True Spies Episode 62: The Mouse at Pearl Harbor
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? This is True Spies.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I reached out and shook his hand. Tears were streaming from my eyes. And then we went to work, shredding the codebooks and then throwing them into a bonfire. What we didn’t realize was that the smoke from the fire was attracting the attention of our neighbors...
NARRATOR: This is True Spies Episode 62: The Mouse at Pearl Harbor. This week’s True Spy worked on a paradise island in the Pacific Ocean as a Japanese undercover agent in 1941. But, for the moment, let’s drift away from those shores and turn our attention to a ranch in the middle of the Arizona desert. Specifically, the Triangle T Ranch, in Dragoon, Arizona - rattlesnakes, tumbleweeds, the whole enchilada. Picture an office-turned-interrogation room, windows drawn, the air hazy with smoke. The interrogator, a tall, white-skinned man, sits at a table in the room, rolling tobacco with his left hand, then lighting a match with a flick of his thumb. In walks a second man, younger, Japanese. His face cinched with anxiety. The interrogator rises. “Hello,” he says: “Mister... ”
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: Morimura.
NARRATOR: The interrogator invites him to sit. There’s a bit of pleasantry about life on the ranch - all fine, good, thanks. The interrogator says he has a few questions if you don’t mind. And Morimura answers...
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: “Of course, whatever you want to know, just ask.”
NARRATOR: He’s distracted. Finally, he blurts out:
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: “Are you with the FBI?”
NARRATOR: The interrogator shifts in his seat, a bit flustered.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: And he answered: “No, I am from the State Department.” Of course, that was a bit of a bluff. The FBI belonged to the State Department. But I had just wanted to make a point. If you want to know about me, I want to know about you first.
NARRATOR: There were some routine questions: “What was the nature of your work in Honolulu? When did it begin?” Then the interrogator offered Morimura a cigarette.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: He said: “This is the tobacco that the ranchers around here smoke when they’re riding their horses.”
NARRATOR: The interrogator showed him how ranchers rolled their tobacco with one hand so they could grip the reins with the other. Then he went back to questioning Morimura. “Tell me about Hawaii,” he said. “You spent a lot of time at Pearl Harbor, didn’t you? Why was it so appealing to you?”
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I said I enjoyed doing some sightseeing. And I was interested in the region from an economic perspective. I’m a naturally curious person. By the way, have you been to Hawaii?
NARRATOR: Not exactly what the interrogator was going for. As time passed, it became clear that Morimura could go on dodging his questions for hours or years. In fact, as far as Morimura was concerned, he could carry on for an entire lifetime no matter how long or how short.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I had defeated the US Navy and I was about to defeat the FBI too.
NARRATOR: As you might be suspecting, the man who called himself ‘Morimura’ wasn’t exactly who he said he was. His real name was Takeo Yoshikawa and, in 1941, he was Japan’s undercover operative at Pearl Harbor. His intelligence reports cleared the way for the attack that claimed over 2,400 American lives and officially brought the United States into the Second World War. Yoshikawa himself survived until 1993, and he recorded his experiences in a memoir published in the 1960s. We’ve drawn from his account of those fateful events to tell this story with the help of an actor. And a bit of warning: If you’re expecting an apology from the Japanese spy at Pearl Harbor, you’ve come to the wrong place. Like most spies, this one was fiercely loyal to his country.
But let’s back up a bit. Who was the man who posed as Morimura? How much did he know? And how did he feel about lighting the match that would ignite Japan’s devastating defeat in the war with the Allied powers? Takeo Yoshikawa was born in March 1912 in Matsuyama, a small city near the sea on the Island of Shikoku. He was a sickly, colicky infant. He refused breastfeeding and suffered from malnutrition. In short, beginning in his earliest days, he was something of an underdog.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: Apparently I was so unhealthy that the family doctor sometimes didn’t even want to treat me. Eventually, my parents just resigned themselves to the idea that I would die young. But one day, as the family lore goes, my father looked at me and said: “If you aren’t going to live much longer, you may as well get some exercise.” So he began to put me through intense physical training.
NARRATOR: Yoshikawa's father was just 30 at the time and a military man, strong and brash, not exactly the cuddly type. Yoshikawa would either survive his paternal boot camp or die trying.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: When I was 10 he started teaching me swordsmanship. I remember we used to practice for an hour every morning before I went off to school. He’d knock me down and I would get up, with tears streaming down my face, and then he would knock me down again.
NARRATOR: It was under his father’s watch that Yoshikawa learned to swim. Trauma, it turns out, can be a powerful teacher.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: We waded into the river together until the water was up to my waist, but then I became frightened and hurried back to shallow water. Well, my father told me that I had no guts, and grabbed hold of me, and dragged me to a place where the water was higher than my head. From there, he pushed me into even deeper water. Now that I think about it, his decision to put me through military-style training exercises does seem a bit cruel but those were different times. Anyway, it worked. I became quite a robust young boy and a decent swimmer.
NARRATOR: Yoshikawa had dreams of becoming a scientist, but instead he did what pleased his father and attended the Imperial Naval Academy. But by the mid-1930s, only a few years later, he was forced to return to his village to recover from a protracted illness. He spent that time studying military history and learning English, immersing himself in the victories of Lord Nelson and the mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle. One day, a naval officer paid a visit to his village to deliver a speech about the political situation in Japan. When the officer saw Yoshikawa dressed in his uniform he was dismayed.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: He said: “We don’t have the manpower for all that needs to be done. Yet here you are, a young naval officer, relaxing and having a lovely time in this small village. It’s truly shocking, isn’t it?” Well, that straightened me out. So I told him about my physical condition and asked him if he could find a position for me in the Navy and he did. And that’s how I came to work in intelligence.
NARRATOR: In 1940, Yoshikawa was summoned to a meeting with his section head, where he learned he was being sent to Japan’s Consulate-General in Hawaii. Details were scant. He didn’t know what he’d be doing abroad, and he certainly didn’t know how to feel about it. He was told he’d need to adopt a new identity as an official at the Foreign Ministry and that he’d be given specific instructions once he arrived. Above all, he had to remain vigilant. Relations between Japan and the United States were strained, to say the least.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: My section head said something I will never forget. He said: “If you want to deceive your enemy, you must first dupe yourself.” Of course, that’s one of my strengths. My whole life I’ve been a mouse playing the role of a lion.
NARRATOR: Such contradictions would become the hallmark of his life. The mouse Yoshikawa - the sickly boy, the retired serviceman - was to become the lionhearted Morimura. A fierce asset to the Japanese Navy. A secret agent who would single-handedly tip the scales in the Second World War, in a display of strength that would ultimately hasten Japan’s defeat.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: Yes, Morimura. I thought the name would be hard for foreigners to pronounce and remember.
NARRATOR: Japan’s Navy had neither the scope nor the strength of its American counterpart but what it lacked in size, it sought to make up for in commitment and acumen. By the time our undercover operative stepped off the steamship and onto Hawaiian soil, the Japanese had mapped out a landscape of the US Navy - its structure, its personnel, and its fleet. They knew what defenses were in place at Pearl Harbor and how many troops were garrisoned there. They had the big picture. What they were missing were all the little details.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: How many American naval vessels entered and exited Pearl Harbor? How many military aircraft were moving through the airfields there? What were their missions? Those are the sorts of questions that could not be answered without my help.
NARRATOR: Honolulu, where the Consulate-General was based, is the capital of Hawaii and the largest city on the island of Oahu. Yoshikawa was greeted at the dock by his new colleagues upon his arrival. To everyone except the Consul-General himself, he was Morimura, just your average employee. Ostensibly, he was tasked with processing the applications of second-generation Japanese Americans who wanted to renounce their Japanese nationalities and become so-called ‘pure’ US citizens. But that was just a front. Yoshikawa knew his work in Honolulu would be far more consequential and likely far more dangerous. Gazing out the window on the drive to the Consulate-General, he felt the weight of his mission bearing down on his shoulders.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I remember that I was overcome with emotion, which I wasn’t expecting. The Hawaiian Islands are a paradise. It’s summer all year round. Honolulu was covered in red flowers, and all around you are these tall coconut palms. And there were people of so many different skin colors, all living together harmoniously. I didn’t feel worthy of it because in my position, I had no choice but to treat everyone around me like an enemy. It caused me a great deal of turmoil, really.
NARRATOR: Yoshikawa was bewitched by his environment. And so was Morimura. Every time he left the office, he donned a pair of khaki trousers and a floral shirt, and each time he repeated the same script.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: “I think I ought to go out and do a little sightseeing.” Very casual like that. Like it just occurred to me: “Oh, I should do some sightseeing, that would be nice!”
NARRATOR: That might sound like a pretty nice gig, strolling around Hawaii and taking notes, but Yoshikawa felt responsible for providing reconnaissance reports about each one of the islands in the archipelago beginning with Pearl Harbor. He resolved to find out as much as he could about the ships at the Americans’ disposal and the movement of their troops, base by base, island by island. Hardly a one-person job.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: It was completely mad. Basically, it wasn’t going to work. And you have to remember, Hawaii was thousands of miles from any other major force. People had called it ‘an impregnable and indestructible fortress’ but I had to challenge its enormous military might. And this is something I would do primarily by knowing the enemy.
NARRATOR: Another way he got to know the enemy? Chatting them up. Our 20-something spy loved a bit of whiskey and a good time. After a long day of pretending to work, Yoshikawa would head downtown to carouse with some of the American sailors, deftly prying for information. He also befriended one particular taxi driver, a Japanese-American by the name of Mikami. As Mikami shuttled him around Oahu, Yoshikawa played dumb and asked questions.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I would say things like: “Hey! There’s a great big plane over there. Is that for tourists?” But the thing was, Mikami had an incredible amount of information at his fingertips. He could say when a certain aircraft had arrived, for example, or what it was for, or what its schedule was.
NARRATOR: The driver also introduced Yoshikawa to a quaint refreshment shop owned by a Japanese couple - a spot with an uninterrupted view of Pearl Harbor’s aircraft carriers and heavy cruisers. Sightseers and spies could kick back with a Coca-Cola while keeping an eye on the unguarded rear flank of the harbor.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I told myself that I would be returning there frequently.
NARRATOR: After 40 days of scouting, Yoshikawa began to send reports to Tokyo detailing all of the naval vessels in Pearl Harbor. And, over time, he started to notice changes in the names and numbers of the ships. It wasn’t that the Japanese needed to know precisely which vessels were in the harbor when there was no attack planned, and none on the horizon. It was the fact that the Americans could launch an attack at any time. Tokyo needed to be prepared. And Yoshikawa felt it was his duty to keep them apprised.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: By September ‘41, the Navy had started planning an attack, which I didn’t learn until much, much later. I only knew as much as the average citizen but, at a certain point, I started getting requests for information in telegrams from the Minister for Foreign Affairs. And they were rather ambiguously worded. It was sometimes hard to figure out what they were asking for but I did my best to read between the lines.
NARRATOR: By October, the telegrams from Tokyo were pouring in. Nearly every single one requested details about the vessels and where they were moored. Yoshikawa became rather testy with all the questions. He’d provided clear descriptions from the very beginning. If only Tokyo had read his reports, they wouldn’t be asking such superfluous questions. Yoshikawa began to wonder if there had been a change in personnel? Was someone new drafting the questions? Were they doubting Yoshikawa himself? Had his previous telegrams even reached the Navy General Staff at all? By mid-month, he received a request for two telegrams a week, urging him to maintain secrecy. This seemed to our spy like a bit of a contradiction: if they were concerned about secrecy, why send the cable at all? Yoshikawa threw himself into creating exceptional intelligence reports, not understanding why they were requested, but knowing that they were of great importance.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: What I didn’t know, because I’m not a clairvoyant, was that Japan’s aircraft carrier Mobile-Strike Force had left its base and was headed towards Hawaii. One can imagine this made Tokyo most uneasy at that moment! They must have hoped that my eyes - which were the only pair of ‘Navy eyes’ they had in a position to scout out the situation at Pearl Harbor - that my eyes would provide them with the most accurate intelligence reports possible - and they couldn’t even tell me what was going on. I spoke about the cables with Consul-General [Nagao] Kita, who I very much respected and whose opinion I trusted. He said he thought they were strange, too. And he warned me to be careful. We had no idea what was happening, but we both sensed that we were reaching a crisis point. And then there was what happened at Lanikai Beach - but forgive me. It’s almost too painful to recount.
NARRATOR: Allow me to assist. By the end of November 1941, Tokyo had begun to make plans for the time after the attack. Of course, by then, Yoshikawa and his colleagues were all likely to be behind bars. Japan needed an agent to continue to deliver intelligence reports so they hired a man named Otto Kuehn, a former German military officer who lived near Oahu’s Lanikai Beach, for US$20,000. That’s over $363,000 in today’s money. Consul-General Kita needed someone to deliver the sum of cash to Kuehn. It was a highly risky mission - get caught in the act, and the entire office of the Consulate-General would be carted away.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I really was wary of the whole situation but I remember what Kita said to me then. He said: “All of our work is done for the benefit of the homeland. Actually, apart from you, I can’t find anyone suitable to deal with this.” I’ve read many books about espionage, but Lawrence of Arabia is the one that always returns to me. Lawrence knew about all the risks involved in his work as an undercover agent. He also knew that his death would not be heroic, but rather miserable and tragic. Yet he continued along that path for the sake of his country. He believed that such a destiny was the sort that any real man should hope for. So it was in that spirit that I reached out and shook Kita’s hand. Knowing it might be the very last time.
NARRATOR: Kita gave Yoshikawa a parcel of money and half a piece of paper, explaining that Kuehn held the other half. When the two pieces were joined together, they would create the word Kalama. Yoshikawa set out in his sightseeing garb, first in a taxi, then on foot. When he reached Kuehn’s house, he walked directly inside. He called out...
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: “Hello? Is anyone home?” But no one answered.
NARRATOR: But finally, as if out of nowhere, a shifty-eyed man presented himself to Takeo Yoshikawa. Yoshikawa pulled out his half-sheet of paper. The man showed him his. The pieces fit together. Kalama. This was Otto Kuehn.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: He was concerned that I had placed myself in danger to be there, but I told him not to worry and I asked him what he would do now that he had the money. His English was hard to understand, but he promised me a reply within a week.
NARRATOR: A few days later, Kuehn provided a plan. He would use the lights in his house and car to signal the movement of US Navy vessels. He also gave someone else a book explaining all of his signals so that they could be reported to officials in Japan. But the cable with all of Kuehn’s signals never made it to Tokyo. You see, the FBI had had its eye on Kuehn, who had a suspiciously large sum of money tucked away in the bank at the time. When his cable was intercepted and the signals deciphered, US officials arrested him immediately. Kuehn confessed and, in the process, he told the FBI that someone else had delivered the money and that’s how the FBI turned its sights on a man named Morimura. But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Yoshikawa delivered the money at the end of November. Kuehn’s cable was deciphered on December 11th. If you remember anything at all from history class, you’ll know a whole lot happened in between.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: By the beginning of December, I was getting telegrams from Tokyo requesting information that I just could not provide. But I was their undercover agent and I couldn’t just write back: “Sorry, I have no idea.” So, I kept inviting American sailors for drinks downtown, taking taxis, hiding in sugarcane fields, just trying to scout out information.
NARRATOR: Our spy received a message from the Minister for Foreign Affairs ratcheting up the frequency of his reports to one per day. The cable also asked a question that stopped Yoshikawa in his tracks: “Have any obstruction balloons been sent up into the air around Pearl Harbor? Please report.”
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I could hardly breathe. I was standing next to Kita, and my mind was racing. And I said to him: “Maybe it’s really happening. Maybe they really are targeting Pearl Harbor!”
NARRATOR: If the attack was around the corner, he needed to be more cautious than ever. He immediately went back to his dormitory and pulled out all the notes he’d made about the fleet at Pearl Harbor, and he began to burn them. Six months of work turned to smoke and ashes. He burned photos he’d taken with friends. He burned the contents of his wastepaper bin. And, as each piece of potentially incriminating evidence turned to dust, Yoshikawa felt his loyalty to the cause growing stronger and stronger. From here on out, he resolved to give himself over to his work completely. And if he died in the process - well, he would accept that fate just like Lawrence of Arabia had done.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I sent 12 cables between the 1st and the 5th of December. On the 5th, I received a request for reports twice each day. They already had me nailed to a cross at Pearl Harbor. There would never have been enough of me for them. Not even if they’d have chopped me up into pieces.
NARRATOR: On the morning of December 6th, Yoshikawa took a drive to Pearl Harbor. What he saw there made his heart start to race. The entire enemy fleet was gathered in one place.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: Eight battleships, two aircraft carriers, 10 heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and 17 destroyers. Everything.
NARRATOR: Despite the crowd, the atmosphere was calm. It was a Saturday morning. Quiet - serene, even.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: While I was sitting there in the car, I remember thinking back to when I was at home in my village and I would go out to hunt. One time I was lying flat on my stomach watching a group of ducks glide around the surface of a pond, completely naive to the fact that I had a gun pointed in their direction. It was totally quiet. An ordinary, peaceful day. And then...
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I killed seven ducks. That’s what I was thinking in the car at Pearl Harbor: "I’ve found a flock of ducks."
NARRATOR: That night, under the cover of clouds and darkness, the Japanese carrier task force was barreling towards the harbor. By 4 am, its personnel were preparing for an attack. By 6 am, they were closing in. Yoshikawa, exhausted, had slept soundly through the night. He forced himself out of bed and down to the breakfast table shortly before 8 am.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I remember what I had for breakfast: it was toast, coffee, eggs, and papaya. Why did I just say that? It’s not relevant. But that’s what I remember. And then I remember I was stirring sugar in my coffee, when...
NARRATOR: Yoshikawa raced outside and saw a dark cloud of billowing smoke above Pearl Harbor. About 1,000 meters above the coast, an airplane was drawing nearer. As it approached, he could see the symbol of the rising sun on its wing.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: That’s when I knew.
NARRATOR: He tore across the grounds to share the news with Consul-General Kita, who was making his way outside. Kita had been listening to a shortwave radio broadcast that gave them the code to burn their cipher books. As the men spoke, they began to tremble. They looked up at the sky at the clouds of smoke and the Japanese aircraft rumbling overhead.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I reached out and shook his hand. Tears were streaming from my eyes. And then we went to work, shredding the codebooks and then throwing them into a bonfire. What we didn’t realize was that the smoke from the fire was attracting the attention of our neighbors. And our neighbors thought it might be a smoke signal and reported it to the FBI.
NARRATOR: They had no choice but to open the door. The FBI agents entered the room and saw that one of the codebooks was still burning. They pulled the book from the bonfire and stamped out the flames.
And in the midst of the chaos, Yoshikawa fled the scene.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: Later on, the Americans were able to use those codebooks to find out that someone had been secretly gathering information across the island but I had been preparing for that possibility the whole time.
NARRATOR: Imagine being in Yoshikawa's position. You’ve been sent thousands of miles from home in order to carry out a highly secretive - and highly risky - intelligence operation. You’ve effectively surrendered your life to your job, a job that, one way or another, is almost certain to get you killed. You never particularly wanted any of this - to live in Hawaii, to be a spy, even to join the Navy. In your heart of hearts, you wanted to be a scientist. Would you flee the FBI? Run as far and as fast as possible? Delay the possibility of spending a life behind bars or worse? Would you leave your colleagues to pick up the pieces, while you lived with the burden of your anxiety and the terror of being caught? Or would you surrender to the inevitable and give yourself up to the authorities? Better think fast...
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I remember thinking, where will I go from here? There’s nowhere for me to hide. I racked my brain but, at a certain point, it just seemed there was no other option and I went back in.
NARRATOR: Was it the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning? For the man known as Morimura and his colleagues at the Consulate-General, it was anybody’s guess. For weeks, the team was placed under house arrest in their office, denied access to any sort of news. But then, in mid-January 1942, the local FBI chief told the employees and their families to pack their bags. The FBI shuttled them out of their offices at nighttime, so that it was too dark for them to see the damage the Japanese had wrought on Pearl Harbor weeks before. The staff members boarded a ship to the Los Angeles area, then took a train far out west. And then, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the train stopped.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: It was almost deserted. It looked like the set of an old Western movie. Kita and I looked at each other when we got off the train, and he said: “I wonder, do they want to execute us by firing squad in this big desert?” We agreed it was possible.
NARRATOR: That was the note of optimism on which they began their life in detention at Triangle T Ranch. It wasn’t all bad. Newspapers still weren’t allowed for the detainees, but Yoshikawa and his compatriots could read other materials, play sports, shower, and sunbathe. Each week, Yoshikawa took to sharing a bottle of Scotch and a bottle of absinthe with his overseer from the State Department. But the 21 Japanese residents shared just three rooms. And life deprived of civil liberties… well, that gets old, fast. What would you do in Yoshikawa's position? Would you raise a toast with your enemy, knowing full well you’d had a hand in the killing of thousands of other Americans?
Would you carry on with the rouse that you were just a clerk processing citizenship applications, knowing you were largely responsible for the prolonged detention of your colleagues and their families? Yoshikawa saw no other way. But he was petrified.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: To everyone else, I seemed perfectly happy but all I could think about were the confiscated codes. Even though life on the ranch was quite comfortable, I knew that the FBI was definitely in the midst of gathering evidence against me.
NARRATOR: Yoshikawa kept his concerns bottled up, and then the interrogations began.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: My strategy with the interrogator was to evade, evade, evade. He would offer me cigarettes to relax, which I would take, but I never gave him what he wanted. I never revealed that I was anyone other than Mr. Morimura.
NARRATOR: One day of interrogation was followed by another, and another. In between, he was lying awake at night, fearing the worst. And Yoshikawa wasn’t the only one shaking in his boots. Consul-General Kita, having already been questioned for several days, was losing sleep over what would happen to his team. One evening he called Yoshikawa over and said they needed to speak alone.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: He said: “This might not come as a surprise, but we’re all starting to think about whether you might be willing to take responsibility on your own. That way, all the rest of us could go free.” Clearly, it was difficult for him to make that kind of request, but of course, it made sense. I told him I understood and I would think about it.
NARRATOR: But as Yoshikawa saw it, a confession made no difference. Either the interrogator wanted him to admit he was a spy, or he wanted other people on the ranch to reveal the truth about him. But only Kita knew Yoshikawa's secrets, and he would never tell. And why make a needless confession that would bring about your own needless death? Yoshikawa resolved to keep his lip buttoned. On the final day of interrogation, the man known as Morimura received his toughest question yet: “Are you familiar with Lanikai Beach?”
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: “I’m familiar with just about everywhere,” I said. And he said: “When you were at Lanikai Beach, what did you deliver to Kuehn?” - “Kuehn? Never heard of a Kuehn.” He said: “You went to him carrying a parcel of money wearing khaki pants and a Hawaiian shirt.” And I knew. I knew it was over. Maybe Kuehn had confessed. Maybe my taxi driver - who knows? I kept saying: “I don’t know, I don’t remember.” And he said: “Okay, if you don’t remember, they’ll explain it all to you in San Francisco. But it’s not like it is here. If they have to torture you, they will. And when that time comes, you might want to remember.” And he looked at me and I looked at him, and I said: “I don’t know what else to say.” And he said: “Well. At least I taught you how to roll tobacco.”
NARRATOR: Yoshikawa was never sent to San Francisco. Not long after the final interrogations, Consulate-General staff was reunited with all of their personal belongings, which had arrived in wooden crates from Hawaii. The group boarded a train, and in mid-June, they arrived in New York City. From there they were shipped to Brazil, then Portugal, and finally home to Japan. Could it really be that Yoshikawa was a free man?
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: When the ship pulled into the harbor at Yokohama, I spotted my old Commander in the Navy, waiting for me. He was standing alone, and I was so happy to see him that I could have cried. To receive a display of gratitude like that from a special staff officer - that made it all worth it. That was why I’d risked my life for my work.
NARRATOR: For Yoshikawa the triumphant return and the tears of gratitude might make for a neat cinematic ending to this tale. But of course, this isn’t cinema; it’s the truth - at least, it’s the truth according to our antihero. But even Yoshikawa's version of the truth is tragic, contradictory, and more than a little bit messy. And as the saying goes, truth is often stranger than fiction. The former Mr. Morimura took a job as a technician at the Navy General Staff. He found a flat. He found a wife. They had a child. And for a moment, his life began to resemble something close to normalcy. But at the end of the war, the United States charged Yoshikawa and every one of his colleagues at the Navy General Staff with war crimes, not for their role in Pearl Harbor, but based on their treatment of American prisoners of war.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I was hoping to obtain some military intelligence information from these POWs who had just arrived from the frontlines. The interrogation of POWs for the purpose of gathering intelligence was, of course, a violation of international law, and this fact was already common knowledge all over the world. Yet when the POWs were confronted by powerful people who held the balance of their lives in their hands, there really wasn’t any room for resistance. Even so, there were some very self-confident and proud young officers among the POWs, and they adamantly refused to discuss questions concerning their country. Tempers would then flare up repeatedly and give rise to situations where force was used against a POW.
NARRATOR: Yoshikawa denies personally mistreating any POWs. One thing we know for sure: American POWs testified that they had been harmed at a temporary holding site where Yoshikawa had conducted interrogations. In his memoir, Yoshikawa describes generously sharing his cigarettes with the POWs, echoing his own interrogations at Triangle T Ranch. But it wasn’t all smoke and chitchat. The testimonies were investigated, and suddenly, Yoshikawa and his entire team were staring down the barrel of a 22-year prison sentence. He and his section head were the only two people to learn about their pending imprisonment before it happened. So, rather than stick around for their arrest, they took off running. Yoshikawa boarded a train at Tokyo Station and got off in a region where he knew absolutely no one. He took a room at an inn, desperate to come up with a plan before the police came after him. And then it hit him.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: What if I became a monk? I could live in seclusion, use the time to reflect on everything I’d lived through, and maybe find some closure on the more difficult parts of my life. So that’s what I did. I became a traveling monk. Now that the war had ended, I began to think calmly. What exactly was the point of that ‘holy war’? But life as a monk was calm and peaceful, rather like going swimming on a warm and sunny spring day. Giving yourself over completely to this life was like freeing yourself to follow the natural order that reigns between heaven and earth.
NARRATOR: Our fugitive war criminal-turned-Buddhist monk adopted the monastic name Hekishu combining the Japanese characters for ‘boat’ and ‘jasper’. If you made a boat from jasper, he mused, it would sink to the bottom of the ocean, lost to the mysteries of time.
Yoshikawa himself slowly resurfaced, as it became clear that the perpetrators of war crimes were no longer subject to investigation. He visited his wife and child for a few stolen days here and there before slipping back into hiding. Occasionally, he even paid a secret visit to Tokyo. In 1951, Japan signed the Treaty of San Francisco, relieving Yoshikawa of the fear that he would be prosecuted for past misdeeds against American POWs. Finally, he could breathe a sigh of relief and could emerge from life in the shadows for good. But as long as he lived, he retained the monastic habit of introspection.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: When I reflect on my life, I take great pride in my years of service, but I’m struck by a paradox. By trying to save my homeland, I actually helped to defeat it. That leaves me feeling terribly ashamed.
NARRATOR: Yoshikawa’s work was overshadowed by Japan’s brutal defeat in the war, and the attack at Pearl Harbor became an immense source of shame in his home country. Ever a man of contradictions, Yoshikawa remained unrepentant. He had been trained at the Naval Academy to surrender to his ‘bounden duty’ - his patriotic obligation - to his country. He was, after all, just one man following orders and remaining loyal to his cause. On the other hand, he was riddled with guilt about his work and even professed a desire to apologize to the victims of Pearl Harbor.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: Sometimes I wish I could hide from myself and the damage I caused. But there’s nowhere to hide. Not anymore.
NARRATOR: Don’t get the wrong impression. Yoshikawa hardly became a shrinking violet. In 1961, on the 20th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, the American broadcaster CBS featured the former spy in a televised documentary about his life and work. According to Yoshikawa, the producers of the program wanted him to show his remorse for his role in the Second World War. But he wouldn’t then, and he won’t now.
TAKEO YOSHIKAWA: I have never felt the slightest bit inclined to show feelings of regret. In the final analysis, the US was the underlying cause of this war. The war finally broke out because Americans were jealous of the influence and authority Japan had acquired in East Asia. If I may, I’d like to offer a piece of advice to America’s leaders. You need to remember that as long as you refuse to give up your dream of world domination, a war will one day break out that you will be unable to stop. But I haven’t created anything or built anything. I’m only worth as much as a mouse. No more and no less.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. You can learn more about Yoshikawa in his memoir, Japan’s Spy at Pearl Harbor, available in print, or as an ebook, now. Join us next week for another high-risk operation with True Spies.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this podcast are those of the subject. These stories are told from their perspective, and their authenticity should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Takeo Yoshikawa (1912-1993) was an ensign in the Imperial Japanese Navy and a naval intelligence officer assigned to spy on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Under the alias Morimura, he traveled throughout the Hawaiian Islands and gathered intelligence on troop numbers, shipping routes, and aircraft patterns, paving the way for an attack on America.