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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.

Flying Tigers

Getting ready for a larger war

In 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, Imperial Army General Staff sent an officer to scout Hong Kong, French Indochina, and Singapore. He drafted a preliminary invasion plan for Hong Kong and Singapore. In 1940 other officers made a similar reconnaissance of the Dutch Indies and the Philippines. They concluded that many Filipinos and most Malaysians and Indonesians would applaud the overthrow of colonial governments. However, the plans drawn up were sketchy, and no spy networks were put in place.

In Dec 1940, however, three divisions in China were ordered to train for tropical duty. Col Yoshihide Hayashi put in charge of the Taiwan Army Research Section with the task of collecting data on tropical warfare. On 1 Jan 1941 Tsuji arrived to join the unit--exiled to Taiwan, it was said, by Ishihara's nemesis Hideki Tojo. On the other hand, a British historian regarded Tsuji as Tojo's man, and his assignment an effort by Tojo to get the best possible planning into the invasion of Malay, which produced 38 percent of the world's rubber and 58 percent of its tin, and which was also the gateway to Britain's major naval base on the island of Singapore. In any event, he soon became "the driving force" of the department: "his brilliant maverick spirit inspired fantastic devotion in the younger staff officers," who soon dubbed him the "God of Operations."

Among them was the sturdy Capt Asaeda, now 29. Transferred to a desk job at the War Ministry, he had abandoned his post and his family, taken a new name, and headed south with the intention of fighting Dutch colonialism in Indonesia. He made the mistake of visiting Tsuji, who sent him under guard to Japan, where he was allowed to retire from the army to avoid scandal. He returned to Formosa to confront his betrayer but again became a convert, volunteering to serve as a secret agent. He was assigned to Burma, Malaya, and Thailand, and began to study the language and geography of all three.

In March or April, Asaeda went to Thailand as an agricultural engineer. He photographed key areas, chatted with Thais of low and high rank, and decided that the country could be taken over a fight. He then went to Burma, apparently by crossing the border, and "discovered terrain and climate peculiarities that changed the accepted theories of tropical warfare." Tsuji next sent Asaeda to Malaya to gather information on beaches and tides.

In June, secret maneuvers on Japanese-controlled Hainan Island in the Gulf of Tonkin under supervision of Hayashi and Tsuji. Like a good samurai, Tsuji was convinced that training and attitude would overcome physical obstacles: against doctrine, "he packed thousands of full equipped soldiers into the sweltering holds of ships, three to a tatami (a mat about six by three feet), and kept them there for a week in temperatures up to 120 degrees with little water." The same with horses. They were then landed on open beaches under simulated combat conditions--infantry, artillery, and engineers.

Gen Yamashita and his 25th Army were assigned to the Malaya invasion. He welcomed Tsuji's information but took the precaution of supplementing it with his own, sending Major Teruno Kunitake on a clandestine survey of the Malay peninsula. Traveling the length of the colony, he reported that it had far more bridges than Tsuji had estimated, prompting Yamashita to attach an engineer regiment to each division, with quantities of bridging material, and that the engineers be given additional and strenuous practice in river crossing.

Tsuji meanwhile must have returned to Tokyo, for we see him in action against Prime Minister Konoye. Decision to war: he wore a pistol (see?). "two secret organizations, which had learned of the proposed Konoye-Roosevelt meetings, were plotting to murder the Prime Minister." One a "gangland-style assault in Tokyo," the other a railroad bombing as with Marshal Chang. "The latter plan was devised by a lieutenant colonel named Masanobu Tsuji, already an idol of the most radical young officers. A chauvinist of the first water, he was determined to thwart a summit meeting that was destined to end in a disgraceful peace."

Tsuji picked his acquaintance from China: Yoshio Kodama, now leader of the most active nationalist party, who had been jailed for handing the Emperor a rightist petition demanding relief for the unemployed, and again (wrongly, says Toland) for dynamiting the Finance Minister's home. Konoye would travel by train from Tokyo to Yokosuka, and would blow it up at the Rokugo Bridge outside Tokyo. An unsuccessful attempt on Koyone's life was made by four men armed with daggers and presumably unallied with Tsuji, Sep 18 as the PM was leaving his rural home in Ogikubo, 45 min from Tokyo. In the event, the trip was never made, and on Sep 17 Konoye left the capital to rusticate in the seaside resort of Kamakura. On Oct 17 the Emperor ordered Tojo to form a new cabinet; the war party was in the saddle.

On 22 Oct Tsuji decided to make his own reconnaissance of Malaya. Persuaded Captain Ikeda, commander of a reconnaissance squadron (probably the 18th Independent Chutai: Francillon roster), to fly him over the British colony. They took off from Saigon at dawn in a twin-engined Mitsubishi Ki-46 "commandant reconnaissance" plane, called Type 100 by the JAAF and later dubbed "Dinah" by Allied pilots. Could fly high and fast and far. Tsuji in air force uniform in case they were forced down, but the plane was unmarked. Overflew northern Malaya and scouted its airfields, with rain clouds forcing them as low as 6,500 ft. Still in air force uniform, Tsuji reported findings to General Hisaichi Terauchi, Southern Army commander, and new plans were drawn up. He flew to Tokyo to present it to Army General Staff in person with the help of another old friend, Col Takushiro Hattori, two years older than Tsuji, and now chief of Operations Section of General Staff.

On to Singapore

The convoys sailed on 4 Dec, each man religiously studying the pamphlet Tsuji had written, and reached the coast of Malaya at midnight on December 7/8. (Because of the time zones involved, this was actually before the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.) The main landing went brilliantly, but Tsuji's probes into Thailand were the stuff of which comic operas are made. Major Asaeda found himself landing on mudflat instead of the white-sand beach he had reconnoitered; some men drowned and others were killed by Thai fire. Tsuji had a better landing but his local contact was fast asleep; he had to go to the Japanese consulate and awaken him. When they tried to enlist the Thai police to assist them in crossing the Malay border, their answer was a volley of shots.

Though outnumbered two-to-one, the Japanese never stopped to consolidate their gains, to rest or regroup or resupply; they came down the main roads on bicycles, impressing native conscripts to carry and care for the bicycles during firefights; they crossed rivers on plank bridges resting on the shoulders of the engineer troops; when the bicycle tires burst from the heat, they rode on the rims, raising such a din that terrified Indian troops broke and ran in the belief that tanks were approaching; when the bikes broke down, they were repaired with parts from local machines--cheap, Japanese-built bicycles that the Malays had imported in preference to more expensive British models.

The Japanese advanced so quickly in Malaya that even they were often unprepared to follow up their successes. Only Tsuji seemed to take it in stride. He was often at the front giving advice and devising fresh plans. At a roadblock halfway down the peninsula he decided that a frontal attack was called for, but army hq insisted on a flank attack, which was successful. Nevertheless, Tsuji stormed in headquarters at midnight, shouting: "What are you doing sleeping while a battle is going on?" He went into the bedroom of Lt General Sosaku Suzuki, Yamashita's chief of staff, who greeted him politely. "What do you mean wearing nightwear when I'm reporting from the front line?" Tsuji yelled. Suzuki dutifully changed into his dress uniform and buckled on his sword. "I am the chief operational staff officer responsible for the operations of the entire [25th] army. I submitted my idea based on actual front-line conditions and your rejection of my request means you no longer have confidence in me." He raved until dawn, when he wrote out his resignation and retired to his quarters, emerging a week later to resume his duties. He, Suzuki, and Yamashita all acted as if nothing had happened.

In Singapore, "five thousand Chinese had been murdered largely at his instigation for 'supporting' British colonialism." According to Lt General Sosaku Suzuki, quoted by a fellow officer later in the war: "It was the Ishihara-Tsuji clique--the personification of gekokujo--that brought the Japanese Army to this deplorable situation. In Malaya, Tsuji's speech and conduct were often insolent; and there was this problem of inhumane treatment of Chinese merchants, so I advised General Yamashita to punish Tsuji severely and then dismiss him. But he feigned ignorance. I tell you, so long as they [such men] exert influence on the Army, it can only lead to ruin. Extermination of these poisonous insects should take precedence over all other problems."

continued in part 2

A Vision So Noble

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