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Takeo Yoshikawa: Wartime Japan’s Spy in Hawaii

There were fewer Japanese spies in the U.S. than anyone would believe. This might have been the only effective one…

History has shown how counter-productive and wrong the U.S. internment of Japanese was during World War II. Visionaries like Bill Donovan advised against this stupid move, saying it would do more to help the enemy than any potential benefit. He was proven right of course. Wrong is wrong and that was wrong. But now history is shedding light on how little spying imperial Japan was doing against the U.S. It is amazing how few efforts they really had in place. They read open source reports, listened to shortwave radio including news and of course military chatter, had plenty of information gathering from diplomatic efforts, and then just a few spies collecting information.

Perhaps the most useful was Takeo Yoshikawa. In fact, he might have been the one single spy that generated anything of value to Imperial Japan. And he was NOT a U.S. national. He was operating under official cover as a diplomat, which is what the U.S. should have suspected would be done.

Which points directly to why we need to study spies. By studying mistakes of the past perhaps we can better inform our decision making today.

Yoshikawa was a graduate of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy at Etajima (top of his class) and spent some time at sea on cruisers and subs, and then trained as a pilot in the mid 1930’s. He was medically discharged, and then began working for Japanese Naval Intelligence in Tokyo, becoming an expert on everything he could about the U.S. Navy. He was highly decorated, even receiving a personal letter of thanks from Adolf Hitler for information he passed onto Germany from his analysis of U.S. Navy operations. In 1940 he passed his exams and became a junior diplomat in the Japanese Foreign Ministry. He was sent to Hawaii under the cover of being a vice-consul, arriving March 27, 1941.

In Hawaii he rented an apartment that overlooked Pearl Harbor and observed the U.S. Navy from that position. He also wandered around freely, collecting any stories he could to piece together what was going on. He even went diving under Pearl Harbor’s security fences and used a hollow reed to stay submerged as he went. He rented small planes and flew around.

According to Yoshikawa, although some 160,000 persons of Japanese ancestry lived in Hawaii at that time, he never made use of this resource in his espionage activities. He and Seki agreed that, while Hawaii should be the “easiest place” to carry out such work in view of the large Japanese population, both looked at the locals with disdain. “[T]hose men of influence and character who might have assisted me in my secret mission were unanimously uncooperative….”

Although he had no knowledge of a planned attack on Pearl Harbor, Yoshikawa assumed that the intelligence would help prepare for such an eventuality and worked tirelessly to that end. His reports were transmitted by the Japanese Consulate in PURPLE code to the Foreign Ministry, which passed them on to the Navy. Although the code had been broken by American codebreakers and messages to and from Tokyo were intercepted and decrypted, communications between Tokyo and the consulate were considered low-priority because they contained so many messages that were entirely commercial in nature. However, one such message addressed to Kita (but actually to Yoshikawa) and sent on September 24, 1941 should have received more attention. It divided Pearl Harbor into five distinct zones and requested that the location and number of warships be indicated on a “plot” (i.e., grid) of the harbor. However, due to delays caused by staff shortages and other priorities the message was not decrypted and distributed until mid-October, and then dismissed as having little consequence. But it was the reports that he sent twice a week based on this request that enabled Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to finalize his plan for the attack..”

When he heard the “East wind, rain” code phrase on the short wave radio bringing the news from Tokyo signaling an attack against America, Yoshikawa destroyed all evidence of his activities. When the FBI picked him up on the day of the attack, there was no incriminating evidence of his espionage. He eventually returned to Japan in August 1942 in a diplomat prisoner exchange. It was not known for some time that he was the chief Japanese agent in Hawaii.

Yoshikawa continued to work for naval intelligence during the remainder of the war. When the war ended and Japan was occupied by U.S. forces, he went into hiding (disguised as a Buddhist monk) for fear of being prosecuted for his role in the Pearl Harbor attack. He returned to his wife (whom he married shortly after his return from the U.S.) when the occupation ended.

Yoshikawa never received official recognition of his services during the war. In 1955, he opened a candy business but it failed as word spread of his role in the war. The locals blamed Yoshikawa for the war. “They even blamed me for the atomic bomb,” he declared in one interview. Penniless and jobless, he was supported by his wife for the rest of his life via her position selling insurance. “My wife alone shows me great respect,” said the old spy. “Every day she bows to me. She knows I am a man of history.”  He died in a nursing home.

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