Narratives and identity of defeat: Japanese former military elite officers after 1945

by Aiko Otsuka

Aiko Otsuka is a Ph.D student in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University.

Recently in Japan, more war veterans have now started to tell stories about their atrocities from World War 2. Some Japanese war veterans have given lectures about the terrible crimes committed in Asia during the war as a way for the younger generations to understand the negative impact of war. Although more discussion by the so-called victimisers has been brought to public attention, there are many marginalised or forgotten stories concerning Japan’s atrocious past, including Japan’s occupation and colonisation in Asia.

One of these forgotten stories is the case of staff officer Colonel Masanobu Tsuji (1902-1968?), who was assigned to Bangkok, Thailand, at the time of Japan’s surrender. Military officers, such as Tsuji, were the driving forces of the war and Japanese aggression in the 1930s and the 1940s. Many of them escaped criminal charges during the war crimes trials conducted by the Allied powers after the end of the war.

In Bangkok, Tsuji served in the 18th division to fight against the US and British forces. As a staff officer, he was in charge of major war strategies in Asia and the Pacific regions, partaking in the 1939 Nomonhan Incident, the 1941-42 Malayan Campaign and campaigns in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Considering Japan’s defeat as ‘misfortune’ to ‘be utilised for a basis for future expansion,’ Tsuji was resolved to ‘go underground on the continent and work for the reconstruction of Japan,’ disguised as a Buddhist monk. [1] Due to his deep involvement with massacres, particularly those in Singapore and the Philippines, historian John Dower described him as ‘nominally one of Japan’s most notorious fugitive war criminals’.[2]

In addition, Tsuji’s ‘knowledge of military intelligence and his virulent anti-communism’ enabled his safe escape from China to Japan in mid-1946 where he lived in secret. With help from General Charles Willoughby, General Douglas MacArthur’s chief of counter-intelligence and his former colleagues, Tsuji’s war criminal charges were removed in 1950. [3]

Soon after, he rushed to publish his bestselling memoir Underground Escape (Senkō sanzenri)and Fifteen versus one (Jūgo tai ichi). [4] He also gave a lecture on his book in August 1952, Underground Escape, which attracted an audience of 30,000 to Ishikawa Prefecture, his hometown. Gaining further popularity, he became a Diet member of the Japanese parliament for subsequent years and contributed to reinstate a Japanese military pension system for veterans and their families. [5]

The postwar lives of Tsuji and other staff officers shows the multiplicity of their stories. As a historian, I am currently working on finding ways to tell more unheard stories to the public. While many documents are declassified on these officers, it is still difficult to gain full access to this material because of the way the military past is portrayed and understood in modern Japan.  Japanese military officers’ postwar narratives were largely shaped by the Japanese defeat and the war crimes trials. Researching these stories can provide insight into Japanese negotiations with historical justice in the  post-World War II era.


Works Cited:

[1] Nigel Brailey ed., Masanobu Tsuji’s ‘Underground Escape’ From Siam After the Japanese Surrender (Leiden: Global Oriental, 2012), 17, original edition published by Robert Booth and Taro Fukuda as Underground Escape, Tokyo in 1952.

[2] John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (London: Allen Lane the Penguin Press, 2000),512.

[3] Ibid., 512.

[4] Yutaka Yoshida, Nihon jin no senō kan: sengo shi no naka no henyō (Japanese perception of war: its transformation in postwar history) (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1995), 96.

[5] Hashimoto, Tsuji Masanobu, 247-260; Kimura Takuji, ‘Fukuin—gunjin no sengo shakai eno hōsetsu’ (Demobilisation—military men’s subsumption into postwar society), in Sengo kaikaku to gyaku kōsu (Postwar reformation and the reverse course), ed. Yoshida Yutaka (Tokyo: Yoshikawa kōbunkan, 2004), 104-106.


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