion by their respective
Another major problem that Japan's spy rings faced in the closing days of the
war was a lack of financing. After its supply of US dollars had been depleted,
Tokyo bought Swiss francs, then gold, and, as the desperation deepened, even
smuggled Mikimoto pearls into Europe to raise revenues, proceeds that were used
to continue funding intelligence operations.
Given the Japanese Foreign Ministry's order to all diplomatic posts to destroy
all copies of communiques, it is fortunate that many of the intercepted
messages were archived by the US. For one thing, this message traffic shows
another side of Japan at war. Matthews shows that the "Magic Summaries" were
instrumental in the Allies' ultimate defeat of the Japanese. US victory in the
naval Battle of Midway, in which the Americans wrestled the initiative of the
Pacific war from the Japanese, would not have been possible if not for the
timely interception of Japan's plans.
Matthews also claims in his book that the "Magic Summaries" were instrumental
in providing the US with information and insight on whether the Japanese would
surrender unconditionally. He also shows that US president Harry Truman used
this intercepted intelligence in making his final decision to drop the atomic
bomb on Japan, thus hastening the end of World War II. How many lives would
have been sacrificed had the US pushed through instead with the planned
invasion of the Japanese homeland?
At the same time, the uncovered message traffic shows another side of Japan at
war. Not only were the Japanese the cruel conquerors of Asia during and before
World War II, despised for their sadistic treatment of occupied populations and
captive enemies, they were also capable of running classical and highly
effective espionage operations in European capitals that had far-reaching
effects half a world away.
To be sure, they may not have been as efficient and successful as their German
counterparts, but the Japanese spymasters depicted in Matthews' book provide a
stark contrast to the stereotypical image of the cruel and fanatic Japanese
soldier who would rather die than surrender. While the book's pace hits a few
occasional speed bumps, overall it is a compelling new account of Japanese
espionage operations based on previously classified documents.
And yet for all Matthews' revelations, his insightful new book does not tell
the full story. Large sections of the "Magic Summaries" remain confidential.
Matthews said that these include the identities of the agents run by Japanese
spymasters in Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Russia, Germany,
Argentina, Chile and Spain. But there are likely more explosive secrets from a
world war more than half a century ago still hidden in US government vaults.
Spies for Nippon by Tony Matthews (Paperback Edition Robert Hale Ltd
2011). ISBN 978 0 7090 9144 8. Price US$22,50, 240 pages.
George Amurao, a former journalist in Manila, until recently worked for
the Southeast Asian Press Alliance and is now with Mahidol University
International College in Bangkok, Thailand.
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