This is the groundbreaking story of Japan’s World War II intelligence agents, an elite cadre of approximately 2,500 men who trained at the Nakano School in western Tokyo, established in 1938. They were involved in a diverse range of missions in various theaters throughout the war, and some of the survivors continued to ply their craft after surrender. One of them, Hiro Onoda, became famous when he emerged in 1974 from the Philippine jungle where he had continued to wage war and fulfill his duty as a servant of the Emperor. Upon his return, this Rip van Winkle became so disenchanted with what Japan had become, he relocated to Brazil.
Stephen Mercado, a former CIA analyst, notes that the Nakano School was started too late for Japan’s good, because by 1941 its graduates had not yet risen to powerful positions in the military. Lacking top-level sponsors who appreciated the benefits of integrating intelligence into military planning, the Nakano graduates contributed far less than they might have. Instead, the potential contributions of Japan’s intelligence neophytes were routinely squandered during the war, because the Army “. . . failed to look beyond immediate, tactical uses of intelligence to grasp its strategic value.” He cites Japanese observers who argue that Japan may not have gone to war with the United States had the Nakano School been established in the 1920s, since military leaders could have benefited from good intelligence and a better understanding of German, Russian and American intentions and capabilities.
By design, the Nakano training and ethos was out of sync with the prevailing army culture. Mostly in response to the hazards of waging war in post-1931 China, and the surge in anti-Japanese nationalism, intelligence students were explicitly taught to act and think differently than typical army recruits. They were told not to sacrifice their lives and to surrender if necessary in order to carry out their missions — grounds for treason, according to contemporary military doctrine. Mercado notes, “In an army that inculcated unquestioning execution of orders and a fiery patriotism, the Nakano School began encouraging its shadow warriors to think creatively. They were to know the enemy, not simply fight him. . . . He must be able to imagine himself in the shoes of the enemy.” Lax discipline, relaxed rules on clothing and haircuts and an education aimed at thinking outside the box ensured that graduates encountered skeptical and hostile senior army officers who preferred yamato damashi (Japanese spirit) and blind devotion.
The Nakano graduates were resourceful and had some notable successes in outfoxing Japan’s enemies, but they were never able to overcome their formidable enemies on the domestic front. They were so successful in planting false radio broadcasts in Java to confuse the Dutch in preparation for the invasion that the domestic media reported the propaganda as fact, thus inadvertently sowing misinformation at home. These capable operatives knew how to seize the initiative and advance Japan’s cause by developing partnerships and friendships with Asian nationalists.
However, such efforts were inevitably undermined by army martinets who consistently sacrificed the ideals of pan-Asian solidarity, which they regarded as little more than empty rhetoric, for military needs and objectives. For Japan’s top brass, invading the European colonies was less inspired by a desire to liberate them than to tap their resources to continue a war of Imperial subjugation in China. Granting independence was an afterthought as the tide of war shifted against Japan. Apologists for Japan often point to the military training and arms caches delivered to nationalists as evidence that it did act as a liberator of Asia. Certainly Japanese troops offered some help, but, with good reason, many Asians bridle at the suggestion that Japan “liberated” Asia; such a view belittles their independence struggles, exaggerates the Japanese role and conveniently sweeps aside the millions of Asians killed by Japanese Imperial forces to promote its own agenda. In this context, Mercado’s uncritical defense of Tokyo University professor Nobukatsu Fujioka’s vindicating and exculpatory war narrative is hard to fathom and at odds with much of what he reports.
Japan’s agents were good at winning “hearts and minds” and eliciting cooperation from the occupied peoples of Asia, but they also had a rich record in quickly squandering this goodwill. There is no doubt that Japan raised hopes for independence among Asia’s colonized masses, but it is equally true that harsh policies, cultural insensitivity and a failure to accommodate nationalist aspirations revealed that the “liberators” were just a new set of overlords. In Burma, for example, Aung San resented the overbearing attitudes of Japanese military officers and their contemptuous treatment of him and other Burmese who had initially rallied around Japan. The Japanese came to regret their betrayal, as “Aung San and his men proceeded to carry out guerrilla raids against the Japanese. . . . the Burmese were paying them back for the years of oppressive military government and Kempeitai terror.”
Back home, the Nakano graduates were also busy preparing for the defense of Japan and were actively involved in Okinawa. There they were involved in efforts to bolster morale, sabotage the invasion and act as a disruptive fifth column during any subsequent occupation. These tragic figures were doomed to also fail like their comrades overseas and apparently had little tangible impact. Paradoxically, as the war persisted, Japan’s intelligence capabilities were improving just as its strength was waning. Mercado writes, “While the military’s ‘eyesight’ had improved, its ‘muscles’ had deteriorated.”
Some of the most fascinating stories presented in “The Shadow Warriors” focus on the activities of Nakano operatives after surrender in 1945. For various reasons, Nakano agents kept an heir to the throne and Burmese leader Ba Maw, disguised as a Manchurian monk, hidden for a time in a remote Niigata village. Savvy in the ways of the world, other agents prepared caches of information they hoped to use as bargaining chips in dealing with the U.S. forces occupying Japan. This information proved to be excellent insurance against prosecution and helped launch careers working for U.S. intelligence. They made their contacts, bided their time, doled out enough information to establish their value and eventually reaped the rewards. As a result of the looming Cold War with the Soviet Union, the U.S. occupiers were eager to tap into as much military intelligence as was available about its foe. The Nakano alumni supplied them with valuable topographical reports about Manchuria, Korea and the Soviet Far East. They also later screened prisoners of war returning from Soviet camps in Siberia to glean relevant information. Over the years they advised Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai Shek in his losing war against the Communists and also played a role in advising the U.S. during the Korean War, sharing insights gained from their experiences.
This is a welcome and important contribution to our understanding of a significant aspect of Japan’s war in Asia. Mercado’s research is impressive and he conveys in copious detail his interesting findings about the activities of Japan’s “spies” who seemed to have had more success after the war serving the U.S. than they did during the war under their own myopic military.