Sorge’s spy is brought in from the cold

Long reviled in his homeland and all but forgotten by Moscow, a Japanese former Soviet agent in Tokyo is finally accorded the respect that his devoted niece has sought for so long

by Edan Corkill

Toshiko Tokuyama was 14 years old when she found out that her uncle had been a spy, and that he had just died in a prison in Tokyo. It was 1943 then, and she was too young to really know what the word “spy” meant, let alone allow it to alter her impression of the man she respected like a father.

Of course, for most people around her, and most of the Japanese population, in fact, the knowledge that between 1933 and 1941 Yotoku Miyagi had spied for the Soviet Union against Japan, and that he had been a member of one of the most successful spy rings in history, meant only one thing: that this Okinawa-native was a traitor to be despised.

But Tokuyama, who is now 81, could never bring herself to doubt her uncle. For the last two decades, in fact, she and a small group of supporters have worked, and to a large extent succeeded, in reversing history’s appraisal of Miyagi.

Was he merely a treachorous communist — or was he, perhaps, a hard- headed pacificist? Gradually, Tokuyama and others have managed to shift the thinking from the former to the latter, and their efforts were given an unexpected, if slightly awkward, boost this month.

Two weeks ago, Tokuyama traveled from her home in Los Angeles to the Russian Embassy in Tokyo. There, in a low-key ceremony, she was presented — on her uncle’s behalf — with a Soviet-era medal, the grandly-named Order of the Patriotic War (Second Class). Russia’s belated recognition of its former spy, prompted, some believe, by the intervention of either President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has precipitated another flurry of interest in the rapidly evolving legacy of a problematic man.

Tokuyama’s affection for “Uncle Yotoku” has lasted a lifetime, but it grew out of just four months they spent in each other’s company when Miyagi returned to his native town of Nago in Okinawa in 1937.

The catalyst for his visit was the 60th birthday of his father, Yosei (Toshiko’s grandfather), and it represented one of the first times that the surprisingly itinerant extended Miyagi clan had all come together in one place.

Even the patriarch of the family, Yosei, had spent much of his life abroad, chasing work opportunities on farms in the Philippines, Hawaii and finally California. He had first ventured away from Okinawa in 1905, leaving behind his two young sons, one also named Yosei (Toshiko’s father) and Yotoku. By 1919, both boys had joined him in the United States — Yosei found work on a farm and Yotoku studied painting.

In 1928, the younger Yosei returned to Okinawa and stayed there just long enough to find a wife and have one child — the now elderly Toshiko. Soon after that he went back to the U.S. and then Mexico, leaving his daughter in the care of his parents. It was with them that she was living, aged 9, when her uncle visited from Tokyo in 1937.

Tokuyama remembers him clearly. “He was so kind and gentle,” she told The Japan Times, adding that while he was in Okinawa she often watched him as he did a little work as an artist.

“He made two paintings during those four months,” Tokuyama recalled. “One was a portrait for a neighbor and the other was a funeral portrait,” she said.

Miyagi had been working as an artist in Tokyo, too — it had become an effective cover for the clandestine work that in 1933 brought him back from California to Japan: spying.

Miyagi can’t have been too comfortable in Okinawa in 1937. He had left his colleagues — in particular, Hotsumi Ozaki, a journalist with the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and his boss, Richard Sorge, a Russian with a German passport who was working as a journalist — at the very time that the political situation between Japan and China was reaching boiling point.

So much was happening that was of vital importance to Moscow: Regular military flare-ups between the Japanese and Chinese; the threat of Japanese incursions into Siberia; and the so-called Anti-Comintern Pact concluded in November 1936 between Nazi Germany and Japan that united the Soviet Union’s western and eastern neighbors against it.

Tokuyama remembers the day that Yotoku’s sojourn in Okinawa was cut short. Sorge, she said, sent a letter demanding the prompt return of his protege to Tokyo. “After he read it, Yotoku got my cousin to burn the letter,” Tokuyama said.

Miyagi was gone shortly afterward, leaving behind two promises he was destined to break. One was to return a bag he borrowed from a painter friend, Takeo Terada, who went on to become a leading artist after the war. The other was to return to Okinawa to paint portraits of his niece and his other relatives.

Miyagi’s adoption of the communist cause occurred while he was living in the U.S. in the 1920s, but the seeds of his proletarian social conscience had been sewn as he grew up in Okinawa.

In his testimony to the Japanese police after his eventual arrest, in 1941, Miyagi explained, “I gained my first political consciousness at the age of 14 or 15 as I listened to my grandfather.”

What his grandfather told him was about the history of their island home, which had been part of the Ryukyu Kingdom before it was annexed by Japan in 1879.

“My grandfather taught me that one should not oppress the weak,” Miyagi told his police interrogators. “This provoked in me an antagonism toward the arrogant officials and physicians who came to Okinawa from Kagoshima (the Kyushu city from where Okinawa was administered).”

When, as a 16-year-old, Miyagi headed to California in 1919, he expected to find equality, freedom and opportunity. He did, to an extent, but he also found that many Americans looked down on him and his fellow Asian migrants. Around 1925, in Los Angeles, he established the Shakai Mondai Kenkyukai (Association for Research into Social Problems), a platform to try to improve their situation.

The group eventually changed its name to Reimei Kai (Society of the Dawn), and around 1927 it came under the influence of the Communist Party of the United States.

Meanwhile, as Miyagi was flirting with communism in California, the man who was to become his boss, Richard Sorge, was plying his trade of espionage in Shanghai. While working as a journalist there for the German newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung, he established contacts with members of the Communist Party in China and reported to Moscow on the rising tension between the Chinese and the growing number of Japanese soldiers then being stationed in the country.

Sorge was recalled to Moscow in 1932, and it wasn’t long before his handlers in the Red Army’s Fourth Department (its military-intelligence wing), set in motion a plan to have their Asia specialist sent to the country that had emerged as the most important in the region — Japan.

But as Sorge didn’t speak any Japanese, it was clear he would need a Japanese assistant who was also fluent in English and committed to Soviet ideals. The search led to the U.S., then to California — and finally to a promising painter-cum-activist named Yotoku Miyagi.

Tokuyama, Miyagi’s niece, is well versed on how her uncle responded to the request from Moscow, channeled through the American Communist Party in autumn 1932, that he return to Japan as a spy.

“He refused,” she said. “He had no experience in spying and he asked them to find someone more suitable.”

When they pressed him, she continued, “he sought a commitment that it was only for a short time, and that as soon as a replacement was found he would be able to quit.” Needless to say, a replacement was never found.

Miyagi left America in October 1933, found a place to stay in Tokyo and laid low. Then, following instructions he had been given in Los Angeles, he became an avid reader of a local English-language newspaper called The Japan Advertiser — a publication that seven years later was acquired by The Japan Times.

Some time between Dec. 6 and 9, 1933, Miyagi came across the classified advertisement he had been told in Los Angeles to look out for in the Wanted to Buy section: “Ukiyoe prints by old masters. Also English books on same subject. Urgently needed. Give details, titles, authors, prices to Artist, c/o The Japan Advertiser, Tokyo.”

He answered the advertisement and so came to be in contact with an intermediary, Branko Vukelic, who arranged his first meeting with Sorge.

The venue for that fateful encounter was an art museum in Ueno — probably the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Sorge’s identification was a black necktie; Miyagi’s was a blue one. And, just to make sure there was no mistake, they had each been supplied with consecutively numbered $1 bills.

Despite having no training, Miyagi took to spying quickly. By the time of his trip to Okinawa in 1937, he had become an accomplished pro.

For one thing, he had established a surprisingly diverse network of informants: Tokutaro Yasuda, a Tokyo physician who quizzed his prominent patients for information; Masazano Yamana, a former member of the Communist Party who Miyagi dispatched to various locations to make observations of military facilities; Shu Yabe, a secretary to an Imperial Army general named Issei Ugaki; and others.

Though ostensibly a mere struggling artist, Miyagi even had contacts able to advise him of orders placed for Japanese soldiers’ uniforms — useful in determining whether the troops were to be dispatched north, to cold climes, or south.

His other job was to translate Japanese reports and newspaper articles into English for his boss, Sorge.

However, the first task that awaited Miyagi when he returned to Tokyo in mid-1937 was to analyze the reasons for a recent flare-up between Chinese and Japanese forces in China — the epochal, so-called Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

Miyagi’s ultimate advice to Sorge was that the confrontation — which came about after a Japanese soldier went missing during night-time maneuvers — was largely engineered by the Imperial Japanese Army to direct attention away from domestic problems in Japan, and also to provide an excuse for further expansion of Japanese territory beyond that already grabbed in the northern region of Manchuria. Sorge duly relayed the information to the Soviet Union by radio.

To the extent that the incident mushroomed into eight years of war in China, Miyagi’s analysis was spot on.

For Sorge and his handlers in Moscow, however, there was another particularly interesting dimension to Miyagi’s report: that Japan’s latest engagement with China made northward military incursions into Soviet territory unlikely, at least for the moment.

As it turned out, Japan refrained from engaging the Soviet Union militarily for about a year. Then, in May and June, 1939, near the town of Nomonhan on the Manchurian- Mongolian border, the Emperor’s forces launched a small-scale attack.

Sorge and his spies were unable to forewarn Moscow of the move, but once hostilities began, they swung into action.

Their key objective was to determine whether or not the attack was the first part of a large-scale push, or merely a tentative prod.

Working with one of his newest recruits, an Imperial Army corporal named Yoshinobu Koshiro, Miyagi determined that Japan was not committing large numbers of troops to the campaign and, most importantly, that no reinforcements were being sent from Japan. Hence, the conclusion was reached that this was not the start of a concerted campaign, and Sorge was able to convey as much to his Soviet masters.

Moscow, however, was unwilling to take any chances, and directed more than enough resources to counter the Japanese. By September 1939, they had prevailed.

Both Miyagi and journalist Ozaki — who by then, extraordinarily, had been working for two years as an adviser to Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe (who had recently resigned) — next predicted that the unfortunate outcome of the so-called Nomonhan Incident would likely deter the Japanese from messing with the Soviets again. This and other analysis enabled Sorge to advise his handlers, in September 1941, that Japan would not invade the USSR.

Some historians have suggested that this was one of the most important pieces of intelligence gained in any theater of World War II, because it allowed the Soviets to divert troops from the eastern regions of the USSR to the west, where they could fend off, and ultimately repel, a German invasion that at one point took the Nazis to within sight of Moscow.

Sorge of course was not entirely reliant on Miyagi and his other Japanese collaborators.

One of his greatest achievements — as a supposedly German journalist in Tokyo — was gaining intelligence on Operation Barbarossa, the blitzkrieg advance that launched the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Through his contacts in the German Embassy, he reportedly gave Moscow prior warning of that operation — and even correctly predicted its start date to within days.

However, that intelligence — which should have accorded Sorge enormous kudos in Moscow — had been, unknown to him then, largely ignored. The reason, quite simply, was that his initial handler, the one-time head of the Red Army’s Fourth Department, Ian Berzin, had fallen foul of the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, and been executed in 1938 in one of Stalin’s many murderous and paranoid purges. Suspicion then fell on all Berzin’s agents, and soon Stalin reportedly decided that Sorge was a double agent. After that, it is unclear how much of the information he provided to Moscow was acted upon.

By 1941, however, Sorge and his associates had more to worry about than how they were perceived in Moscow.

In September that year the infamous Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu (Special Higher Police) arrested one of Miyagi’s associates, who one of their informants had told them was a spy. In a successful bid to clear her own name, that associate denounced Miyagi, who then named Ozaki and Sorge. By the end of October, all the members of Sorge’s spy ring had been rounded up, and they had all made confessions.

Miyagi, who had suffered from a chest ailment since childhood, died in Sugamo Prison in Tokyo in the middle of his trial in 1943. He was 40 years old. Ozaki and Sorge were tried, convicted of spying and eventually hanged, in 1944.

The tug-of-war struggle over Miyagi’s reputation began almost as soon as he had passed away.

News of his demise and of his involvement in a spy ring arrived in his hometown of Nago in late 1943, in the form of a short notice in the Asahi Shimbun.

The local reaction was swift and ruthless. Miyagi was denounced as a traitor. The town office erased his family-registry entry, meaning that he had officially never existed, and the townsfolk ostracized his mother — Toshiko Tokuyama’s grandmother, Kamado.

“I was still a student and I had friends at school, so, it was OK for me,” Tokuyama explained. “But my grand- mother had a terrible time.”

Miyagi’s niece never wavered in her support for her uncle. “We didn’t even know what a spy was when we first heard the story,” Tokuyama said. “It didn’t matter what people said. To me, he was always my uncle and I never doubted him.”

Nevertheless, things didn’t improve for the members of the Miyagi clan who remained in Okinawa. By 1958, Tokuyama had had enough. On May 1 that year she left the island to join her father, who was then in Mexico.

“Because of the way the people in Nago were treating my grandmother,” she said, “I decided I would never return.”

Oddly enough, just one year before Tokuyama abandoned Nago, a chain of events was set in motion that would ultimately lead to a sharp reversal in Miyagi’s reputation.

In 1957, the French film director Yves Ciampi married Japanese actress Keiko Kishi. Three years later he made a film about Sorge and his fellow spies, titled “Qui e^tes-vous Monsieur Sorge?” (“Who are you Mr. Sorge?”). Released in Europe in 1960, the film also came to the attention of then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who saw it in Mosocow in mid-1964.

Ironically, at this point in history, Sorge’s tale was largely unknown in the Soviet Union — the lingering result of him having been in Stalin’s bad books. (The story was better known in the U.S., as the Occupation forces in Japan looked into it after the war, and released a report in 1949.)

Kruschev’s reaction to the film is recorded in the memoir of a former Red Army general named Vyacheslav Bunin, portions of which were translated into Japanese and published in 2003 by the private Japan-Russia Historical Research Center under the title “Isshun” (“Moment”).

According to Bunin, Kruschev saw the film and asked, “Why didn’t we know anything about his activities? He’s our spy. Why didn’t we make such a great movie about him?”

The Soviet Premier commissioned a report and in late 1964 the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet decided that the long-forgotten Richard Sorge would be made a “Hero of the Soviet Union” — the nation’s highest honor. The families of both Sorge and another deceased Russian member of the group, Branko Vukelic — who had arranged the first meeting between Sorge and Miyagi — would also be awarded the equivalent of ¥1.5 million each.

It was also decided that Hotsumi Ozaki and Yotoku Miyagi would be honored with the Order of the Patriotic War — an award for service in World War II. However, the next-of-kin of the Japanese spies were not informed of this.

Nonetheless, the Soviet awakening to Sorge’s story prompted a new wave of interest in the spy ring in Japan. One of the journalists to start snooping around was Rinichi Omine, a freelancer who, like Miyagi, hailed from Okinawa.

In 1990, Omine played a role in organizing an exhibition of paintings by Yotoku Miyagi that was held in Nago and Naha, Okinawa. According to Omine, it was this event that started to sway local opinion about the son they had renounced.

“When I first went to research Miyagi in Okinawa, the whole atmosphere was bad,” the 72-year-old recalled. “He was seen as a traitor. Some people said they had nothing to talk about. Others threw buckets of water at me.”

But then, articles and essays written to coincide with the exhibition started filling out the details of Miyagi’s life, in particular, the fact that his adoption of communism had stemmed in part from a desire to resist discrimination against Japanese and other Asian migrants in the United States.

In 2003, Omine and others organized a symposium in Nago to commemorate the centenary of Miyagi’s birth. The event was sufficient to tempt his niece Tokuyama back to Okinawa for a brief visit.

In 2006, a monument to the painter-spy was erected in a small park near Nago Museum. Articles in local newspapers at the time hailed him as “an artist who longed for peace,” explaining that his ultimate goal in spying against his country was to avoid war between it and the USSR.

“With the monument, I felt we had managed to restore Miyagi’s reputation in Japan,” Tokuyama said.

What played on Tokuyama and Omine’s minds, however, was Miyagi’s reputation in Russia, the country, or at least the present-day manifestation of the country for which he gave his life.

Particularly grating was the fact that the Soviet members of the spy ring had been turned into national heroes.

About two years ago, Omine and Tokuyama began sending letters to Russia to try to ascertain what had happened to the awards that the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet had earmarked for Ozaki and Miyagi in 1964.

Drawing on Bunin’s writings, they directed their inquiries to Vyacheslav Sivko, president of the Regional Public Fund for Support of Heroes of the Soviet Union and Russia, in Moscow.

Sivko’s reply, which Tokuyama received in January last year, wasn’t encouraging.

“In response to your inquiry, a specialist in the Department of Awards at the President of the Russian Federation explained to us that in the case of your uncle, who was awarded posthumously, the corresponding Order/Certificate of the President of the USSR was issued, but the actual medals and documents for them have not been produced, because the relevant person was no longer alive.”

Not easily discouraged, Omine decided that there was only one course of action remaining: writing directly to President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

With the help of a recently acquired Russian friend, Vera Varshavsky, and Tokuyama’s daughter, San Diego-based Noriko Chung, the letters were prepared and sent in mid-2009. They were deliberately blunt, pointing out in particular Tokuyama’s disappointment at the perceived unequal treatment of the Russian and Japanese members of Sorge’s team.

The response came in late December. Omine received a letter from the Russian Embassy in Tokyo saying that the original medal intended for Yotoku Miyagi — an Order of the Patriotic War (Second Class) — along with its accompanying certification, had been “discovered” in a government building in Moscow. Both the medal and certificate were awaiting collection at the Tokyo embassy.

Omine and Tokuyama wasted no time. Omine flew in from his home in Okinawa; Tokuyama from hers in Los Angeles.

It was on the morning of their initial appointment at the Russian Embassy that they spoke to The Japan Times.

In his excitement, Omine had left both the Embassy’s letter and the charger for his digital camera at home. Tokuyama, by contrast, was composed, but nevertheless thrilled at the thought of receiving the medal.

“When I get the medal I will take it down to Nago and donate it to the Nago Museum, where Yotoku’s paintings are kept,” she said. “They have all his things now.”

The ceremony took place on the afternoon of January 13 — exactly 67 years since Miyagi died and 46 years since the Soviets had originally decided to honor him. The medal itself is a red enamel star emblazoned with a hammer and sickle and an inscription in Cyrillic that read “Patriotic War.” The Russian Ambassador commended Miyagi’s contribution to the “defeat of fascism,” as a stout-looking military attache looked on. After thanking the Russians, Toshiko Tokuyama turned to the 20-odd Japanese journalists who had witnessed the ceremony.

“My uncle, Yotoku,” she started, “just wanted to contribute to peace.”

Those interested in reading more about the Sorge spy ring may care to consult: “An Instance of Treason” by Chalmers Johnson (Stanford University Press, 1964). “Stalin’s Spy” by Robert Whymant (I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1996) “Target Tokyo” by Gordon Prange and others (McGraw-Hill, 1984).