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Colonel Tsuji of Malaya (part 1)

[Colonel Tsuji Masanobu (I put his family name first, in the Asian convention) was a tactical genius, a master of improvisation, and one of the criminals to wear uniform in the period 1932-1945. These are notes I put together in 1994 from various sources. They're presented in chronological order, divided into rough "chapters." I have omitted source references, to make the text easier to read, but it's followed by a bibliography, then with comments from readers of this page. - Dan Ford]

Education of a soldier

Tsuji was born in Ishikawa Prefecture on October 11, 1900, according to his own account, though others have placed his birthdate in 1903. At 16 entered the Nagyoa Yonen Gekko (Preparatory Military School) along with one Iwakuni whom he would know throughout his army career to its inglorious end in Hanoi in 1945. "There in Nagoya, under the shade of the camphor tree . . . we had studied together, gazing often at the golden dolphins atop the Nagoya Castle." Then the Military Academy in the Ichigaya section of Tokyo. It was free, evidently, and his classmates there and in pre school would become a band of helpers and followers over the next 30 years. Attached to Army General Staff May 1921. Graduated War College (more advanced level evidently than Military Academy) November 1924.

About this time he posed for a photograph, carrying a samurai sword but dressed in a field uniform. The cloth forage cap bears one star over the bill. From what can be seen of it under the cap, Tsuji's head appears to have been shaved clean, and his wears the round-lensed Oriental spectacles that were so savagely caricatured in American propaganda cartoons during the Pacific War. He is wide of jaw but narrow of shoulder.

About 1930 he attended the War University as a lieutenant, where he quarreled, he said, with his instructors on matters of military tactics. Studied Chinese, though indifferently, and at some time studied Russian to about the same degree of enthusiasm. Perhaps it was here that he was, as he later claimed, a classmate of Prince Chichibu, the Emperor's younger brother.

To war in China

In Feb 1932 he landed in China during the first Shanghai Incident as a company commander, a skirmish which he lost 16 men and from which he emerged "gripping my sword with soaring spirits." Also in 1932 he went on a trip though Sinkiang province with an interpreter named Wang Chan-chun. In Lanchow, both were thrown in jail.

It was a time of conspiracies. In the army, the two major groups were the Tosei (Control) faction, of which Majo Gen Hideko Tojo was a prominent member, and which favored a strong army that did not mix into politics. The more radical Kodo (Imperial Way) group wanted a "restoration" with the Emperor acting as a god, free of political advisers, bureaucrats, and business interests, with the army as his main support. The Kodo faction was condemned not only by army headquarters but by the Emperor himself. The officers who held to this view were ready to mount a coup in November 1934, when Capt Tsuji was a company commander at the Military Academy. (Among his students was a young Thai whom he would meet again in Bangkok in 1945.) Learning that five cadets were involved in the coup, he infiltrated a trusted cadet into the conspiracy and got a list of names which he sent to Major Katakura at Imperial Headquarters. The cadets were arrested on Nov 2; though not convicted, they were expelled from the academy, and the two officers who had recruited them were dismissed from the army. The Kodo group believed that the entire affair had been devised as a trap by Tsuji. In any event, he stored up influence where it mattered: with such future commanders as Tojo, Renya Mutaguchi, and Tomioka Yamashita.

"Tsuji was one of the most extraordinary men in the entire Japanese army. . . . Tsuji was a man of extraordinary ingenuity and courage; he declared himself immune to death by enemy action, he was cruel and barbarous; he had mysterious sources of power and probably direct access to Tojo; he carried out the functions of a government spy. No respecter of persons he would advise his superiors without hesitation; often he would give orders in their name without the slightest authority. Not unexpectedly he was detested throughout the entire Japanese Army; but where the business of fighting was concerned, he was invariably right."

"With his roundish face, bald head and small, blinking eyes, he looked like the typical staff officer." But was he bald or merely shaven? He was a protege of Col Takeo Ishihira, who was "determined to make Manchuria into a Buddhist paradise of five nationalities living in harmony." Tsuji would have gone further, "making Asia one great brotherhood, an Asia for the Asians." By his own account, when in his thirties "I . . . divorced my wife and left my (two) children to participate in the movement for national reformation," and it may be this period he had in mind.

By 1935, in what appears to be a passport photo, he has grown a small mustache; his spectacles reflect the light and magnify his Oriental eyefolds, giving him a cruel aspect that would have satisfied Americans devotees of "Yellow Peril" books, movies, and comics. Two years later, by which time the Japanese army and navy had launched a two-pronged attack on China proper, a photograph shows him wearing wore the mushroom-cap steel helmet and an officer's high-necked tunic, crossed by a belt of the sort standard in the British army of the time, which further emphasizes his narrow shoulders. A photograph taken later, though still apparently in China (perhaps Manchuria?), shows him as a grubby field soldier, his mustache now seems to have flowered into what, for a Japanese, would be a full beard. He is seated on the ground with his lower legs crossed, almost in a lotus position, a rifle across his thigh, a tin cup in his right hand, a canteen or hongo mess-kit in his lap, much braid on his right shoulder, and an indubitably sour look on his face. Behind him is a horse from which he may have just dismounted, a bedroll tied behind the saddle. Again, the single star on the front of his forage cap.

Spring 1938 the Emperor's younger brother Prince Chichibu inspected Manchuria, at which time Tsuji and other members of his graduating class at Army University attended a banquet in his honor.

Identified as one of the "officers responsible for provoking the disastrous Nomonhan incident in 1939. With the rank of major, Tsuji was one of the senior staff officers for General Ueda Kenkichi, commander of the Kwantung Army. Immediately thereafter (Sept 1939) posted to 11th Army Headquarters in Hankou.

He recruited friends and acolytes in China. One was a young officer named Shigeharu Asaeda, "an agile, muscular six-footer." From a poor family, Asaeda applied to the Military Academy because it was free. "In China he fought so recklessly that Tsuji sought him out."

Another devotee was Yoshio Kodama, commended to Tsuji by Ishihara. Looked for him at Nanjing Army Headquarters. "Oh, that crazy man lives in a filthy little room behind the stable," Colonel Imai told him. Asking Tsuji about his quarters, Kodama was lectured: "These headquarters officers are all rotten. They are only working for their medals. Every night they go to parties and play with geishas. Since the China Incident, all the military have gone bad. They hate me because I know all this and speak out." He had also turned one staff officer over to the kempeitai for "corruption," as a result of which the officer committed suicide. As the story was told, he had once burned down a geisha house with his fellow officers inside. Either through loyalty to his wife and children, or out of a more generalized misogyny or perhaps homosexuality, had nothing to do with women when he was campaigning.

continued in part 2