Opium King’s ties believed went to the top

Trader allegedly pipelined 'secret funds' to Tojo, Kishi, other Tokyo bigwigs

by Reiji Yoshida

An obscure tomb in a small graveyard at a Chiba Prefecture temple marks the final resting place of Japan’s wartime “Opium King,” although the site betrays nothing of this dark cloud, nor the relationship the deceased had with key historical figures.

The kanji on what looks like an ordinary tombstone at Soneiji Temple in Ichikawa reads “Satomi-ke no Reii” (“Tomb of the Satomi Family”). The inscription was written by the late Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, grandfather of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to mark the grave of Hajime Satomi, who died in 1965.

Kishi was a senior government official in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria between 1936 and 1939 when he, as well as Gen. Hideki Tojo, reportedly established close relations with Satomi, who at the time headed Hung Chi Shan Tang, a Japanese opium firm that dominated the market in central China during the Japanese occupation.

Kishi had claimed he came to know of Satomi only after the war, saying he wrote the calligraphy on the opium dealer’s tombstone at the request of an acquaintance.

“I know of a man named Satomi, who dealt with opium,” Kishi said in a 1979 interview in the monthly magazine Chuokoron.

“But while I was in Manchukuo, Satomi was in Shanghai. Probably he engaged considerably in opium issues and gained money, too, but he didn’t come to Manchukuo and I didn’t know him,” Kishi was quoted as saying.

However, insiders have alleged many politicians and military officers at the time, including Kishi and his ally Tojo, who went on to become prime minister, approached Satomi for political funds stemming from the opium trade.

Kishi came to know Tojo when the latter headed Japanese military police units in Manchukuo. When Tojo became prime minister shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, he appointed Kishi as his wartime industry minister.

“Most of the profits from (opium) sales in Shanghai and other Chinese cities went directly to Tokyo. According to (an) investigation, at the time of the Tojo Cabinet, this kind of money was allotted as secret funds for the Cabinet, and the Cabinet used this money to subsidize members of the Diet,” wrote Mei Sze Ping (Mei Siping in the current spelling) in a written statement submitted to the postwar Nanjing trial of Chinese leaders accused of collaborating with Japan.

Mei had headed the internal affairs department in the wartime puppet government Japan set up in Nanjing in 1940.

Satomi’s firm had an exclusive operating license from the puppet government. Mei was one of three Chinese officials of the government who gave separate but similar testimony in the trial. They said much of Satomi’s opium money was sent as “secret funds” for the Tojo Cabinet.

“This was an open secret, although it was guarded (as) strictly confidential,” Mei said in the statement.

On the Japanese side, there were allegations, too.

Major Gen. Ryukichi Tanaka, who divulged a number of top secrets of the Imperial Japanese Army at the postwar Tokyo war crime tribunal, claimed Tojo scooped “great sums of money” from Satomi’s secret opium funds.

Tanaka testified during a 1946 pretrial interrogation by prosecutors for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East that Lt. Gen. Kiyonobu Shiozawa, Tojo’s most-favored protege, was also a close friend of Satomi.

Shiozawa went from Beijing to Tokyo about every two months and “brought back great sums of money for Tojo” each time, Tanaka testified.

Shiozawa headed the Beijing office of the China Affairs Board (Ko-a-in), a Japanese wartime government body. In the Tokyo tribunal, Satomi also testified as a witness that he handed over all the profits of his opium business to the China Affairs Board and Imperial army as well.

Satomi headed Shanghai-based Hung Chi Shan Tang, the wholesaler that dominated the opium market in central China, backed by the Imperial army between 1939 and early 1944.

Satomi was arrested as a Class-A war criminal suspect by the Allied powers, but for unknown reasons he was not indicted. He was later released and died in 1965 of cardiac failure at age 69.

People who had personal contacts with Satomi said he was not greedy. This “cleanness” was apparently one of the reasons why the army entrusted the opium business to Satomi, who boasted wide local Chinese connections.

Satomi at the same time was very generous with money, said Hidezumi Hayashi, a close friend who headed special Japanese military police units in Shanghai.

“I think (Satomi’s) salary was astoundingly high in Chinese terms. So he didn’t hesitate to give money to others. Many bad people approached him (for money),” Hayashi was quoted as saying in a 1974 publication of interviews with historians.

Satomi “took care of many military officers,” Hayashi was quoted as saying, indicating Tojo was one of them.

Records and memoirs showed that rumors circulated during the war that Kishi also approached Satomi and received shady opium funds.

“It was well known that former Prime Minister Kishi, then industry minister, asked Satomi to provide ¥5 million at the time (when he ran in a Diet) election on April 19, 1942,” Munetsugu Date, a postwar secretary to Satomi, wrote in an appendix to a 1986 book of historical documents on Japan’s opium dealings in China.

Experts question the credibility of those allegations, however, because no hard evidence has been found to prove Kishi’s involvement with Satomi.

“Kishi was a very cautious man. I don’t think any documentary evidence was left behind,” said nonfiction writer Shinichi Sano, a noted journalist who in 2005 published a book tracing Satomi’s life.

But at least one thing is clear: Many of Kishi’s close aides were considered key figures in Japan’s opium operations in China, and thus many people to this day suspect Kishi was involved in the dealings.

Among them are Tadayuki Furumi, a high-ranking Manchukuo official who was one of Kishi’s closest aides when the latter was posted to the puppet state.

Another is Hideoto Mori, a Finance Ministry official who possessed a secret document outlining Satomi’s opium company that is now archived in the National Diet Library.

Furumi and Mori were key designers of Manchukuo’s opium monopoly system in 1933, according to a statement Furumi wrote in a Chinese war criminal prison in 1954.

Mori was also a member of a policy study group of “progressive bureaucrats,” including Kishi, who advocated strong wartime state control over the economy.

In 1946 pretrial interrogations, Gen. Tanaka said Mori “can tell more about the inner workings of the opium dealings in China. This man should be able to give the most information on the opium traffic.

“(Mori) is a very close friend of Satomi’s,” Tanaka said.