Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010

Sorge's spy is brought in from the cold

Long reviled in his homeland and all but forgotten by Moscow, a Japanese former Soviet agent in Tokyo is finally accorded the respect that his devoted niece has sought for so long

Toshiko Tokuyama was 14 years old when she found out that her uncle had been a spy, and that he had just died in a prison in Tokyo. It was 1943 then, and she was too young to really know what the word "spy" meant, let alone allow it to alter her impression of the man she respected like a father.

News photo
Proud moments: Toshiko Tokuyama (above left, and below) at the Russian Embassy in Tokyo on Jan. 13, 2010, as she received the Order of the Patriotic War (Second Class) posthumously awarded to her uncle, Yotoku Miyagi, in 1964. She is pictured above with a Russian military attache and Rinichi Omine, a journalist who helped her lobby Moscow to present the Soviet-era medal. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS

Of course, for most people around her, and most of the Japanese population, in fact, the knowledge that between 1933 and 1941 Yotoku Miyagi had spied for the Soviet Union against Japan, and that he had been a member of one of the most successful spy rings in history, meant only one thing: that this Okinawa-native was a traitor to be despised.

But Tokuyama, who is now 81, could never bring herself to doubt her uncle. For the last two decades, in fact, she and a small group of supporters have worked, and to a large extent succeeded, in reversing history's appraisal of Miyagi.

Was he merely a treachorous communist — or was he, perhaps, a hard- headed pacificist? Gradually, Tokuyama and others have managed to shift the thinking from the former to the latter, and their efforts were given an unexpected, if slightly awkward, boost this month.

Two weeks ago, Tokuyama traveled from her home in Los Angeles to the Russian Embassy in Tokyo. There, in a low-key ceremony, she was presented — on her uncle's behalf — with a Soviet-era medal, the grandly-named Order of the Patriotic War (Second Class). Russia's belated recognition of its former spy, prompted, some believe, by the intervention of either President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has precipitated another flurry of interest in the rapidly evolving legacy of a problematic man.

Tokuyama's affection for "Uncle Yotoku" has lasted a lifetime, but it grew out of just four months they spent in each other's company when Miyagi returned to his native town of Nago in Okinawa in 1937.

The catalyst for his visit was the 60th birthday of his father, Yosei (Toshiko's grandfather), and it represented one of the first times that the surprisingly itinerant extended Miyagi clan had all come together in one place.

Even the patriarch of the family, Yosei, had spent much of his life abroad, chasing work opportunities on farms in the Philippines, Hawaii and finally California. He had first ventured away from Okinawa in 1905, leaving behind his two young sons, one also named Yosei (Toshiko's father) and Yotoku. By 1919, both boys had joined him in the United States — Yosei found work on a farm and Yotoku studied painting.

In 1928, the younger Yosei returned to Okinawa and stayed there just long enough to find a wife and have one child — the now elderly Toshiko. Soon after that he went back to the U.S. and then Mexico, leaving his daughter in the care of his parents. It was with them that she was living, aged 9, when her uncle visited from Tokyo in 1937.

News photo
Stamp of honor: Richard Sorge, the Soviets' Tokyo masterspy executed in Tokyo in 1944, was commemorated on this 1965 4-kopeck Russian stamp.

Tokuyama remembers him clearly. "He was so kind and gentle," she told The Japan Times, adding that while he was in Okinawa she often watched him as he did a little work as an artist.

"He made two paintings during those four months," Tokuyama recalled. "One was a portrait for a neighbor and the other was a funeral portrait," she said.

Miyagi had been working as an artist in Tokyo, too — it had become an effective cover for the clandestine work that in 1933 brought him back from California to Japan: spying.

Miyagi can't have been too comfortable in Okinawa in 1937. He had left his colleagues — in particular, Hotsumi Ozaki, a journalist with the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and his boss, Richard Sorge, a Russian with a German passport who was working as a journalist — at the very time that the political situation between Japan and China was reaching boiling point.

So much was happening that was of vital importance to Moscow: Regular military flare-ups between the Japanese and Chinese; the threat of Japanese incursions into Siberia; and the so-called Anti-Comintern Pact concluded in November 1936 between Nazi Germany and Japan that united the Soviet Union's western and eastern neighbors against it.

Tokuyama remembers the day that Yotoku's sojourn in Okinawa was cut short. Sorge, she said, sent a letter demanding the prompt return of his protege to Tokyo. "After he read it, Yotoku got my cousin to burn the letter," Tokuyama said.

Miyagi was gone shortly afterward, leaving behind two promises he was destined to break. One was to return a bag he borrowed from a painter friend, Takeo Terada, who went on to become a leading artist after the war. The other was to return to Okinawa to paint portraits of his niece and his other relatives.

Miyagi's adoption of the communist cause occurred while he was living in the U.S. in the 1920s, but the seeds of his proletarian social conscience had been sewn as he grew up in Okinawa.

In his testimony to the Japanese police after his eventual arrest, in 1941, Miyagi explained, "I gained my first political consciousness at the age of 14 or 15 as I listened to my grandfather."

News photo

What his grandfather told him was about the history of their island home, which had been part of the Ryukyu Kingdom before it was annexed by Japan in 1879.

"My grandfather taught me that one should not oppress the weak," Miyagi told his police interrogators. "This provoked in me an antagonism toward the arrogant officials and physicians who came to Okinawa from Kagoshima (the Kyushu city from where Okinawa was administered)."

When, as a 16-year-old, Miyagi headed to California in 1919, he expected to find equality, freedom and opportunity. He did, to an extent, but he also found that many Americans looked down on him and his fellow Asian migrants. Around 1925, in Los Angeles, he established the Shakai Mondai Kenkyukai (Association for Research into Social Problems), a platform to try to improve their situation.

The group eventually changed its name to Reimei Kai (Society of the Dawn), and around 1927 it came under the influence of the Communist Party of the United States.

Meanwhile, as Miyagi was flirting with communism in California, the man who was to become his boss, Richard Sorge, was plying his trade of espionage in Shanghai. While working as a journalist there for the German newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung, he established contacts with members of the Communist Party in China and reported to Moscow on the rising tension between the Chinese and the growing number of Japanese soldiers then being stationed in the country.

Sorge was recalled to Moscow in 1932, and it wasn't long before his handlers in the Red Army's Fourth Department (its military-intelligence wing), set in motion a plan to have their Asia specialist sent to the country that had emerged as the most important in the region — Japan.

But as Sorge didn't speak any Japanese, it was clear he would need a Japanese assistant who was also fluent in English and committed to Soviet ideals. The search led to the U.S., then to California — and finally to a promising painter-cum-activist named Yotoku Miyagi.

Tokuyama, Miyagi's niece, is well versed on how her uncle responded to the request from Moscow, channeled through the American Communist Party in autumn 1932, that he return to Japan as a spy.

"He refused," she said. "He had no experience in spying and he asked them to find someone more suitable."

When they pressed him, she continued, "he sought a commitment that it was only for a short time, and that as soon as a replacement was found he would be able to quit." Needless to say, a replacement was never found.


Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.