Rising up in a small helicopter into a clear blue sky, a British Secret Service agent (played with somewhat Scottish flair) then passes over the smoking vapors of the volcanic landscape in the far south of Japan, looking for the secret hideaway of a master criminal.

Before he knows it, several SPECTRE helicopters are on his tail. But not for long: Using a cunning combination of flame guns, aerial mines, heat-seeking missiles and machine guns, the Englishman — perhaps you recall his name? — and his autogyro Little Nellie are free again above the wilds of Kyushu.

Down below, in a space-age rocket base carved inside a volcano, Ernst Stavro Blofeld strokes a cat and plots nuclear Armageddon. The world falters on its axis and only one man can save it.

When the fifth “James Bond” film, “You Only Live Twice,” premiered in Japan 50 years ago on June 17, 1967, audiences were treated to a 007 adventure more spectacular than anything they had ever witnessed, and one that exploited to the maximum its “exotic” Japanese locale, incorporating sumo wrestling, a ninja training school and seductive Japanese girls. Bond even appeared disguised as a Japanese fisherman in his attempt to penetrate Blofeld’s volcanic fortress.

Seasoned Japan-watchers are likely to roll their eyes at the depiction of Japanese culture in the film, and even more so in Ian Fleming’s original 1964 novel. According to Fleming and his voice-piece Tiger Tanaka — the head of the Japanese Secret Service — Japan is a nation obsessed with honor and suicide, and villagers clap their hands with joy and pride at hearing of the sacrifice of one of their youths.

Sean Connery (left) sits in a helicopter on the set of
Sean Connery (left) sits in a helicopter on the set of ‘You Only Live Twice’ in Kagoshima Prefecture in 1966. | AP

The script for the film was completely reworked by screenwriter Roald Dahl: In Fleming’s original, Blofeld is not holed up in a missile base but in a Japanese castle surrounded by a “garden of death” somewhere near Fukuoka. The garden is full of poisonous plants and animals and is causing the Japanese to drop like flies, as they cannot resist going there to kill themselves.

Preposterous and absurd? Naturally, Mr. Bond.

But what has remained little known to this day is that the novel holds the key to an even more extraordinary real-life story of international espionage that had a profound impact both on the course of World War II and the Cold War. At the heart of it was an exclusive Tokyo-based Sherlock Holmes society called the Baritsu Chapter run by an apparently boorish Australian reporter called Richard Hughes, a close personal friend and colleague of Fleming.

Richard Hughes
Richard Hughes | CHRISTA HUGHES

Hughes played a lead role in the novel “You Only Live Twice” in the form of Dikko Henderson, the head of the Australian Secret Service in Japan. In the novel Henderson is an amiable, hard-drinking, loud-mouthed bear of a man who acquaints Bond with the peculiarities and delicacies of Japanese culture.

To untangle the central position in this world of secrets and spies of the Baritsu Chapter, we need to begin the story in 1940, when the 34-year-old Hughes was a newspaper reporter in Sydney.

As a child Hughes had been a devoted fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories and boasted an encyclopedic knowledge of their contents. He even met his idol, Arthur Conan Doyle, in Australia and used to sign some of his own writings “Dr. Watson Jr.”

At a time when many of his newspaper colleagues were heading to Europe to cover Britain’s struggle with Nazi Germany, Hughes opted to move to Japan. He entered a world seething with espionage activity, where the distinctions between “foreign reporters” and spies were paper thin. Among the press cohort in Tokyo, he became acquainted with Richard Sorge, a German reporter, whom he assumed to be nothing more than the hateful Nazi he appeared to be.

What neither Hughes nor anyone else suspected in 1940 was that Sorge was one of the greatest spies in history, an agent of the Soviet Union controlling a ring of 16 communist spies in Japan.

Through his friendship with the German ambassador and his wife, and his access to top-secret material in the German Embassy in Tokyo, Sorge was able to warn Moscow first of the imminent German invasion launched in June 1941 — a warning foolishly ignored by Stalin — and then, crucially, that Japan would not follow Germany in attacking the Soviet Union, but was intent instead on sweeping south and invading Southeast Asia. It was this vital information that allowed the Soviet Union to confidently transfer its Siberian units to the defense of Moscow and turn the course of the war.

Richard Sorge
Richard Sorge | WIKICOMMONS

Sorge and his entire spy ring were later exposed and arrested by the Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai, and Sorge was, after three years in prison, executed. Nor was he the only “reporter” caught up in the espionage machinations of the age. Just before Hughes arrived in Japan, Jimmy Cox, the Reuters correspondent in Tokyo, fell to his death from a window while under Kempeitai arrest.

After less than a year in Tokyo, Hughes, sensing the imminence of war with Japan and keen to alert Australia and America to the danger, packed his own notebooks full of sensitive information and headed back to Australia at the beginning of 1941.

When the war ended, Hughes returned to live in Japan, now under American Occupation, and became manager of No. 1 Shimbun Alley, a rowdy foreign correspondents’ club situated next to the residential wing of the Soviet Embassy. The club was the meeting ground of reporters, former soldiers and spies, many of whom conducted illicit liaisons in its bedrooms.

The Cold War deepened in 1948 over the Berlin Airlift. Hughes was dismissed as manager of the club and swore never to return to it. At the same time, he started working as a foreign correspondent for London’s Sunday Times, under its foreign manager Ian Fleming, who had played a distinguished role in British naval intelligence during World War II and presided over many crucial covert operations.

Hughes now created his own intelligence network by founding the Baritsu Chapter, supposedly the Asian section of the Baker Street Irregulars, a Sherlock Holmes appreciation society first founded in the U.S. in 1934. “Baritsu” is the name given to a fictional form of martial art that Holmes is described as using to defeat his arch-nemesis, Moriarty, while wrestling with him at the Reichenbach Falls.

The society was invitation only and at first had just 12 high-profile members, including Walter Simmons, the chief correspondent of The Chicago Tribune and renowned Japanese fantasy author Edogawa Ranpo (1894-1965), who had himself created many classic stories inspired by Sherlock Holmes.

Kenichi Yoshida
Kenichi Yoshida | WIKICOMMONS

The first society dinner was a lavish 11-course affair: Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida himself was due to participate, but offered last minute apologies due to an emergency meeting with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Allied commander in Japan. He promised that nothing would prevent him from attending the next meeting. His son, satirical author and Anglophile Kenichi Yoshida, was also a keen member.

The Baritsu Chapter might have appeared as an innocuous recreational hobby for Hughes, but it was actually a cunning way of keeping in close contact with the highest strata of power and information — from U.S. correspondents close to the Occupation authorities to the prime minister himself.

Hughes had carefully absorbed the precepts of Hotsumi Ozaki, the right-hand man of spy master Richard Sorge, that the best means of acquiring information was to appear not to want to know it. In the relaxed boozy atmosphere of the Baritsu Chapter — whose papers are currently being researched by scholar Takeshi Shimizu — Hughes was bringing together some of the greatest founts of information in Occupation Japan.

When the Korean War erupted in 1950, the front line of the Cold War transferred to this corner of East Asia: Tokyo once more simmered with espionage activity. At a party, the Russians discreetly asked Hughes if he would consider selling secrets to them. Hughes notified Fleming in London, who in turn consulted MI6, Britain’s Secret Service.

Briefed by Fleming and MI6, Hughes pretended to accept the Russian approach and asked for double the money to convince the KGB of his seriousness. Hughes’ career as a double agent had begun. He set about providing the KGB information prepared by MI6 and picked as his codename “Altamont,” the alias of Sherlock Holmes when he frustrates the plot of the German spy Von Bork in “His Last Bow.”

Hughes had not just started a new life working as a double agent instructed by Fleming — he actually believed that Fleming had saved his life. When in 1950 Hughes had wished to go and report on the Korean War, Fleming had strenuously ordered him not to go. Hughes dithered until the last moment and three other journalists kept him a seat free on their jeep. Hughes finally bowed to Fleming’s wishes. The jeep went ahead without him, hit a land mine and all three journalists were killed.

Rescued from certain death, the second life that Hughes started as a double agent would see him act out the kind of espionage fantasies that Fleming ascribed to James Bond, the fictional hero whom he began to depict in his famous series of novels from 1953.

In 1955, Fleming sent Hughes to Moscow, where he stayed for three months, nominally to gain an interview with Nikita Khrushchev ahead of his first state visit to the U.K. But the greater glory would be to gain a confirmed sighting of the notorious British spies for the Soviet Union Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had disappeared from the U.K. in 1951 and whose subsequent movements were unknown.

Hughes could hardly believe his luck when on his last day in Moscow he was led to Room 101 of the Hotel National and introduced to Burgess and Maclean in person. Hughes returned to London the toast of Fleet Street.

By the mid-1950s Hughes had moved his base from Tokyo to Hong Kong, in order to more effectively monitor communist China and the increasing tensions in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Hughes would soon gain a reputation as the pre-eminent “China watcher,” able through his network of contacts to discern the true situation in the communist citadel through the mist of official pronouncements during the eras of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Edogawa Ranpo
Edogawa Ranpo | WIKICOMMONS

Fleming visited Hughes in Hong Kong in 1959. He was writing a book called “Thrilling Cities” and Hughes guided him round the fleshpots of Macau and they traveled on to Tokyo.

By 1962, Fleming was already fragile, having suffered a heart attack the year before. He informed Hughes that for the next 007 adventure, “You Only Live Twice,” he would be sending Bond to Japan and that he planned to return and travel more widely across the country. Hughes gave considerable thought to the two-week tour he prepared in first-class accommodation.

They first traveled from Tokyo to Gamagori in Aichi Prefecture and took a hydrofoil across to Mikimoto’s pearl fisheries in Mie, where Fleming observed the ama girls diving for pearls. (In the novel, Bond’s love interest, Kissy Suzuki, would be an ama diver.) Then they traveled on to the Grand Shrine of Ise.

They next moved on to Kyoto, where Fleming showed a keen interest in the Shimabara former courtesans’ house (Fleming counted the bedrooms) and in the Jinya house in Nijo with its nightingale floor warning of approaching assassins. Hughes described it as a “house of secret corridors and sudden death.”

They then journeyed down the Inland Sea to the onsen spa of Beppu on Kyushu. Their destination was the city of Fukuoka — Hughes later regretted not choosing Nagasaki instead — which in the novel would be close to the hideout of Bond’s nemesis Blofeld, and where they inspected a provincial police station. Hughes and Fleming were accompanied by Hughes’ friend, Torao (“Tiger”) Saito, whom Hughes described as “a distinguished editor, photographer and architect.”

Fleming gorged on plates of oysters, smoked cigarettes elegantly from a holder and drank bottles of Bourbon he had brought with him. (Scotch was bad for the heart, he told Hughes, but Bourbon relaxed the cardiac muscles.) He and Hughes also drank prodigious amounts of sake.

He warned Hughes and Saito in advance that they would be appearing in the novel, which he wrote during that winter at his Goldeneye retreat in Jamaica. Hughes would be Dikko Henderson and Saito would be Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese Secret Service, depicted as a former spy and would-be kamikaze pilot.

Hughes complained that he would sue if his portrayal by Fleming was too satirical. “You do that,” retorted Fleming, “and I will tell the truth about you.”

After being portrayed in “You Only Live Twice” as the head of the Australian Secret Service in Japan, the spy credentials of “Altamont,” the Sherlock Holmes-style spy, should have been blown forever. However, Hughes brushed it aside and breezily continued with his mixture of star reporting, espionage and Sherlock Holmes celebrations from his base in Hong Kong, where he established himself, in the words of a former employee of M16, David Cornwell, as “a journalistic Eiffel Tower.”

Cornwell was better known as spy writer John le Carre and would openly depict Hughes in the guise of “Old Craw,” a Hong Kong-based M16 operative, in “The Honorable Schoolboy” (1977), the sequel to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

Still Hughes refused to admit that he was actively involved in espionage, despite being “outed” by two of the world’s most famous spy authors. When asked why he kept being depicted as a spy — despite claiming to be nothing more than a journalist — Hughes would wink and go into his habitual mocking faux-archbishop mode, claiming he could only admit to certain things inside a confessional.

The ever-colorful and enigmatic Hughes died in 1984. He had aspired to be a second Sherlock Holmes, but through his founding of the Baritsu Chapter and his double life as the Holmesian spy Altamont, Hughes played a key role in the world of Cold War espionage.

Fleming died of a heart attack in 1964, the same year as “You Only Live Twice” — a novel obsessed with decline and mortality — was published.

When Fleming parted from Hughes and Saito, he had insisted on presenting his Japanese host with his dapper shooting stick, which had attracted much admiration while he was in Japan. Saito at first refused, but Fleming insisted.

“Yes, yes, old friend,” Fleming told Saito. “We are only as good as our friends.”

Fleming’s gift to Hughes — a once-renowned but now largely forgotten reporter — was not just his second life as a double agent, but his encapsulation of Hughes’ fascination with Japanese culture and his secret world of Tokyo-based espionage in “You Only Live Twice.”

Do you know James Bond’s secret past? Take the quiz and find out.

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