Masayoshi Tsuji: engineer of genocide or peace?

by Shiro Yoneyama


Masayoshi Tsuji, 85, keeps empty one of the second-floor rooms in his house here in case his elder brother, Masanobu, suddenly shows up after an absence of 39 years.

Prominently displayed in the room is a large hanging scroll of the Chinese character “kotobuki” (celebration), but its intended guest is widely believed to be dead.

It takes about an hour by car from Komatsu airport to Masanobu Tsuji’s hometown of Imadachi in Ishikawa Prefecture. A statue of Tsuji in a Western suit stands in the nearby town of Aradani.

Kiyoshi Minamide, a 69-year-old farmer whose house is just across the street from the statue, said he assisted in Tsuji’s election campaigns and sometimes visited Kanazawa, the prefectural capital, as a campaigner.

“His ideas were so fresh and intriguing that I never got bored with his lengthy speeches,” he reminisced. Minamide added that some former soldiers, mainly from the Tohoku region, come to his town each year to admire the statue of their former commander.

These former foot soldiers and admirers describe Tsuji as a brilliant military leader and strategist, while many others, including former wartime colleagues and victims of his military campaigns in Southeast Asia, denounce him as a temperamental and cruel man.

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori was a Waseda University student aspiring to be a politician in 1958 when he first came to know Tsuji, then a member of the House of Representatives, while he was campaigning for one of Tsuji’s rival candidates.

Mori wrote in a message for Masayoshi Tsuji’s 1991 memoirs that he was personally urged by Tsuji to become a member of the Diet.

“You should work for the country,” Mori quoted Tsuji as saying. “It was like a revelation from God,” recalled Mori, who has been elected to the Lower House without failure since 1969. He maintains his election campaign headquarters in Komatsu, near his hometown of Neagari.

Singapore’s senior minister, Lee Kuan Yew, says in his memoirs, “The Singapore Story,” that he barely escaped from Tsuji’s “Sook Ching” — an operation to wipe out rebels in February 1942. “He had obtained the consent of Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the commander of the Japanese forces, to punish the Chinese in Singapore for collecting funds to support China’s war effort against the Japanese, and for their boycott of Japanese goods.”

Hirofumi Hayashi, a professor of modern history at Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama who has studied the massacre of Chinese in Singapore, said, “It’s clear Tsuji planned the operation,” which left casualties ranging from 6,000 dead, based on Japanese estimates presented at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, to 50,000-60,000 as estimated by a committee of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

According to a document in the British Public Records Office obtained by Hayashi, “Lieut. Col. Tsuzi (sic), S/O in charge of the operation, will be dispatched temporarily to supervise this work and also to do liaison work. . . . Staff Officer Tsuzi said that he himself was given the duty to supervise this (mopping up) work.”

But Eko Hata, one of seven young soldiers-turned-priests who helped Tsuji escape the British dragnet in Thailand after the end of World War II, disagrees, saying, “I believe Tsuji did not do it.”

At the height of the war, Hata said in an interview with Kyodo News, Tsuji was a synonym of the Japanese word “sambo,” or staff officer, and many Japanese military leaders allegedly tried to attribute every wrongdoing to Tsuji, a point the U.S. Occupation forces in Japan grudgingly admitted after the war, before then allegedly using him as a postwar spy.

Tsuji’s son, Takeshi, defended his father in an interview in Tokyo, saying: “He was too pure in his job. Some people with no battlefield experience say my father alone waged World War II.”

Nevertheless, Tsuji apparently knew after Japan’s surrender that he would be tried as a war criminal if captured.

Richard Hughes, a veteran foreign correspondent who became acquainted with Tsuji in Tokyo from 1955 to 1959, characterized him as “Japan’s Imperial Army Academy genius” and “Japan’s No. 1 guerrilla war expert and the only Japanese army officer who never formally ‘surrendered’ to the Americans.”

“He despised (wartime Prime Minister) Gen. Hideki Tojo, revered Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita and blamed the Japanese navy for the loss of the war,” Hughes wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1982. “He hated communists generally but admired Ho Chi Minh personally and believed that the Japanese could come to terms with the Chinese.”

His admiration for the North Vietnamese leader, combined with frustrating years as a lawmaker, apparently led Tsuji to gamble on a belief that he could once again be in the spotlight by brokering peace in Indochina.

Masayoshi Tsuji remembers his elder brother berating other Japanese legislators for being ignorant of world affairs.

Tsuji was also a strong advocate of Asian countries settling conflicts by themselves. Masayoshi is working on a new memoir about his missing elder brother and its provisional subtitle says, “Is Masanobu Tsuji really such a bad guy?”

Takeshi, who developed telephone cards during his tenure at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., said he is also preparing to publish a book, based on his father’s diary that had been written while in hiding.

“He never allowed me to read it and it was not intended for publication,” said Takeshi, who now teaches digital business at Teikyo Heisei University in Chiba Prefecture.

He said he remembers his father reflecting on his military career when he and his siblings — an elder brother and three sisters — were youngsters.

“Don’t become a soldier. There is no such undeserving job as one in the military,” Tsuji repeatedly told his children before heading for Southeast Asia, a trip from which he did not return.