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Treason for the most patriotic of reasons

by David Cozy

The subtitle informs us that this is a “casebook” — that is, not a monograph on the Sorge spy ring, but rather a miscellany of pieces around that topic. Happily, the assembled parts are not the hodgepodge they might have been, but instead a kaleidoscope of views that resonate well together. In his introduction, editor J. Thomas Rimer explains that he wants the casebook to provide “an account of the lasting cultural significance [of] events associated with the notable case of Richard Sorge, the Soviet spy active in Japan before and during World War II.”

PATRIOTS AND TRAITORS, SORGE AND OZAKI: A Japanese Cultural Casebook. Edited by J. Thomas Rimer. Saint Johann Press, 2009, 208 pp., $35 (paper)

There follows an extract from Chalmers Johnson’s book on Sorge and fellow spy Hotsumi Ozaki, “An Instance of Treason,” in which he wonders whether “treason is a meaningful concept when the leadership of a nation has fallen into the hands of men who are driving it toward its own destruction.”

There is a selection of the letters Ozaki wrote from prison to his wife and daughter; film scholar Keiko McDonald considers movies based on the Sorge/Ozaki affair; and we have Junji Kinoshita’s play, “A Japanese Called Otto.”

Johnson speculates about what motivated Ozaki, who was, as he writes, “a traitor for the most patriotic reasons.” Ozaki was also, like Sorge, motivated by intellectual reasons. The pair were, Johnson writes, “possibly the most intellectually overqualified spies in modern history,” and the idea that consumed intellectuals of the ’30s and ’40s was communism. Sorge’s communism appears to have been identical to the Soviet version which, of course, placed the Soviet Union first. But Ozaki — and he was not alone among Japanese intellectuals in this — championed instead a sort of greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere entirely different from the one the militarists would attempt to establish. As Johnson explains, Ozaki was motivated by a vision of “the cooperation of a Communist Japan, China, and Russia” against the British and American colonialists.

Ozaki’s motivation remains an issue, in part because of the letters he wrote and statements he issued while in prison during World War II. The translator of the letters included in this volume, Hiroshi Nara, writes: “Some think Ozaki, like other prisoners held in Sugamo Prison on similar charges, recanted his earlier procommunist beliefs.” Others who knew him deny this, but reading the letters it seems clear that his thoughts were evolving. Given the harsh conditions under which the letters were written — the kempeitai did employ torture — and the censorship to which they were subjected, it is hard to consider them entirely reliable documents.

Even so, it is riveting to observe a man who first fears, and then knows, that he will be executed, trying to make sense of his life. He decides, for example, to put his family ahead of his ideals, pledging “to live purely as a family man . . . as a good husband and as a good parent.” In the manner of a conscientious patriarch, he instructs his wife and daughter in how they should manage their lives when he is gone. One is tempted to say that his dedication to his family comes rather late in the day, and to deplore other aspects of his character such as the lack of humility he shows in writing: “I am by nature the kind of man who confronts dauntlessly the storms of life.” But it is easy to forgive these foibles — one suspects he was trying to convince himself of his dauntlessness — when one recalls where he sat as he wrote them.

Likewise, one imagines that his fellow communists (those who believed it was sincere) would have forgiven Ozaki’s sudden declaration in 1943 that the militarists’ version of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was not “simply the propaganda put forth by some people” but “a truly magnificent, epochal, ideology.” More perplexing for his comrades would have been the new metaphysical direction of Ozaki’s thoughts. He says, for example, that religion “stands on all our human wisdom . . . moves in accordance with it and transcends it . . . a springboard [to] the infinite world.”

Given that the dialogue in Kinoshita’s play “A Japanese Called Otto” is leaden, and that the playwright insists on having characters explain any symbols he might employ (“It’s just come to me! We’re the digger wasps now. We’ll be devoured. . .”), one can only assume that something other than artistic merit accounts for the play’s popularity. It may be, as Rimer suggests, that “the connection between the individual conscience and the making of history [is] still felt as relevant.” But on the other hand, it may just be that people love a good spy story.