Japanese officer Masanobu Tsuji helped steer his country into war with the United States. A postwar CIA report called him “the type of man who, given the chance, would start World War III without any misgivings.”

The Fanatical Colonel Tsuji Stopped at Nothing to Secure Victory

By Stuart D. Goldman and Yaroslav A. Shulatov
April 2019 • World War II

On New Year’s Eve 1941, Lieutenant Colonel Masanobu Tsuji of the Imperial Japanese Army fumed with indignation. Brilliant, charismatic, and impetuous, Tsuji had crafted a blueprint for conquering Malaya that was running like clockwork. But superiors had just rejected his plan for a frontal assault on an enemy stronghold and ordered a flanking attack instead. At 2 a.m. on January 1, 1942, Tsuji—red-eyed and mud-splattered after racing more than 60 miles on shell-cratered roads—barged into the quarters of the army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Sōsaku Suzuki. 

“What do you mean wearing a nightshirt when I’m reporting from the front?!” Tsuji shouted. General Suzuki dutifully donned his dress uniform and sword. “I’m the Chief Operations Staff Officer responsible for operations of the entire [25th] Army,” Tsuji continued, as recounted in John Toland’s classic history, The Rising Sun. “I submitted my plan based on actual frontline conditions. Your rejection means you no longer have confidence in me.” For more than an hour, the lieutenant colonel harangued the three-star general, then wrote a resignation letter and retired to his quarters, where he sulked for several days before resuming his duties. The flanking attack succeeded.

Suzuki and General Tomoyuki Yamashita, 25th Army Commander, officially ignored the incident, an example of gekokujō (“juniors dominating seniors”)—a peculiarly Japanese tradition of usurpation of authority by midlevel staff officers—that helped lead Japan and its army to ruin in the Pacific War. Tsuji became the very embodiment of gekokujō.

Tsuji forged an astonishing military and political career. He had a hand in Japan’s decision for war with America. His conduct of the Malay-Singapore Campaign won him fame at home. Though lionized by supporters as the “God of Operations,” he craved battle as much as planning and was in the thick of the fighting from Manchuria to Guadalcanal to Burma. A violent racist and mass murderer, he escaped prosecution as a war criminal with the help of American authorities and went on to work for the CIA. He served in Japan’s parliament for nine years.

Wherever he served, Tsuji attracted a circle of devoted admirers—and enemies. Critics condemned him as a dangerous fanatic. Tsuji burned with a vision of Japan’s divinely ordained mission in Asia: a Pan-Asian movement—“Asia for the Asians”—that would expel foreign (white) colonialists and establish enlightened modernization, with Japan as the guiding force. Cultivating an aura of aestheticism, Tsuji famously burned down a geisha house—with a number of fellow officers inside—to protest moral decay in the army. He favored austere quarters and shunned alcohol and ceremonial dinners. In a society that valued conformity and deference to authority, Tsuji was an outlier. Highly opinionated, he spoke up first in discussion and impressed his views on others by dint of personality, intellect, and supreme self-confidence. Masanobu Tsuji is one of Japan’s most prominent—and notorious—wartime figures, yet few in the West know his name. 

Then a lieutenant, Tsuji, 30, attends a graduation ceremony at the Japanese Army War College in November 1931. THE MAINICHI NEWSPAPERS/AFLO
Then a lieutenant, Tsuji, 30, attends a graduation ceremony at the Japanese Army War College in November 1931. THE MAINICHI NEWSPAPERS/AFLO

TSUJI WAS BORN at the turn of the 20th century to a poor family in rural Japan. His keen mind inhabited a five-foot-two, often sickly body. Despite his humble origins, he won admission to a top military preparatory school, where he shone academically. He went on to the Military Academy in Tokyo, graduating at the top of his class. Postings to the Army General Staff and the prestigious War College marked him as an officer with a future.

Tsuji rose to prominence in 1939 during a Soviet-Japanese border conflict. Then a major, Tsuji was on the operations staff of Japan’s Kwantung Army, based in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. The neighboring Mongolian People’s Republic was under Soviet protection. That April, Tsuji drafted an ag-gressive order on border security that ignored national boundaries. “[I]t is permissible to enter Soviet territory or to trap or lure Soviet troops into Manchurian territory,” it read, and “fight until victory is won.”

Tsuji persuaded Lieutenant Colonel Taku-shirō Hattori, head of the Operations Section, to adopt the inflammatory policy later that month. Within days, an area commander implemented it, sparking the Nomonhan Incident, a minor clash between Mongolian and Manchurian border guards on horseback that grew into an undeclared war that spring and summer between Japan and the Soviet Union. 

Japan was then fully engaged in war with China. Neither the army high command nor the government wanted a fight with the USSR. But Kwantung Army’s Operations Section, spurred by Tsuji, continually intervened to expand the conflict.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, Moscow dispatched an able commander, Georgy Zhukov, to Mongolia, along with powerful reinforcements. Zhukov, then 42, would go on to lead the Red Army from the defense of Moscow in 1941, through the victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, to the capture of Berlin. He is revered as the Soviet Union’s greatest war hero. The Nomonhan Incident was Zhukov’s first major combat command.

Repeated lapses in Japanese military intelligence failed to discover the Soviet build-up. Tsuji remained aggressive and overconfident to the end—which came in August 1939, when Zhukov launched a crushing counteroffensive. Japanese casualties exceeded 20,000. Seven hundred Japanese escaped the encirclement on foot; Tsuji was among them. 

The Nomonhan debacle should have ruined his career. But Army Minister General Seishirō Itagaki—himself an ultranationalist and a prime example of gekokujō in his role in the 1931 seizure of Manchuria—admired Tsuji. In December 1940, Itagaki had Tsuji transferred to an obscure post on Formosa (today Taiwan). It was a fateful choice.

The Japanese army had no experience fighting in the tropics or in amphibious assault. Tsuji’s new post, the Formosa Army Research Department, was tasked with collecting data about possible operations in Southeast Asia. Tsuji focused on the Malay Peninsula, studying tirelessly, dispatching spies to the area, and staging amphibious exercises. He won promotion to lieutenant colonel.

The war in Europe gave this work new importance. Hitler had conquered France and the Low Countries; Britain was fighting for its life. The French, Dutch, and British colonies in Asia became tempting targets. Then, in June 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, inflicting catastrophic defeats on the Red Army, which seemed on the verge of collapse. Many Japanese army leaders wanted to join the German assault on the USSR, as Hitler was urging. Then the United States imposed an oil embargo on Japan. Britain followed suit. This cut Tokyo off from nearly all sources of oil and threatened to bring Japan to its knees.

One solution to this dilemma was to seize the weakly defended Dutch East Indies—modern-day Indonesia—a major oil producer. Japan’s military leaders believed that the United States would fight if the Japanese took such a step. The Japanese navy nonetheless wanted to strike south for that oil, while many army leaders still favored striking north against the USSR. The issue would be decided in Tokyo that summer.

Colonel Hattori, with the patronage of Japan’s soon-to-be prime minister, General Hideki Tōjō, headed the operations division of Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ). Hattori brought Tsuji to Tokyo in July 1941 as one of his section heads. Amazingly, the two men most responsible for the disaster at Nomonhan now held key positions at this critical moment—positions from which they would again advocate reckless aggressiveness, with fatal consequences for Japan.

Japanese troops in January 1942 advance from Malaya to Singapore via tank and improvised bridge (top and below); the successful overland attack was of Tsuji’s design. PICTURES FROM HISTORY/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Japanese troops in January 1942 advance from Malaya to Singapore via tank and improvised bridge (top and below); the successful overland attack was of Tsuji’s design. PICTURES FROM HISTORY/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN VIA GETTY IMAGES
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN VIA GETTY IMAGES

British soldiers in Singapore surrender to a Japanese patrol, February 15, 1942. Winston Churchill called the defeat the “worst disaster” in British military history. MONDADORI PORTFOLIO VIA GETTY IMAGES
British soldiers in Singapore surrender to a Japanese patrol, February 15, 1942. Winston Churchill called the defeat the “worst disaster” in British military history. MONDADORI PORTFOLIO VIA GETTY IMAGES

ON TSUJI’S FIRST DAY AT IGHQ, a heated debate erupted over whether to strike north or south. Tsuji strongly opposed the northward course, even though choosing the other would likely mean war with the United States. He argued that Hitler, who had concluded a pact with Stalin during the Nomonhan conflict, should not be trusted and that the Red Army was still fighting hard. Tsuji vociferously maintained that position throughout the summer. General Ryūkichi Tanaka, a senior army ministry official, wrote after the war that the “most determined single protagonist for war with the United States [was] Tsuji.” Tsuji even hatched a plot to assassinate then-prime minister Fumimaro Konoe and thwart his (unsuccessful) attempt to arrange a last-minute meeting with Roosevelt to avert war. Many modern Japanese historians conclude that Tsuji helped set Japan on the road to Pearl Harbor.

In September 1941—after Japan’s military and civilian leaders chose the southward course and the emperor approved it—Tsuji got the assignment that would make his career: head of operations and planning for the 25th Army, tasked with assaulting Malaya and Singapore. He had been preparing for that for a year on Formosa. He was ready.

Shortly after Japan unleashed its assault on Pearl Harbor, Tsuji followed suit. Although the 120,000 British defenders outnumbered the 25th Army two-to-one, Tsuji was confident. He doubted the quality of the British forces—mainly Commonwealth troops from India—and believed that the fighting spirit and preparation of the Japanese, combined with the element of surprise, would prevail. On December 8, 1941, his forces made simultaneous landings along the Thai and Malayan coasts, where the Japanese deployed equal or superior forces against selected targets. The Imperial Army troops did not stop to consolidate positions or resupply, but pushed relentlessly down the well-paved roads the British had constructed.

Singapore, Britain’s “Gibraltar of the East,” was the linchpin of British defenses in Asia. Yet the prewar architects of Singapore’s defenses had assumed the greatest threat would be a naval attack from the sea. Tsuji’s overland attack rendered those defenses highly vulnerable. Furthermore, Singapore’s water supply came overland from Malaya. When the Japanese reached the causeway separating Singapore Island from the mainland, the British position became hopeless. On February 15, 1942, 80,000 British, Australian, and Indian troops surrendered to 30,000 Japanese. British prime minister Winston Churchill called it the “worst disaster” in British military history. 

A major war crime followed. In a pamphlet distributed to Japanese troops aboard transport ships prior to the landings, Tsuji had written that “a hundred million Asians were tyrannized by 300,000 whites” with the help of Asian collaborators, namely “Overseas Chinese.” Tsuji had earlier directed Japan’s Singapore-based espionage network to collect the names of all anti-Japanese Chinese residents on the island. In the chaotic first days after the fall of Singapore, he ordered the systematic roundup and execution of thousands of Chinese deemed hostile to Japan; civil servants, teachers, and lawyers were among those trucked to secluded beaches and shot. The Sook Ching (“purge through cleansing”) killings spread north to Malaya. Tens of thousands were killed.

In March, Hattori recalled Tsuji to Tokyo for a new assignment. Tsuji held a press conference and wrote a pamphlet in which he claimed full credit for the Malay-Singapore Campaign. His reputation as a conquering hero spread quickly.

The army high command was disappointed, meanwhile, with the failure of General Masaharu Homma to complete the capture of the Philippines, also attacked shortly after Pearl Harbor. The Americans had abandoned Manila on December 26, 1941, and withdrew to the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor, where U.S. and Filipino defenders had been holding off the Japanese for months. On April 1, Tsuji flew to Manila with orders to help bring the fighting to a swift conclusion. (That proved unnecessary; two days later, General Homma’s 14th Army launched a well-prepared offensive with overwhelming artillery and air support. On April 9, the disease-ridden, emaciated defenders of Bataan surrendered.)

Staff officers in Manila received Tsuji, the conqueror of Singapore, with deferential respect. He declared that he spoke for IGHQ, hinted at a direct line to Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō, and attracted a coterie of admiring staff officers.

While Homma focused on subduing the American redoubt on Corregidor, Tsuji turned his attention to the POWs on Bataan. He believed it was morally just and politically expedient to kill them. Japan was fighting a racial war in the Philippines, he insisted, and the white colonialists should be killed. The Filipinos who fought alongside them had betrayed the Asian cause, would hinder Japanese administration, and should be eliminated as well. Numerous contemporaneous Japanese accounts and subsequent scholarly studies confirm that Tsuji encouraged, urged, and, in some cases, ordered the killing of American and Filipino POWs and civilians.

Colonel Saburō Watanabe recalled meeting Tsuji on the route of what became the Bataan Death March. Seeing a large number of American POWs on the road, Tsuji urged Watanabe, “How about we kill them all?” Watanabe reportedly objected, but Tsuji implied he was conveying IGHQ’s wishes and many officers went along with him. Once the beatings and killings began, the brutality against the prisoners became normalized and widespread. Some 600 American and 5,000-10,000 Filipino POWs died on the Death March.

Japanese forces captured Philippine Supreme Court chief justice Jose Santos in the southern Philippines. Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi, Japanese commander in the south, urged that the respected Santos have a role in the Japanese administration of the Philippines. Tsuji instead ordered the chief justice executed. When Kawaguchi learned that General Homma had agreed with his idea of employing Santos, he demanded of a colleague why he had allowed the execution. “IGHQ insisted on Santos’s execution,” said the officer, as quoted in Toland’s The Rising Sun. “What do you mean, ‘IGHQ?!’” shouted Kawaguchi. “Well, it was Tsuji,” the officer stammered. Tsuji’s and Kawaguchi’s paths would cross again.

Severed heads of civilians, killed upon Tsuji’s order, line a Singapore street. The artist, Ronald Searle, was a British prisoner of the Japanese. © RONALD SEARLE 1942 AND THE SAYLE LITERARY AGENCY
Severed heads of civilians, killed upon Tsuji’s order, line a Singapore street. The artist, Ronald Searle, was a British prisoner of the Japanese. © RONALD SEARLE 1942 AND THE SAYLE LITERARY AGENCY

IN JULY 1942, Tsuji was aboard a destroyer in the South Pacific when it came under Allied air attack; he suffered a serious throat wound, temporarily sidelining his battlefield machinations. He was still recuperating when the U.S. 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal the next month and became locked in a desperate struggle with the Japanese defenders. Fighting raged around the American-held airstrip at Henderson Field, where the Marines beat back repeated attacks. Japanese troops were exhausted; many were on starvation rations.

When Tsuji finally landed on Guadalcanal in October, he was tasked with organizing the seizure of Henderson Field. There he encountered Major General Kawaguchi, with whom he had clashed in the Philippines. The Marines had inflicted heavy casualties on Kawaguchi’s infantry brigade weeks before at “Bloody Ridge” near the airstrip. Tsuji disdained Kawaguchi, whom he considered soft and ineffectual. But Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama, who would command the coming offensive, valued Kawaguchi’s knowledge of the terrain and wanted him in the operation.

Tsuji’s plan called for a coordinated assault by three infantry forces converging on Henderson. Kawaguchi led one of these. As Kawaguchi approached the staging area, he complained to Tsuji that his assigned route traversed steep, unfavorable terrain. He suggested attacking a few miles farther east. Tsuji said he agreed and that he would get Maruyama’s approval for the change. Privately, Tsuji disapproved—he considered this a sign of Kawaguchi’s lack of aggressiveness—and said nothing to Maruyama.

Shortly later Kawaguchi, assuming Maruyama knew about the change of plans, phoned the lieutenant general to request a 36-hour postponement of the attack while he shifted his position. Maruyama, frustrated by the proposed delay, feared that Kawaguchi, having failed at Bloody Ridge, now jeopardized the whole operation. He relieved Kawaguchi of command. Tsuji disingenuously telephoned army headquarters: “Kawaguchi refused to advance. The division commander has relieved him of his command.” He did not elaborate.

The attack proceeded as planned. It was a disaster. In three days of heavy fighting, half of Maruyama’s 5,000 men were killed.

The defeat stunned Tsuji. Chastened, he told IGHQ he bore full responsibility: that he had underestimated the enemy and had insisted on a flawed operational plan. “I deserve ten thousand deaths,” he said. The “God of Operations” lost his deified status. Recalled to Tokyo in late 1942, Tsuji was assigned as an instructor at the Military Academy. He was later promoted to full colonel and sent to Nanking, China, a military backwater, where he languished for months.

In Bataan, Tsuji advocated killing American and Filipino POWs, here under guard in April 1942. Months later in Guadalcanal, Tsuji sabotaged a fellow commander, Kiyotake Kawaguchi; the move would come back to haunt him. KEYSTONE/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
In Bataan, Tsuji advocated killing American and Filipino POWs, here under guard in April 1942. Months later in Guadalcanal, Tsuji sabotaged a fellow commander, Kiyotake Kawaguchi; the move would come back to haunt him. KEYSTONE/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

IN SEPTEMBER 1944, IGHQ assigned Tsuji to the 33rd Army in Burma, following its failed campaign in India. Tsuji became the prisoner, Lieutenant Benjamin Parker, executed—not with a samurai sword but with a dull souvenir Burmese blade. It took three hacks to sever the airman’s head.

Tsuji ordered part of the dead man’s thigh cut away, cooked, and served to his officers. Some ate the flesh; others did not. Tsuji claimed he derived special strength from eating the flesh of defeated enemies. This was not his first act of cannibalism; he reportedly had boasted to other officers of his “special medicine” since at least 1942. But this is the only documented case involving Tsuji, based on the testimony of a Japanese witness.

Tsuji (at center) had a successful postwar career in Japan’s parliament—until Kawaguchi publicly revealed his evil acts. THE MAINICHI NEWSPAPERS/AFLO
Tsuji (at center) had a successful postwar career in Japan’s parliament—until Kawaguchi publicly revealed his evil acts. THE MAINICHI NEWSPAPERS/AFLO

IN MAY 1945, IGHQ sent Tsuji to Bangkok to organize Thai resistance to the approaching Allies—a futile task. On the eve of Japan’s capitulation, Tsuji decided to flee rather than surrender. He knew the British and Americans sought him for the killings in Singapore and Bataan. With his Pan-Asian vision now newly adjusted, Nationalist China seemed the most likely candidate for Asian leadership. But Chiang Kai-shek’s wartime capital in Chungking was thousands of miles away. Tsuji donned the robes of a Buddhist monk and hid in a temple while secretly contacting Chinese Nationalist agents in Bangkok. He offered his services in their fight against the Chinese Communists. The Nationalists brought him to Chungking.

Tsuji spent two years in China as an adviser, accomplishing little. He was delighted to discover that his comrade Hattori was in Tokyo, not a prisoner but an employee of the American occupation forces and—almost too good to believe—secretly on the payroll of U.S. military intelligence. Tsuji established secret communications with Hattori, who in May 1948 informed him that he could safely return to Japan.

Hattori was a confidant of Major General Charles Willoughby, General Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence chief and a fervent anti-Communist. Hattori convinced Willoughby that Tsuji shared their views and could help prevent the spread of Communism in Japan. Willoughby in turn persuaded American and British prosecutors to drop war crime charges against Tsuji. On May 26, 1948, Tsuji returned to Japan. Hattori put him on the U.S. payroll and persuaded the embryonic CIA to take Tsuji on as a covert agent. A CIA assessment judged him unreliable and ineffective.

Around this time, Tsuji began writing his memoirs. He published the first volume, Underground Escape, in 1950. It became a runaway bestseller, propelling him into public prominence. He published a second book, Guadalcanal, later that year. In 1952, he published his account of the Malay-Singapore Campaign, claiming glory even in the title for Japan’s Greatest Victory, Britain’s Worst Defeat. His books glossed over his failures and ignored his crimes. In less than two years, Tsuji rose to become one of Japan’s best-known figures. 

Capitalizing on his fame, Tsuji easily won election to the Diet, the lower house of Japan’s parliament, in 1952. He positioned himself as anti-Communist and anti-American, opposed the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, called for the removal of American forces from the country, and advocated rearmament and armed neutrality for Japan. He boosted his activity in the diplomatic arena, meeting mostly with Third World leaders, including India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. He wrote more books about his exploits and world affairs. He criticized government spending and corruption. In 1959, he won election to the upper house of parliament by a huge margin. Then a political land mine exploded under his feet.

RETIRED MAJOR GENERAL Kawaguchi, whom Tsuji had betrayed on Guadalcanal, was back home after years of imprisonment in Japan and the Philippines for the murder of Chief Justice Jose Santos—a crime Tsuji had ordered. Tsuji’s political success outraged Kawaguchi, who wrote a blistering account of Tsuji’s wartime activities, detailing Tsuji’s role in the Singapore massacres, the Bataan Death March, the Santos affair, and other crimes. He demanded that Tsuji resign from parliament. The press seized on this bombshell. Tsuji’s popularity plummeted.

With his political standing at home declining, Tsuji decided to change the narrative. Indochina, where he had spent so much time, was wracked by war and political intrigue. The United States’ new John F. Kennedy ad-ministration was sending American political and military advisers to Laos to help resist a Communist-led insurgency. Tsuji decided to return to Indochina.

He wrote a letter to President Kennedy, addressing him as a “war buddy” (sen’yū) and advocating American neutrality in Southeast Asia. In April 1961, Tsuji took leave from parliament and flew to Saigon, ostensibly on a personal fact-finding mission. He told friends and relatives that he hoped to bring peace to the region. He declared Laos his destination, but concealed plans to enter specifically northern Laos, controlled by the Communist Pathet Lao guerrillas.

Tsuji contacted Katsumi Akasaka, a former military man who worked for Japanese officials in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, and had ties with the Pathet Lao. The two drove by jeep to a suburb north of Vientiane, where Tsuji, again wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk, surreptitiously slipped out of sight.

Masanobu Tsuji was never heard from again. After seven years, the Japanese government officially declared him dead. The unofficial character of Tsuji’s trip, his checkered reputation, and the clandestine activities in Laos fueled rumors and conspiracy theories. Some believe he sought to revive his reputation and political career with a daring foreign exploit. Others suspect he went to retrieve a cache of gold bars he allegedly helped remove from Japanese army headquarters in Bangkok in the closing days of the war. Another report claims sighting him at the Vientiane airport, boarding a Soviet plane bound for Hanoi. His fate remains unknown. The most likely explanation may be that Communist guerrillas captured and killed him near the Laotian Plain of Jars.

One persistent and intriguing rumor, however—coming from multiple sources, including a declassified CIA report—suggests that Tsuji, pursuing his Pan-Asian vision, joined the Communists fighting to expel American imperialists from Southeast Asia. Perhaps the God of Operations smelled the gunpowder and enlisted in one last mission. Or perhaps—frustrated by his political eclipse and the routine of parliamentary work—he chose a suicidal mission, a postponed jiketsu, as a fitting punishment for his sins. ✯

In the guise of a monk, Tsuji stands alongside confidant Katsumi Akasaka near the capital of Laos on April 21, 1961. This is the last known photo of Tsuji, who vanished shortly thereafter. THE MAINICHI NEWSPAPERS/AFLO
In the guise of a monk, Tsuji stands alongside confidant Katsumi Akasaka near the capital of Laos on April 21, 1961. This is the last known photo of Tsuji, who vanished shortly thereafter. THE MAINICHI NEWSPAPERS/AFLO

This story was originally published in the April 2019 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

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