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The Enigmatic Colonel Tsuji Masanobu: Japan’s Fanatical Ideologue, Staff Officer and Cannibal

One of my patrons, Dan, recently asked me if I could write an article about Colonel Tsuji Masanobu. Professor John Dower describes him as a “fanatical ideologue and pathological brutal staff officer”. Others give him the dubious honour of being “rightly described as a maverick and a fanatic.” The ultranationalist officer indeed was a zealot, which gave him a near-perverted sense of courage. 

Col. Tsuji Masanobu (1901? – disappeared 1961?)

At the same time, he was referred to as the ‘God of Strategy’ for playing a vital role in the planning of Japan’s Malay campaign. He also authorised the offensive against Port Moresby along the Kokoda Trail. He didn’t just fight against opposing military, though – he was responsible for tens of thousands of civilian and prisoner casualties. Some historians write that if any Japanese officer should have been tried for war crimes, it was Tsuji. Yet he never stood trial. His entire wartime experience was tarnished and riddled with extreme excesses. 

And just when you think the mind-boggling activities came to an end after Japan’s defeat, Tsuji’s life arguably became even more hectic. The U.S. Military Intelligence Service recruited him as an asset, and he took part in organising a coup by the Chinese Nationalists against the Communists. Meanwhile, he played the role of a double-agent towards his U.S. handlers, having the rearmament of Japan as his concealed priority. Within this capacity, he was instrumental in organising an attempted coup and assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister in 1952, all the while becoming a best-selling author writing about his war experience.  

Oh, and to top it all off, in 1952, he was elected to Japan’s parliament, launching a dazzling political career. That was, until 1961, when he mysteriously disappeared. The circumstances around his vanishing are to this day unclear. Still, declassified CIA files reveal he might have died in the Laotian civil war, was executed by Chinese communists after illegally crossing the border, or continued his life under the radar in the employment of North Vietnam’s People’s Army. 

Now, because of certain restrictions on YouTube historical content, I will have to choose my words carefully when discussing some of Tsuji’s acts. Even then, videos such as this one are prone to be demonetised, occasionally happening to my channel. Not exactly ideal, since working on this channel is my full-time occupation. Frankly, a lot of time and work has gone into this video in terms of research. So if you enjoy House of History and want to support my work, consider supporting me via Patreon. For just one dollar a month, you will already receive access to one additional Patreon-exclusive video every month, including the entire Patreon-exclusive series so far.

Early Life (1900-1939)

Although the entire personality of Colonel Tsuji is an enigma, we’re already starting off with ambiguity looking at his birth and childhood. Tsuji was born somewhere between 1900 and 1903. In his own writings, Tsuji claims his date of birth was October 11, 1900, and on other occasions 1901. Other sources vary and dispute each other, some putting his date of birth as late as 1903. At any rate, born in the Ishikawa Prefecture located in the centre of Japan’s main island, he was a charcoal maker’s third son. 

He received education at a local preparatory military school. After graduating first of his class, he transferred to the Rikugun Shikan Gakko, Japan’s Military Academy. Here too he graduated top of his class. In 1931 he graduated third of his year from the Rikugun Daigakko, the Army War College in Tokyo. His own writings reveal he established somewhat of a core crew of friends and loyalists around him during his time in Tokyo. I suppose you could say an ‘old boys network’ developed, which would serve him nicely for the next three decades.

Being top of his class in the War College meant Tsuji became part of the Guntogumi, the “Military Sword Clique.” This clique, reserved for only a select few officers who excelled, meant fast-track promotions and recognition among all Japanese troops. Senior officers who had not attended the college even had to make way for these subordinates because of the prestige attached to their education. Minister of War in the late 1930s, Itagaki Seishiro, considered Tsuji his protégé, leading to the young officer gaining much influence early on. 

From 1937 onwards, he served as a staff officer in Japan’s Kwantung Army. This was the first time sources refer to his actions as Gekokujo. This concept became known in Japan around the 13th century. Without delving too much into it, it basically refers to lower-ranking officers, lords or soldiers overthrowing, disobeying or undermining their higher-ups. Other sources define it as ‘leading from below’ or ‘loyal insubordination.’ Tsuji was a leading proponent of it, but he certainly wasn’t alone in propagating it. 

As a staff officer, he saw his first action in Manchuria, northern China and the Mongolian border. There were several border clashes with the Soviets because Japanese officers like Tsuji refused higher-ups’ orders to withdraw. During one such incident, Tsuji led 40 Japanese officers into disputed territory guarded by Soviets, only to undo their trousers, urinate in plain sight, and retreat again.

At other times Tsuji issued orders which were the complete opposite to Tokyo’s policy regarding the Soviet border. In his own words, he wanted his troops to “annihilate the enemy if they crush the border.” He also told his soldiers they could cross into Soviet territory. Well, this policy directly led to the bloody Nomonhan incident, also known as the Battles of Khalkhin Gol, and the subsequent defeat of Japanese forces. When the Soviets repatriated Japanese POWs, Tsuji personally ordered them to take their own lives because of the dishonour capture brought them.

Tsuji replied with a near-treacherous reply upon a reprimand from the General Staff for a raid deep into Soviet territory. Speaking in the name of the Kwantung Army, he replied: “There appear to be certain differences between Army General Staff and this Army in evaluating the battlefield situation and measures to be adopted. It is requested that the handling of trivial matters in border areas be entrusted to this Army.” The only reason Tsuji wasn’t fired was thanks to his patron, Minister of War Seishiro. 

Already during this time, Tsuji was considered a fanatical ideologue and unorthodox, even among Japanese ultra-nationalist circles. Ryukichi Tanaka, a major general, said Tsuji was the “most determined single protagonist of war with the United States.” He held beliefs in line with asceticism derived from Zen Buddhism, basically living in abstinence. He didn’t permit himself any luxuries, living a sober existence, withdrawn from his fellow officers.

Japanese politics during the 1930s are a bit hectic; a lot was happening in a short period. One of Tsuji’s main events must have been his role in averting a coup by a rivalling faction. Future wartime premier Tojo Hideki had to thank Tsuji, in-part, for creating the circumstances in which he could rise to power. 

As the war in the Pacific began escalating and Tsuji saw more battle, these beliefs simmered through in his actions. He upheld the same extreme standards for others as he did for himself. 

The War (1937-1945)

One element remained a constant in his career and even after the war: insubordination and being somewhat of a maverick. I use that word without any positive connotation. Although Gekokujo was relatively common within the Japanese military, Tsuji was an extreme example. He was transferred on more than one occasion because Generals simply could not put up with his insubordination. According to military historian Max Hastings, in his 2007 book Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, besides being repeatedly transferred, even his often ultranationalist superiors considered him a fanatic and zealot. An anecdote reveals he once burned down a “geisha house to highlight his disgust at the moral frailty of the officers inside it.” 

Tsuji took part in the Malayan campaign, serving under Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya, a nickname thanks to his successful campaign. Japanese commanders credit Tsuji with planning much of the campaign, leading to some officers referring to him as the ‘God of Strategy.’ By 1941 he was one of the most influential officers of Japan’s Taiwanese Army Research Department. Malaya served as a blueprint for changes and tweaks that improved Japan’s campaigns in a tropical climate. 

Yet on the campaign Tsuji’s temper showed, with him resigning in a fit of rage because Yamashita’s Chief of Staff ignored some of his recommendations. Within a week Tsuji returned to the headquarters and continued his duties as if he had never left. Besides military targets, Tsuji was responsible for the Alexandra Hospital massacre, one of his many atrocities. 

Thanks to the reputation he earned in this campaign, he was dispatched to many Japanese frontlines as a problem solver and a pair of fresh eyes. He was instrumental in organising the campaign against the British in Singapore, emerging victorious within ten weeks. At every front Tsuji served, his superiors attributed extreme excesses and brutalities against civilians and prisoners. 

After the British surrendered Singapore, CIA documents revealed Tsuji ordered and expanded the systemic purge of potentially hostile elements. The Sook Ching Massacre cost over 5000 Chinese and Chinese Malayans their lives, although some historians estimate the death toll to be up to 50.000.

In April 1942, Tsuji visited the Philippines. His superiors later attested he ordered the Bataan Death March, costing tens of thousands of Allied prisoners their lives. He also personally ordered the execution of the Philippines Supreme Court’s Chief Justice and acting President, José Santos. 

Next, he sailed to the Southern Pacific Area to assist the 17th Army in conquering Fiji and Samoa to break-off Allied supply lines. Disregarding their severe defeat at Midway, the Japanese continued to plan to conquer the islands and whether they could dispatch an infantry campaign on Port Moresby along the Kokoda Track. 

Arriving at 17th Army headquarters in Davao in July, Tsujii met a commander sceptical of his aggressive plans. Major General Horii Tomitaro didn’t think it would be possible to supply the Japanese infantry when pushing through all the way to Port Moresby. Outranking Tsuji, he contacted the Imperial Headquarters. They relayed they awaited an assessment by the commander of a reconnaissance mission before giving a final order. 

But Tsuji, in his insubordinate fashion, wanted to seize the initiative. He personally ordered the infantry to launch their trek and assault on Port Moresby, declaring Headquarters gave the green light. In reality, Headquarters had not decided, but after Tsuji launched the assault, the Imperial Command retroactively gave the order. The poor preparation and less than ideal circumstances led to a disastrous campaign. Within half a year, over 15.000 Japanese and 3.000 Allied soldiers met their end in the fighting. Without much success for the Japanese.

Tsuji wasn’t there to see the results, though. Together with other officers, he sailed aboard the destroyer Asangi to Cape Killerton to prepare the campaign. En-route, the Asangi was attacked by a squadron of Allied B-17 and B-26 aircraft. They bombed the Asangi, and Tsuji suffered critical throat injuries due to shrapnel and was urgently evacuated to Tokyo to recuperate. Some Japanese generals later said the injuries weren’t that severe, but they ordered him away from the frontline anyway before he could cause any more trouble.

Just three months later, he travelled to Guadalcanal. Hastings writes that Tsuji was personally responsible for some of Japan’s most severe strategic blunders in Guadalcanal. They suffered an obliterating defeat attempting to capture Henderson airfield, with over 20 Japanese casualties for every American. Tsuji once again offered his resignation, which once again didn’t lead to anything. He was subsequently transferred to Burma to coordinate the battle against the British.

Sources vary whether it was in Burma or Singapore, but at one point Tsuji consumed the liver of a dead Allied pilot, denouncing troops that refused to join him. It shows that Tsuji crossed any acceptable boundary of human behaviour and morality. Some accounts dispute it taking place, but even if it didn’t, the fact Tsuji dining on the liver of a dead pilot is plausible is rather telling already. 

In October 1944 the Battle of Leyte commenced with an amphibious invasion of the island by the United States. Besides Yamashita as commanding officer, General Sosaku Suzuki too commanded Japanese troops. And Suzuki did not just have direct contact with Tsuji, but he wrote about his conduct in a very revealing way. According to him, it was the “Ishiwara-Tsuji clique – the personification of Gekokujo – that has brought the Japanese army to its present deplorable situation. So long as they exert influence, it can only lead to ruin.” Besides Tsuji, he referred to Kanji Ishiwara, a general of the Imperial Army. This goes to show the extent of influence superiors considered Tsuji, a Lieutenant Colonel, to have. Tanaka Shinichi, himself known for a brutal attitude, criticised Tsuji for the treatment of troops under his command

There are other accounts as well. Remember Major General Horii, who opposed Tsuji’s aggressive campaign against Port Moresby. Even though he was Tsuji’s superior, Tsuji was able to influence and dominate his campaign. In part, this was thanks to his insubordinate personality and Gekokujo. But also because Tsuji was part of the Guntogumi, the Military Sword Clique. Horii wasn’t part of it. In the eyes of many, his orders carried less weight than that of Tsuji, even though he outranked the Lieutenant Colonel.  

Post-war (1945-1950)

In late summer 1945, Japan surrendered. At the time, Tsuji served on the staff of the 18th Area Army in Thailand. He was aware he’d probably end up standing trial for war crimes if he returned to Japan. Not too wrong an assumption, as mainly the British considered him a person of interest. Instead, he took on the role of a Japanese monk in a Bangkok Buddhist temple, together with seven comrades. 

During the Tokyo trials, Japan’s Chief of Intelligence, Seizo Arisue, implicated Tsuji with instigating the infamous Bataan Death March. Yet thanks to his unknown whereabouts, perhaps still surprisingly, he avoided being indicted in absentia. Still, the United States marked him as an alleged war criminal. After Tsuji’s stay in Bangkok, he travelled through Laos and Vietnam to reach the Chinese nationalist forces fighting their civil war against the communists. Here, he briefly served as a military advisor to China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. 

Around late 1948 he quietly returned to Japan under the radar. He briefly lived a withdrawn life in residences owned by his wartime friend, crime lord and ultranationalist Yoshio Kodama. One of his friends from the war, Hattori Takushiro, made sure Tsuji wouldn’t pop up on any lists until in 1950 the United States revoked his status as an alleged war criminal. He became one of many that got away with heinous crimes committed during the war. 

During this time, Tsuji wrote his memoirs: ‘Senko sanzenri.’ With Kodama’s instrumental help publishing and promoting his book, it became a bestseller. Soon after, Tsuji published his second book about how he managed to evade capture after the war, becoming his second bestseller. 

The American Asset (1950-1952)

So why were war crime charges against Tsuji dropped? Well, declassified CIA Name Files reveal how Tsuji Masanobu and the aforementioned crime lord Kodama Yoshio were employed as agents by the U.S. Military Intelligence Service under Charles A. Willoughby. There were multiple occasions where the Americans funded operations carried out by men with tarnished records, if not outright war criminals such as Tsuji. 

Documents indicate Tsuji was employed by U.S. authorities even before the U.S. rescinded his status as a war criminal. One such covert operation was recruiting Japanese soldiers to serve in Taiwan against a possible Communist invasion from China. CIA documents reveal Tsuji dispatched former Japanese Army troops to the island to serve in the Kuomintang, China’s nationalist army. Hattori too served the Americans, although both he and Tsuji often embezzled funds they received from the CIA for their own hidden agenda: rearming the Japanese Army. 

Through Hattori and other former officer friends, Tsuji took part in one of Willoughby’s most ambitious secret operations. He was planning an invasion of mainland China by the Kuomintang, exiled to Taiwan. Together with Takushiro Hattori, Tsuji received permission to take charge of the planning. It commenced in January 1951. The CIA sent multiple serious warnings to Willoughby that both men were not to be trusted. One such warning read “In either politics or intelligence work, [Tsuji] is hopelessly lost both by reason of personality and lack of experience… Tsuji is the type of man who, given the chance, would start World War III without any misgivings.” Still, Tsuji couldn’t do much harm because within three months, the plans were leaked to the Chinese communists, and the plan was abandoned. 

And although Seizo Arisue implicated Tsuji during the Tokyo Trials, in the 1950s, he recruited him to expand Japanese intelligence operations in Southeast Asia. He figured Tsuji had connections there thanks to his brief exile. What Arisue didn’t count on was that most of those connections despised Tsuji. After many complaints, he replaced him with a former chief of Japanese Military Police, the Kempeitai. That didn’t stop Tsuji’s endeavour within Japan’s military and political history, however. 

The Final Sensational Years (1952-1961/68)

Tsuji’s writings from this time show his primary objective was to rearm Japan and establish a military junta if possible. He eagerly worked with the Americans, because, in his words, he wanted to “deceive the ally before the enemy.” Still, Tsuji, together with Hattori and crime lord Kodama, became increasingly upset with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru. He adhered to a policy of relying on the United States for military protection, refusing to rearm the military and openly denouncing nationalism and purges. 

Hattori was the first to begin hatching a plot to assassinate Shigeru to control the government by replacing him with the more receptive senior politicians Hatoyama Ichiro or Ogata Tektora. But Tsuji prevented the assassination from coming through, reasoning it would provoke the Americans and be counterproductive in the long run. Hopefully, the irony of a Japanese ultranationalist and war criminal preventing the assassination of a U.S.-friendly PM isn’t lost on many. 

Writing two best-sellers skyrocketed Tsuji to fame, especially among reactionaries. That same year he was elected to Japan’s Parliament as an independent, kickstarting his extravagant political career. He used his newly found influence to criticise the US-Japan security alliance and propagate Japan’s rearmament. His past and misdeeds stuck to him throughout his entire career, with former rivals of the army implicating him in more war crimes. This didn’t prevent him from being re-elected in 1956. 

The enigma, Tsuji, died the way he lived. Or, well, rather, disappeared. In the wake of multiple political controversies, he left Japan to repeat his travels in Southeast Asia at the end of the Second World War, even choosing a Buddhist monk gown as his attire. First, he travelled to Laos in 1961 to meet the communist Pathet Lao rebels. And that’s the last any credible source reported seeing him: he simply vanished, killed in the conflict waging on in Laos.

But there are other theories out there. Some sources indicate that Vo Nguyen Giap, commander-in-chief of Vietnam’s People’s Army, covertly employed him until 1968. CIA documents indicate he indeed travelled to North Vietnam in April 1961, and some place him in Hanoi seven years later. 

A third theory goes that he crossed the border from Laos to China, where the Chinese Communists arrested him in January 1963. Upon realisation they captured the infamous Tsuji, they executed him right away. Unfortunately, much of the CIA documents are based on hearsay, and his actual fate will probably remain a mystery forever. 

Now, I briefly mentioned the Battle of Khalkhin Gol earlier. During that battle, a Korean soldier, like so many others, was captured by the Soviet Union. What makes his story so special is that he ended up not in the Soviet Union, but fighting in a Wehrmacht Ost Battalion on Normandy’s beaches during D-Day. His name was Yang Kyoungjong, and he is the only soldier known for fighting for three sides during the Second World War. Here is a video I created about him.

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