Michael Batson

Travel Writer





'Our' Man in Tokyo, Richard Sorge - 8 December 2020

This Travelogue piece follows on from Richard Sorge; ‘The Spy from Baku’ and ‘The Spy in Shanghai’.


Richard Sorge was a master of bluff and a manipulator extraordinaire as well as being a great actor, important for a spy. Being a spy also made him a born liar, the two sharing similar traits, and as with all spy stories the lines between truth, lies, fact and fiction are never quite what they seem. His forte was reading people to gain any advantage, recognise any opening, and to see any opportunities all the while with his eye on the prize. A master organiser able to develop spy networks and maintain all the moving parts even in the face of exposure and risk of death.


As a spy he was able to stay ahead of those skilled in the art of counterespionage: the German SD (SS Intelligence), the Gestapo, and the Japanese military police, the Kempeitai (sometimes Kenpeitai both a military and secret police and modelled on the Gendarmerie Nationale, part of the French armed forces), ruthless adversaries but none caught him despite numerous attempts and for all their suspicions. Working for Stalin also meant the threat of purge from his employers and death at the hands of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the NKVD. Sorge thumbed his nose at Hitler and General Togo (“Razor Brain”), Stalin and his chief henchmen; Genrikh Yagoda (a poisoner, he killed his own boss and allegedly poisoned the writer Maxim Gorky), Nikolai Yezhov (nicknamed the “Bloody Dwarf”) and then Lavrentiy Beria (a sadistic psychopath with a penchant for young girls). The front dog soon becomes the back of the house, their end sudden and brutal as they themselves had done to thousands of others. As the old Russian saying goes; “Power is like a high, steep cliff, only the eagles and reptiles may ascend to it.”


The information Sorge provided to Soviet high command, the Stavka, helped save Russia from military disaster in World War Two and laid the foundation for the Soviet victory over Germany in 1945, a victory Sorge would not live to see. Other factors also played a part in the defeat of the German army outside Moscow in 1941, its true. Human factors such as the appointment of Marshal Zhukov to command Soviet forces; a man of strategic genius and as profligate militarily with human life as Stalin was politically. Also, natural phenomenon like the lateness of the Rasputitsa, as the Russians call the twice-yearly liquefaction of the face of the steppe, which brings military movement to a halt for a month at a time. It was prolonged in the spring of 1941, thus delaying the start of the German invasion by several critical weeks, and again in the autumn, forcing a postponement of the advance on Moscow.


On his return to Moscow early in 1933 from three years in Shanghai as a spy for the shadowy Fourth Department, Sorge began writing a book before being summoned by his boss General Berzin, the ruthless head of Red Army Intelligence, the GRU, for a new posting — to Tokyo. This posed a significant challenge for no Russian agent had ever succeeded in settling in Tokyo. The Japanese were intensely suspicious of all outsiders, and foreigners were constantly under some form of surveillance. Moreover Japan-Russia relations juxtaposed two of Asia’s powerhouses, ones with form. Japan had invaded Russia three times in recent memory: 1905, 1910, and again in 1918, the latter as far as Lake Baikal, 3,000kms from Tokyo, in support of White Russian forces during the country’s bloody civil war. With Japan again expanding on the Chinese mainland getting secret Soviet eyes into place in Tokyo was a matter of the highest urgency.

Eugen Ott


In September 1933 Sorge arrived in Japan. There among key Japanese and German contacts, he met Eugen Ott, then a lieutenant-colonel and German liaison officer with the Japanese army. Later he became Germany’s ambassador in Tokyo. The two hit it off having much in common; they had served in the same division in World War One and were equally fascinated by Japan. Ott had been recruited into German military intelligence—the Abwehr under its chief Conrad Patzig, once commander of the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee—and had worked in the Political Department of the German Army in challenge to the authority of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s government after the war until the rise of the Nazis, so would have understood the rise of the Japanese military well. Ott had acted as a go-between for the government of Kurt von Schleicher and Hitler. Schleicher—vain, able, ambitious and a gifted manipulator—lived up to his name in German which means ‘sneak’ or ‘intriguer’ in handing power to the Nazis ending 14 years of attempts by the Weimar Republic to make democracy work in Germany. The result was, to paraphrase the historian Alan Bullock, that street gangs seized control of the resources of a great state, ‘the gutter’ he wrote, had come to power (Hitler later had Schleicher murdered, and his wife). Sorge’s friendship with Ott would provide him with access to a stream of high-level military and political intelligence on Germany-Japan relations, and more importantly, German intentions towards the Soviet Union.


At the time of Sorge’s arrival, Japan was undergoing a rise in nationalism and militarism. Like Weimar Germany, the posiiton of the army in Japan was as a state within a state, and subject only to itself. Domestically oligarchic power was exchanged for that of the army, large corporations and bureaucracy. The domestic political situation however remained unstable and the country developed traits of a police state. Japan’s foreign policy was one extension of the rise of this militaristic nationalism.  After World War One, Japan acquired German concessions in China including Tsingtao and German islands in the Pacific north of the equator. Japan became a major power in the Pacific and developed the third largest navy in the world, including the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleships ever constructed.


In 1927 the Tanaka Memorandum (now largely dismissed by historians as a phony) called for the domination of Asia by Japan and was supported by the military. The so-called Mukden Incident engineered by Japan in 1931, led to the occupation of Manchuria and the establishment a year later of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, an area of 1.1 million square kilometres which bordered the Soviet Union. Moscow now faced a potential major threat; after Manchuria would Japan now turn north and invade the sparsely populated and relatively poorly defended Far Eastern territories of the Soviet Union, or south into the rest of China? This question would become central to Sorge’s mission in Japan.


Sorge quickly completed infiltration as a respectable member of Tokyo’s close-knit German community. He was seen by them as a gregarious hard drinking Nazi popular with men and women alike. A social lion, women were fascinated by him, Richard der Unwiderstehliche ("Richard the Irresistible"), and men often envied him but tried not to show it; though one French journalist thought him a strange combination of charm and brutality. He developed a solid reputation as a Japan expert – he spoke Japanese – and had an academic background as well as working as a respected journalist. During his time in Tokyo, he contributed 163 articles to Frankfurter Zeitung, the most prestigious newspaper in Germany (later owned by chemical company IG Farben) and worked for the German Grain News published by Germany’s largest agricultural financier, likely making him the most senior German reporter in Japan. Through Ott he eventually had his own office and an established position at the German embassy, which was to become the core of one of the most successful penetrations of an enemy institution in the history of espionage.


He cultivated contacts during heavy drinking sessions in Ginza, a district of Tokyo famous for shopping and nightlife, which in 1934 had over 2,000 bars. There were jazz and tango bars with ‘taxi dancers’ paid to dance by the number, as well as German bars and beer halls serving the finest pilsner in Asia by the Germania Brewery (initially an Anglo-Scottish-German venture founded with Mexican dollars), now seen for sale globally under the brand name Tsingtao and China’s second largest brewery churning out 30 million hectoliters a year and partly made using rice. In German beer halls Japanese waitresses dressed up traditional German clothes with blond wigs and served heavy German food. One waitress later became Sorge’s common-law wife. Ginza also had shopping and department stores that sprang up during redevelopment of the area following a great fire. “Killing time in Ginza” was local slang for window shopping. Today Ginza is one of the most expensive, elegant, and luxurious streets in the world.

Ginza in the 1930s

Sorge had done his own “shopping”. In Shanghai he gained a Japanese agent, the journalist Hotsumi Ozaki now working in the newly established East Asia Problem Investigations Association, a think-tank giving Sorge access to the latest top-level information albeit unclassified, on every strand of Japan’s political, economic and military life. Ozaki later moved to the Showa Research Association, a kind of shadow cabinet to the later premier Prince Konoe, a central figure in transforming Japan into a totalitarian state. Ozaki was also co-architect of the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a concept that would, according to Japanese imperial propaganda, establish a new international order seeking “co prosperity” for Asian countries which would share prosperity and peace, free from Western colonialism and domination. It is remembered however, largely as a front for the Japanese control of occupied countries during World War Two, in which puppet governments manipulated local populations and economies for the benefit of Imperial Japan. He also worked for the South Manchuria Railroad, or Mantetsu, a kind of state within a state and involved in all military and economic activity in Manchuria and would provide Ozaki, and through him Sorge, with all kinds of invaluable intelligence on Japan’s military intentions towards the Soviet Union.


In 1934 Ott and Sorge had undertaken, with Japanese permission, an extensive tour of Japanese assets in Manchukuo. Sorge wrote a detailed report of their findings which Ott then submitted to Berlin on behalf of the embassy. Ott’s masters in the foreign ministry thought it a great piece of work and commended him on his summary. Sorge became Ott’s main source of information on Japan, and Ott became Sorge’s greatest source of information on Nazi Germany, which he passed without Ott’s knowledge, onto Moscow.

An attempted military coup took place in Tokyo in 1936 which led to several senior officials and moderate military officers being murdered by a hardline faction. The German ambassador Herbert von Dirksen (before Tokyo he had held the post in Moscow), Ott and the rest of the German embassy were highly confused as to why it was happening and were at a loss as to how to explain the coup to the foreign ministry in Berlin. They turned to Sorge, the resident Japan expert, for help. He used notes from Ozaki to explain events and his report was used as the basis of Dirksen's explanation of the coup attempt, which he sent back to Berlin. Again, his superiors were well satisfied at the embassy’s explanation of the coup attempt which they described as “brilliant”. In 1937 Sorge learned from Ozaki critical news Japan would not attack the Soviet Union, at least for the time being, but instead would invade south deep into China instead. It was here that hostilities in World War Two began rather than with the Nazi invasion of Poland. The Sino-Japan war 1937-45 killed 14 million Chinese and tied down a large portion of Japan’s military in the process.


Hotsumi Ozaki - agent extraordinaire

Sorge was now positioned deeply into the official orbit of German intelligence. He was part of a study group at the German embassy which included Dirksen and Ott, to analyse the escalating war in China. Their focus was on gathering information on Japan’s armed forces and their deployments. Sorge continued to supply Moscow with detailed intelligence gathered from the highest levels of the Japan and German governments gleaned through Ozaki’s connections and from Ott, who was appointed Germany’s ambassador to Japan by foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to replace Dirksen in 1938. Ott gave Sorge virtually a free run of the embassy even setting him up with his own office. They had breakfast together every day, drafted Ott’s official cables to Berlin. Ott sometimes sent him abroad with German diplomatic cover to carry messages to other German consulates in China, Hong Kong and the Philippines.


Ironically, Sorge’s spying for the Soviet Union in Japan in the late 1930s was probably safer for him than if he had been in Moscow. Claiming too many pressing responsibilities, he disobeyed Stalin’s direct order (twice) to return to the Soviet Union in 1937 during the Great Purge as he realised the risk of arrest because of his German citizenship. Stalin, one author said, ‘had a mob boss-like predilection for eliminating underlings whom he despised or feared and possessed an abnormal suspicion’. During the purges he swept away the old order, minorities, senior military officers, wealthy peasants, and anyone deemed a threat or a rival like those foreigners in the Comintern, its leadership and those from the intelligence community, like the GRU. Berzin came under suspicion and was shot as was his successor, Alexander Nikonov, as traitors. In all, five heads of the GRU were shot, so Sorge’s reluctance to return to Moscow was well-founded and likely saved his life.


Sorge supplied Soviet intelligence with information about the Anti-Comintern Pact signed between Nazi Germany and Japan in late 1936 (Italy and Spain also joined) which Japan hoped would be an alliance against the Soviet Union. Japan however, later distanced itself from Germany following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet-Nazi Germany non-aggression pact of 1939. Ott was one of the negotiators for the later Tripartite Pact with Japan and other Axis powers, which unlike the anti-Comintern Pact, was aimed largely at the USA. In 1941 Sorge’s German embassy contacts made him aware of Operation Barbarossa, the imminent Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. However, Stalin and other top Soviet leaders ultimately ignored Sorge’s warnings, as well as those of other sources, including early false alarms. Even though Sorge had learned of the imminent German attack on the Soviet Union, when it came on 22 June, he was shocked and headed off on a bender.


His drinking often got him into trouble coming close to compromising his mission on occasions and ultimately undermined his performance. One night he had a motorbike accident riding his Zündapp, one of the fastest machines of the day. At breakneck speed he hit a wall, fracturing his skull, breaking his jaw and knocking out most of his teeth. Semi-conscious on morphine he had to usher nurses from his bedside in order to pass unseen hard currency and microfilm he had been carrying to Clausen, before they were discovered by hospital staff. In another incident he wrote off a car whilst driving drunk and there were many near misses. Part of his make-up was as a speed junkie, riding around Tokyo at high speed, sometimes alone but sometimes with pillion passengers, usually women, some of whom found this exhilarating, while others found it frightening.


After the launch of Barbarossa, the Nazi foreign minister, von Ribbentrop, pressured Ott to gain Japan’s support for an attack on the Soviet Union from the east, through Manchuria but without success. The reasoning being that if Germany can beat Russia so easily, as Berlin claimed, then they did not need Japan’s help. Earlier, he had called for Japan to attack Singapore and was against informing Tokyo of any plans to attack Russia. Matsuoka, Japan’s foreign minister under Prince Konoe, had earlier signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in April 1941and Japan turned its attention towards Singapore and most everything in between, though Matsuoka personally advocated for attacking Siberia. Later in June 1941, Sorge informed Moscow of Japan’s intentions to occupy French Indochina. The so-called “Plan South” favoured by the navy, won over the preference of some in the army for attacking Russia, at least for the present. The USA oil embargo on Japan for occupying northern China had begun to bite. At one-point Sorge gained critical intelligence from Ozaki revealing that the entire oil reserve in Japan would last only six months. The oilfields of the Dutch East Indies were therefore of immediate interest to Japanese commanders.


As the war progressed Sorge was in increasing danger of being detected. The number of mysterious messages being detected by the Ministry of Communications confirmed that an intelligence ring was operating. They were getting closer to the location of the coded short-wave transmissions. Radio vans were able to triangulate radio signals, but they were unable to crack the Soviet codes, messages just appeared as gibberish and they had no idea what they meant. Hanako, Sorge’s common law wife, was questioned by police about his activities. Clausen was suspected as the possible operator of an illegal radio. Sorge and his team were being followed by the Tokkō, short for Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu or Special Higher Police, the civilian secret police, made up of six departments including for surveillance of foreigners mainly Koreans, and a Thought Police. Sorge was also coming under growing suspicion in Berlin, so the Gestapo sent an agent to investigate. Sorge turned him into a drinking buddy and his subsequent reports declared Sorge as politically “reliable” though doubts and suspicions continued particularly as evidence of Sorge socialist leanings in Germany were being uncovered. Sorge was able to learn ahead of time what the Gestapo agent, Joseph Meisinger, would report to Berlin as he had stolen the key to the Meisinger’s apartment and read all his notes. No mean feat, Meisinger was described by high-ranking German intelligence officials as “One of the most evil creatures among Heydrich's [the Gestapo chief] bunch of thugs and he carried out the vilest of his orders”.

Sorge monument in Moscow

The dominoes began to fall and one by one Sorge’s spies were captured. Eventually Tokkō arrested 11 people in connection with the case. Ozaki was arrested on 14 October 1941 and immediately interrogated. He admitted spying for the Comintern, not for the GRU. Sorge was arrested five days later. Sorge took six days to confess, exhausted by continuous questioning and sleep deprivation, a method that the Soviet NKVD called “the conveyor”. After confessing he sat down to write his memoir on his old typewriter the police fetched from his apartment. He addressed his memoir over the heads of his Japanese captors to his own superiors at the Fourth Department. He didn’t mention any of the women in his life, or speak of any of his affairs, which the Japanese police estimated involved around 30 women but then he was writing to his boss. Those who have read these conclude from the tone of his prison memoir that Sorge expected eventually to be freed.


As the Sorge ring worked for the GRU they were military intelligence and therefore fell under the purview of the Japanese War Ministry, and its own police, the notoriously brutal Kempeitai. However, as Ozaki admitted spying for the Comintern, they were charged under the 1925 Public Security Preservation Act, which had been drafted as an anti-communist statue, aimed at the Japanese Communist Party and other socialist groups. Fortunately for Sorge this fell under the Justice Department and its police force the Tokkō, and they weren’t going to hand over a prize spy case to a rival agency. The Sorge spy ring therefore went to trial as the last and greatest – albeit fictitiously attributed – Comintern espionage case.


The Sorge spy trial began in a closed session of the Tokyo District Court in May 1942. On 15 December 1942, Sorge was convicted of violations of the Peace Preservation Law and the National Defence Security Law – capital crimes.  On 19 September 1943, Sorge was sentenced to death by hanging. Sorge remained in Sugamo Prison, used by Japanese wartime authorities for political prisoners and war dissenters, and by Allied occupying forces for war criminals and later the site of the Sunshine building, at one time Tokyo’s tallest skyscraper. During his three years inside, he seemingly only revealed some things to his jailers, much remained secret.


During the trials, the Japanese discovered he had only worked against Germany, their ally. They wondered if putting him on trial, much less executing him was even a good idea. They thought of using him as part prisoner exchange for Japanese held by the Russians. They offered him to the Russians as part of a formal prisoner exchange, but Moscow said no. Stalin seemingly did not want to be seen to be negotiating with the Japanese, even for Sorge. When asked what his reply was to the Japanese government for such an exchange, Stalin said “I don’t know anyone called Sorge”. Sorge was executed on 7 November 1944.


After Sorge was unmasked as a spy, Ott was replaced as German ambassador in 1943 by Heinrich Stahmer, a Liechtenstein-born career diplomat, who had come to Japan to help negotiate the Tripartite Pact. Unlike the scenes depicted in Sergei Ginzburg’s drama series, Ott did not commit suicide, nor was he executed for allowing a spy to infiltrate the embassy and gather critical information, rather he was transferred to Beijing (then Peking). He died in 1977 aged 87 years in Bavaria.


Years after his death, Sorge became fashionable. Once regarded as a traitor in the then West Germany he was rehabilitated in the 1950s when anti-Hitlerites were being regarded as heroes. A 1964 France-German film about the life of Sorge was premiered at the Moscow Film Festival, which caught the eye of Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet leadership decided that Sorge should join the official pantheon of Soviet saints. Sorge was made a posthumous Hero of the Soviet Union and placed a bulky gravestone decorated with an image of the medal over the original more modest monument placed at his grave by Hanako in Tokyo.


The Soviet press wrote about him. A street in Moscow was named after him complete with a statue. A ship was named for him and he got his face on a 4-kopek stamp. By 2017, there were at least six fictionalized biographies of the spy in Russian. The former head of the KGB and Politburo member, Yuri Andropov, decided a dashing Soviet version of James Bond was needed to glamorize the image of the KGB, so a series of books and articles emerged. A cult television series ‘Seventeen Moments of Spring’ followed. In 1982, a new monument went up in Baku, a bizarre sculpture with piercing eyes intended to represent the al-seeing eyes of Soviet espionage. Dramatisations of his deeds are still being made including Ginzburg’s effort on Star Media.


Over 100 books have been written in Japanese about the Sorge spy ring, and a thriving Tokyo-based Sorge Society holds well-attended annual conferences. Hanako had his body exhumed and paid for a plot in Tama cemetery where Sorge lies today among the dignified graves of Japanese notables under a granite headstone.


Thanks to the following:
John Keegan
Owen Matthews
Paul French
Sergei Ginzburg
Thames Television
William Shirer
Alan Bullock

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