China, Russia, and WWI
"What we must do is to transform our empire and our people, make the empire like the countries of Europe and our people like the peoples of Europe,"
– Japanese Foreign Minister Inouye Kaoru 1887, he was born a low-ranking Samurai who fought against the Meji Restoration but later joined its bureaucracy
Before the outbreak of World War II and after the effective take over of the Korean peninsula, Japan began to flex its muscle. The Qing dynasty was barley able to quash its own domestic turmoil and the rest of Asia had been effectively muzzled through colonization by the European powers. As European powers continued to strengthen their positions in the lucrative consumer markets of China, an indigenous rebellion broke out across the Chinese countryside. Known as the Boxer Rebellion, Japan joined the European powers in killing the rebels. This give them the approval of Europe and secured Japan’s position as a country that was too strong to be colonized easily.
This entrance into the fraternity of empire grew Japan’s brashness. Tsarist Russia had also been acting brash towards the end of the 19th century and was expanding its territorial holdings across Asia. The Russian Empire even gave the heir to the Korean throne refuge in St. Petersburg. Russia was expanding their reach deep into east Asia and wanted to expand into Korea and the surrounding area. This was not acceptable in the newly affirmed Japanese sphere of influence. Mitsuru and his associates dispatched some of their most trusted spies to create a new secret society to combat Russia during the Russo-Japanese war that exploded in 1904.
This new group became known as the Black Dragon society. The name is another geographical allusion to what some Japanese called the Black Dragon River or what historians call the Amur River which is a massive Siberian waterway. The Black Dragon Society’s mandate as entrusted by the Black Ocean Society and the Japanese government was to keep the Russian empire north of the Amur River through covert means. The Black Dragon Society acted as a mixture of special operations forces, cartographers, and spies. They sabotaged Russian railways, tried to foment peasant rebellion, and made some of the first maps of Siberia in the Japanese catalogues. Historians debate the impact of this group compared to the impact of the effective Japanese army and Navy that had studied Prussian tactics closely and handily defeated the Tsarist army.
The Russo-Japanese war showed off the capabilities of the milieu between Samurai, organized crime, and business to break off and reform into more effective units entrusted with different tasks. This makes these societies especially hard to track and gives them a degree of entrepreneurial autonomy. As Japan’s imperial ambitions would grow so would the fluidity of the different ultranationalist groups underlining Japanese politics. Mitsuru and his associates were still the chief bosses and shot callers of these organizations and they acquired fitting nicknames. Some of Mitsuru’s were Shadow Shogun, Spymaster, and The Boss of Bosses.
The Black Ocean Society also acted as a domestic force. They published numerous ultranationalist journals and held a great influence over notable politicians and civil society figures. They continued to act as bludgeons against the domestic labor movement and anti-imperialist politicians. The beginning of initiation into the group often involved training as street brawlers, racketeers, and assassins.
After the war, Japan was able to establish themselves as the main regional force in northeast China and the Black Ocean Society began to expand their operations farther abroad. Business firms continued to expand into the lucrative resource deposits. Japan would later act as a key western ally against the Bolsheviks. They sent over 70,000 troops to Siberia during the Russian Civil war and worked alongside An American deployment of 8000.
Pan-Asian Japanese ultranationalism was the ideology of choice for these men and their ambitions stretched not only westward but into the pacific as well. World War I had brought Germany’s already barely secured Pacific holdings to the brink. Germany’s landlocked Navy was not able to compete with the hypermodern Japanese and Japan scooped up Germany’s Micronesian holdings. These positions were affirmed in the Treaty of Versailles where Japan was recognized as a necessary ally in the Asian theatre.
This newfound respect for Japan grew the ambitions of the always hungry engine of Japanese imperialism. However, the paranoia of one day being conquered by Europe was still present. During the Versailles negotiations, Japan had tried to pass a proposal of racial equality to add to the League of Nations charter. This had vast approval from the representatives of the colonial territories who fought in WWI but was flatly rejected by the likes of Woodrow Wilson, Britain, and Australia. The humiliation felt here by the growing Japanese empire can not be understated. Their imperial imaginations now began to stretch beyond the fraternity of European and American empire.
Japan’s imperial success was kept in check by its extremely limited access to resources. The armed force’s key supplies were commonly sourced from a variety of international locations. This kept their war economy in a constant desire for more materials. Almost all of Japan’s Aluminum and large parts of its iron and oil resources were procured abroad. It became clear to the Japanese elites that if expansion was to continue then pursuit of territories with vast resources was necessary.
The most practical region to secure these materials was north of the Korean peninsula in the vast landscape of Manchuria stretching into the Siberian taiga. This region was full of untapped mines, forest, and a large population of potential laborers. It was also the home of the Manchu people who were the original leaders of the Qing dynasty. In the Japanese Ultra Nationalist lore, the Manchus were seen as barbaric and destroyers of the Song dynasty culture that Japan prided itself on upholding. The fire for the violent imperialism that followed was fueled by a desire for resources cloaked with colonial superiority. This made an easy ideological stretch for the Japanese government and specifically the army to increase territorial holdings in Manchuria and secure domestic support for the project.
Throughout the 1920s Japanese extractive industry had begun to expand abroad into Manchuria. Using Shanghai and Busan as their main ports into Asia. Local Korean and Chinese labor were employed to begin extraction. This involved the felling of trees, difficult mining conditions and forced construction of infrastructure. This grew resentment among the workers. Among these communities of peasants, Korean refugees who had escaped the Japanese and hid themselves in Manchuria began to organize collectively against the Japanese with Chinese peasants. The small Japanese army garrisons protecting the resource industry grew frustrated at their inconsistent control over the population and began to take matters into their own hands.
It is a matter of debate, but most historians agree that a small group of ambitious officers gave an order to set off a small quantity of dynamite near the major Japanese-Manchuria Company’s railroad in September of 1931. The more liberal elements of the Japanese government were shocked to hear what the officers had done. The Mukden Incident as it is called, was a deliberate ploy to fake an attack by the laborers to secure increased troop deployments. This acted as an easy way for the Japanese army to not only defend Manchurian positions but also launch a full-scale invasion of China up the Yangtze River.
It is unclear to what extend the Genyosha’s role was in the Mukden incident or the army’s actions. What is clear is that their ideological, monetary, and historical goals would have never made them opposed to further Japanese expansion. The Genyosha network began to contribute several covert cells into Manchuria to continue to map the region and do the dirty work that colonialism required. Control over Manchuria, which was quickly solidified, stimulated Japanese imperialism and industrial production to the highest degree it had been yet. Oil was still severely lacking but Chinese money and other resources allowed for further expansion into the pacific. This conquest also helped fill the coffers of Genyosha members, industry barons and politicians.
Success and Ambition
The Japanese established the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria which was only recognized by Japan at the League of Nations, and this eventually contributed to a falling out with Britain and France. These two classical powers were continuing to aspire to expansion out of their holdings in Shanghai and into the rest of China. Japan swiftly exceeded the power of the great colonial powers in east Asia. They put the heir to the Qing Dynasty, the Pampered Puyi on the throne and held political power through control of every facet of government and industry. They took a note from Britain and flooded Manchuria with opium like in they did in Korea. Opium production was an extremely profitable business and easy for peasants to switch over too when forced by Japanese guns. Massive industrial factories were established alongside earth shattering mines, more then 10 million Chinese and Korean slave laborers were mobilized for this work in the puppet state.
Since the original invasion of Korea in 1894 up until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japan experienced high levels of success in expanding their empire. The Genyosha acted as fundamental components in these colonial projects. Acting as fixers for problems that could not be solved by the army or government. Their main functions included providing intelligence, greasing palms, intimidation and acting as ideological propagators. In Japan, they acted as a link between business and ultra nationalist politicians. They helped to encourage growing war mongering attitudes that had the direct result of exponentially growing profits. Political figures like Hirota Kōki and Nakano Seigō were known associates of Genyosha. Their influence cannot be understated as they inhabited all aspects of Japanese politics including Tojo’s military apparatus. Their legitimacy and security came from their key role helping the Japanese Empire succeed abroad and at home.
Throughout this peak period for the Black Ocean society, their leader Mitsuru was growing in age and preferred to lead from his estate. He was a well-known figure among the upper classes of Japan at the time. He had a certain mysticism about him in the public’s eye and was seen as an upholder of Samurai tradition and power in the modern world by Japanese nationalists. His main contribution to intelligence gathering throughout this later period was hosting talks with rebel leaders from other countries. This did not always prove successful like in the case of Chiang Kai-shek.
This strategy did however, help grow Japan’s international relations and reputation as an empire that offered support to rebel causes. This was a simple way to further intelligence gathering along with beginning to create an integrated political opposition to the old European powers. Mitsuru met with rebel groups from China, White Russians, the Philippines, India, Burma, and Vietnam. Some of these groups were given detachments of Japanese special operators to assist them in their struggles across Asia and the Pacific. In one instance Genyosha elements had even gone to Ethiopia to gather intelligence. During World War II they actually came to America to attempt grow relationships with Black Nationalist groups to limited success.
The Second Generation and Conclusion
The peak years of the Genyosha leading up to WWII spawned a network of individuals with their own secret societies, symbolically holding allegiance to Mitsuru. The leaders of these more active cells were powerful and become incredibly rich through Japanese imperial ventures into Asia. One of these men was Yoshio Kodama who managed shipments of raw materials, drugs, and arms back and forth through the ports of China, Korea, and Japan. Kodama grew up in a lower end Samurai family in the Japanese communities of colonial Korea. He gained a reputation as a street tough and ultranationalist from a young age. When he moved back to Japan, he became even more involved in organized crime. He was constantly in and out prison for calling for the death of politicians and street violence. Somewhere in the 1920’s when Kodama was in his late teens and early twenties, he joined the Black Ocean Society.
Kodama was imprisoned again on a much more severe sentence in 1931 for plotting to assassinate several liberal politicians. He was surprisingly released somewhere around 1932, most likely through the influence of the Genyosha. Kodama offered a unique skill set through his capacity for violence and knowledge of Korean ports and shipping routes from his youth. He played a major role shipping goods from mainland Asia to Japan and made a fortune skimming some of the top and other criminal means. By the end of the war estimates put his wealth at around $175 million U.S. Kodama is an illustrative example of the second generation of Genyosha after Mitsuru. These men seemed much more interested in profits then any ideological commitments about the return of Samurai glory or Japanese honor.
When the nuclear bombs put the final blow to the Japanese war machine, Kodama along with other high level Genyosha were promptly arrested. Mitsuru had died peacefully in 1944. The United States understood the broad strokes of the networks of Japanese organized crime that stretched into the military, government, and business. The original American occupying force held Kodama as a top-level war criminal along with a couple dozen other Japanese leaders. He shared a cell alongside his future close associate Ryōichi Sasakawa, one of Japan’s most public fascists during the war. He also shared a cell with Nobusuke Kishi, the future prime minister of Japan and Shinzo Abe’s grandfather.
The Americans had begun executing Japanese war criminals, but these three men’s lives were spared when they were all released to combat the growing leftist movement in Japan. The American intelligence apparatus had thought it more necessary to secure Japan against communism then to bring men like Kodama to justice. Kodama quickly organized his old networks and used his old wealth to fund hundreds of ultra nationalist groups to fight the communists and labor unions in the streets of Japan. He also returned to peddling illicit goods and his friend Sasakawa would use his connections to the new Japanese government to establish a monopoly on Japanese gambling. One declassified CIA report from 1971 calls Kodama,
“One of the most powerful men in Japan. He was instrumental in founding the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), had a hand in naming several Prime Ministers, and has settled disputes among top businessmen. He commands the allegiance of Japan’s ultrarightest and is blood brother to a number of Yakuza”
Kodama played a key role in moulding post-war Japan by using the Genyosha network and tactics he had learned at a young age. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s he acted as one of the most effective fixers in Japanese politics and reached the top levels of elite society. However, Kodama’s reputation as a legendary patriot among ultranationalist in Japan was shattered during the 1970’s when he was caught as one of the main actors in arguably Japan’s largest post-war political scandal. Lockheed had hired Kodama as a middleman to bribe politicians to continue to purchase military supplies from Lockheed. These deals stretched into the hundreds of millions of dollars and rocked the reputation of Japanese democracy. Kodama had be using his connections that he had from helping to create the long time ruling Liberal Democratic party to bribe key people. When this story hit the tabloids of Japan, Kodama took a step back from public life until his death in 1984. His memoir became a bestseller.
Leading Yakuza researcher David Kaplan has said in his books that Japanese crime didn’t stop after the Lockheed scandal but experienced an unexpected boon of success. This occurred when the Japanese economy exploded in the 1980’s. The milieu of business, politics and organized crime spawned by the Genyosha in the gambling houses of late 19th century Kyūshū, granted connections that allowed for a head start on profiting from this turbocharged economy. Kaplan argues that Japanese organized crime started to inhabit board rooms where it was common for high level racketeering to occur. This leap into elite global business also has helped protect these criminal elements through legitimization in the business world and non-government organizations.
Takamori’s dream of Samurai returning to their rightful place in Japanese society was accomplished but not through a forced return to the Edo period or naked imperial dominance. It has been done through extreme violence, arrogance, and the cowardice of a group of men that use false flags, assassinations, and political fronts to hide their thirst for profits. The sons of former great Samurai families have not returned their glory but opened an ocean of violence that devoured Japan’s neighbors. Mitsuru thought that the dreams he imagined at the end of a cup of sake might one day lead to Japanese global dominance. Instead, Mitsuru unleashed a new creation that filled in the gaps and shadows in the modernisation of the Meji-Restoration. The shadow Shogun’s legacy still lives on today through his descendants in organized crime and business. However, they no longer carry Katanas but the legitimacy and impunity of the Japanese state and business.
The Genyosha: A Study in the Origins of Japanese Imperialism By Herbert Norman
David Kaplan’s Yakuza