In World War II's forgotten campaign, Soviet tankers halt their advance in Manchuria in the final days of World War II to chat with locals. Photo: AFP

It is not a philosophy outsiders immediately associate with emperor-worshipping Japan: communism.

In fact, today’s Communist Party of Japan has some 300,000 members and seats in the Diet. This year, the country somberly marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II – and it was Japan’s defeat that led to a rebirth, of sorts, for Japanese communism.

But that should not disguise the fact that communism itself has a history in the nation that dates back to well before 1945.

In 1925, Japan and the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations. This allowed the Soviets to set up diplomatic facilities and for Communist intelligence forces to penetrate Japan. The worlds of politics, academia, and print journalism were targeted, as were high levels of the military and government.

However, the Peace Preservation Law – or Public Security Act – was established and was able to halt, to a certain extent, the expansion of communist ideology in Japan. Many communists had no choice but to act under false pretenses, disguising their real ideologies under the cover of democratic socialism – even right-wing extremism and emperor worship.

This situation was dramatically altered by Japan’s loss in World War II, and by the policies laid out by the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, US General Douglas MacArthur.

The postwar era

It is generally believed that MacArthur understood the threat posed by Communism but among his subordinates were a bevy of Communists, New Dealers, and other left-wing activists and fellow travelers who were particularly heavily represented in the Government Section (GS) of General Headquarters (GHQ).

GS was controlled by Brigadier Courtney Whitney and Colonel Charles Kades. In October 1945, these GHQ members dismantled the Peace Preservation (Public Security) Act and the Special Higher Police. They also ordered the release from prison of 220 members of the Communist Party.

A dam holding back a flood tide of red water had burst.

In the 1949 general election, the Communist Party won 35 seats in the legislature, further expediting Japan’s leftward political drift. One consequence of this was that Communists in the upper echelons of the armed forces were able to drop pretenses and emerge openly.

Colonel Suketaka Tanemura (1904-1966), for example, was an elite member of the Imperial General Staff, Army Section. He was one of the drafters of one of the most foolish policies adopted by Tokyo during the closing days of World War II – seeking the mediation of the Soviet Union in petitioning the United States for a peace settlement.

Later imprisoned in the Soviet Union, Tanemura’s leftist leanings expanded during his detainment in the Siberian camps, and he joined the Communist Party immediately upon his release and return to Japan.

Another drafter of the hapless plan to seek rapprochement with the Soviets was Colonel Makoto Matsutani (1903-1998).

He wrote in his book The Truth about the Settlement of the Greater East Asia War: “It is difficult to believe that Stalin … was trying to destroy the national polity of Japan and communize the entire country…. Inevitably, the postwar economic status in Japan must move in a socialist direction, and from this viewpoint, as well, it becomes possible to close the distance between Japan and the Soviet Union.

“The seeds of Japan’s future political recovery are to be obtained more from the Soviet style of people’s government organizations than from the democratization of Japanese politics as envisioned by the United States.”

This influence did not stop with the end of the war and the beginning of Japan’s pacifist era. For example, Matsutani was the first postwar vice-president of the National Defense Academy. In his memoirs he records that he gathered the “Marx Boys” of the academy for fellowship.

It may be due to the lingering influence of Matsutani that the current president of the National Defense Academy is seen as being pro-China. This is troubling, given that the Academy is a state educational institution of the utmost importance, charged with forming the future core officers of Japan’s military.

The reversal of values brought about by Japan’s 1945 defeat provided a perfect opportunity to undermine multiple prewar attitudes and beliefs. To this day, Japan is incapable of calling its armed forces “the Japanese military,” instead using the half-hearted appellation “Self-Defense Forces.” And Japan remains a quasi-independent country that has no law against espionage.

Ryōtarō Shiba, a best-selling postwar author, wrote constantly of “Meiji good, Showa bad.” The idea that Meiji was a time of greatness and Showa – under which Japan fought the Pacific War – was a time of disgrace is widely supported by the mass media and educational groups nationwide.

‘The Siberian Detention’

The immediate aftermath of Moscow’s abrogation of the 1941 Soviet-Japan Neutrality Pact and the Soviets’ last-minute assault upon Japanese forces in Manchuria and territories north of Hokkaido in August 1945 was the “Siberian Detention.”

Under this, the Soviet military abducted more than a million Japanese civilians, soldiers and officers based in Manchuria and its environs. These abductees were put to hard labor on starvation rations across Siberia. The commonly cited statistic that 600,000 were detained and 60,000 died is highly questionable; other evidence suggests that 400,000 died.

Detainees, kept on the brink of starvation, were systematically brainwashed by the Soviet authorities. One group of returnees, returning by ship to the port of Maizuru, referred disparagingly to their native country as “landing on Emperor Island.” Upon disembarking, the group lined up in formation and marched directly to the Yoyogi headquarters of the Japanese Communist Party and collectively signed up for party membership.

Other less fanatical detainees nevertheless fell under the spell of “Stockholm Syndrome” to the extent that they whitewashed their time in the Gulag and maintained a kind of nostalgia for their detention sites. Many raised strong objections whenever anyone made anti-Soviet or anti-communist remarks.

After the detainees began returning home to Japan in 1947, from among their ranks came prime ministers, undersecretaries at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Supreme Court justices, professors at Tokyo University and other universities of similar renown, and CEOs and top managers at major corporations. Even if not all were hardcore communists, many returnees found it impossible to conceal their pro-Soviet proclivities.

Shigeki Mori, the father of former prime minister Yoshirō Mori and a colonel in the Imperial Japanese Army, willed some of his bones to be interred in Irkutsk, in the Russian Far East, where he had been detained by the Soviets. Prime minister Mori himself personally admitted to being pro-Soviet and pro-Russian.

Almost all of the Siberian detainees have by now passed away, but the next generation – which the detainees groomed – is beginning to distinguish itself in society, attaining for example high office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, top management positions in national newspapers, and the post of Moscow correspondent for a major news service.

The effects of the Siberian detention are thus extending into the present generation in Japan.

American connections

Beate Sirota Gordon (1923-2012), the GHQ Government Section member who drafted part of the postwar Japanese constitution, was a polyglot fluent in Russian. She espoused a feminist version of communist ideology and used the constitution of the Soviet Union as a model for the part of the Japanese constitution on gender, which she drafted.

It is now well known that the Franklin D Roosevelt administration, from which hailed New Dealers like Charles Kades, Wolf Isaac Ladejinsky and Theodore Cohen, was deeply penetrated by NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) agents working for Josef Stalin. Roosevelt’s right-hand man and most-relied-upon foreign-policy adviser, Harry Hopkins, was also inordinately close to Stalin.

It is also now known that among the “materials” that Hopkins ordered sent to the Soviet Union in accordance with the Lend-Lease Act were an enormous number of documents detailing the methods for constructing atomic weapons as well as a great deal of parts and materials needed for actually constructing an atom bomb.

Iskhak Akhmerov (1901-1976), the rezident in the US in the 1930s and ’40s, married Helen Lowry, the niece of the general secretary of the Communist Party USA, Earl Browder. With the approval of FDR, Akhmerov launched the large-scale “Operation Snow.” As a trove of historical documents makes clear, “Operation Snow” was a joint US-Soviet intelligence pincer operation, the final aim of which was to attack and eliminate Japan.

“Operation Snow” was a root cause that led to the eventual attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Soviet documents reveal that Akhmerov had recruited for KGB service Harry Dexter White, a senior official at the US Department of Treasury and a close confidant of Henry Morgenthau, also believed to be a communist working within the Roosevelt administration.

In fact, the very name “Operation Snow” derives from the “white” of Harry Dexter White. He committed suicide in 1948 after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

To return to the present, the United States, in the run-up to a presidential election, is being racked by chaos – much of it apparently ignited by hard rightists and hard leftists. Many have pointed the finger at Russia, accusing a state led by a former KGB agent of fermenting the disorder.

Leftists in Japan have been viewing the American riots with great interest. If their efforts spring forth, the fruits of the Siberian Detention will finally be evident for even the most naive Japanese pacifist to behold.

Takizawa Ichirō is a former professor of Japan's National Defense Academy and an expert on Russia and the Soviet Union. He did graduate work at Columbia University in New York.