Major Hashida’s Diary: a Japanese spy in wartime Australia, Part 2

Sydney to Melbourne

Part 1 gave the background to Major Sei Hashida’s espionage mission to Australia in January-March 1941, including the Australian intelligence establishment which kept him under surveillance.

On his arrival in Sydney, Hashida moved into the Australia Hotel, on the site of the current MLC Centre off Martin Place, and got to work.

He did little to dispel suspicion about his intentions, telling the Daily Telegraph ‘I would like to see Australian military training methods … I hope to see your industries at work and find out all I can about Australia.’ Within days his words had been reported in newspapers all over Australia.

So what did a Japanese spy want to see in Sydney in 1941? The main attractions were the Ford and De Havilland factories at Homebush, the Army camp at South Head, Mascot and Richmond aerodromes, Bunnerong Power Station at Matraville – then the city’s main source of electricity and identified by the RAN as an obvious target, and Tom Ugly’s Bridge. Then there were the ocean beaches, from Palm Beach down to La Perouse: Hashida visited each one, to correlate the view with the maps with which he had liberally supplied himself in the NSW Government Bookstall, Angus & Robertsons and Swains bookshops.

Around Sydney Hashida was driven by Denzo Umino, doyen of the local Japanese community. Umino ran a commercial laundry in Chatswood, was married to an Australian and had been positively identified as working for Japanese intelligence. Hashida was usually accompanied by Vice Consul Kenichi Otabe and a Japanese businessman. On longer trips to Newcastle, the Illawarra and Jervis Bay, and Katoomba they used a hire car. Ib commented ‘Hashida has gained more than average knowledge of the New South Wales coastline from Jervis Bay to Newcastle’.

Hashida made a courtesy call on NSW Police Headquarters to see state Police Commissioner, whom he described as ‘very kind’. He also called on Percy Spender, the Minister for the Army, in his Sydney office in the Commonwealth Bank Building on Martin Place. At this meeting Hashida asked to be allowed to go anywhere and see everything he wanted to – an ambit bid which Spender refused.

Hashida’s meeting with Spender became a lightning rod for criticism in the political controversy which erupted around his visit. The Left in Australia had long opposed Japanese militarism, particularly since the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937, as part of its broader opposition to Fascism in general. This sentiment had found an Australian target in exports to Japan, culminating in the ‘Dalfram’ dispute of 1938, which led to then Attorney General Robert Menzies, just back from a trip to Nazi Germany, being dubbed ‘Pig-Iron Bob’. Menzies became Prime Minister in April 1939.

Now, left-leaning organisations, unions and community associations, many of them acting as fronts for the Communist Party of Australia, attacked the Hashida visit. For example, an informant of the  Commonwealth Investigation Branch (CIB) – the federal, civilian organisation – attended a meeting of the Newcastle Trades Hall Council on 16 January 1941, the day after Hashida’s arrival in Sydney. At the meeting, Hashida was denounced as a ‘dangerous spy’, a ‘representative of the third leg of the Axis’, and his admission to the country a ‘further pro-Fascist action of Mr Menzies’. Spender was denounced as being prepared to ‘sell Australia for a Japanese kimono’. Australia had just upgraded its diplomatic relations with Japan, dispatching a Minister (ambassador) to Tokyo, and so the meeting demanded that the Menzies government, in order to balance its ‘unacceptable pro-Fascist attitude’, appoint an equivalent envoy to Chongqing, the wartime capital of the Nationalist Chinese.

By February a campaign of letter writing to ministers, including to the Prime Minister, was underway, demanding that Hashida be thrown out of Australia. A flood of letters and resolutions passed at public meetings accused the Government – and particularly Spender, a bugbear of the Left – of having given Hashida carte blanche because they wanted to curry favour with Tokyo. The (false) claim that Spender had given Hashida permission to go wherever he wished remained current for decades.

Seemingly unaware of the grief he was causing the Government, Hashida settled down to work in the Japanese Consulate in York Street. There, assisted by the naval intelligence officer Yanase, he interviewed members of the Japanese community and pored over maps and travel guides, compiling reports which were couriered securely back to Japan on the passenger liner the Canberra Maru. He also held meetings with Japanese business representatives at the Australia Hotel; in one of these he instructed them to send their families back to Japan – clearly, he had authority over civilians.

Occasionally Hashida, accompanied by Otabe and others, would take a ferry trip on the Harbour to Taronga Park or Balmoral. Otabe, a photographer, took photos on these excursions. In fact, the reputation of the Harbour had spread far and wide among the vista-loving Japanese; later, the Commandant of the notorious Sandakan POW camp would taunt his captives by saying that after the war he would own a house with prime views of Sydney Harbour. Other recreational excursions included a trip to the movies to see The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s anti-Fascist satire on Hitler. Hashida commented on this film that Chaplin ‘makes Hitler ludicrous (which is) curious’. To a Japanese army officer, the idea that totalitarian power could be ludicrous was hard to comprehend.

Surveillance was not watertight. One evening, as Hashida and his cohort left the Australia Hotel, the police car shadowing them suffered a blown out tyre, and lost them. Another time, the MPI lost Hashida and his party in a downpour in the Blue Mountains. And on the day of their reconnaissance to Jervis Bay and Port Kembla the Japanese, with their trademark fiendish cunning, left the Australia Hotel before the watchers started work. MPI recovered the situation by interviewing the driver of their hire car: he was an Australian, a patriotic ex-serviceman, and agreed to keep them informed of Hashida’s doings.

And to the ill-concealed disgust of the MPI watchers, Hashida’s party were often accompanied by ‘two white women of handsome appearance’: they had probably been invited along by Otabe, who seems to have been something of a Lothario. Indeed, there was salacious gossip in the Sydney office of the CIB about Otabe and Miss Wilkins, the attractive office manager for Domei, the Japanese official newsagency – whose Sydney representative engaged in intelligence-gathering activities. At the time it was rumoured that Miss Wilkins had become engaged to Otabe and later, after the outbreak of the war, an MI officer combing through the files in Melbourne suggested that she be interrogated to find out whether she actually had been in some kind of relationship with Otabe. Ib in Sydney were quick to defend Miss Wilkins against this monstrous imputation, stressing that they had already questioned her and were satisfied that she had ‘no interest in her employers beyond regular receipt of her salary’.

On another occasion Hashida and Otabe made an overnight visit to Canberra, flying down one day and returning the next by car.  As the ACT was outside MPI’s jurisdiction, the surveillance baton passed to the CIB, which had a fairly easy job of it. The Japanese called on the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, William Hodgson. Then they took a hire car to drive them up to the Red Hill lookout and then around the town, which seemed ‘deserted’. They were driven by a Mrs Cleaver, of whom Hashida commented: ‘Dangerous!’.

Hashida had asked to be allowed to visit the Royal Military College at Duntroon, but permission was denied by Spender. They drove around the perimeter instead, noting the RMC was ‘on a very small scale’. Hashida’s judgment was that as a city, Canberra was so remote – and its water supply from the Cotter Dam so tenuous – that it was unlikely to ever grow to a large size.

Then on 8February, after three weeks in and around Sydney, Hashida and Otabe left for Melbourne by Pioneer bus – a ‘parlour coach’, as long-distance buses were then called. This was a four-day journey on the mostly unsurfaced Prince’s Highway, with overnight stays at Batemans Bay, Eden and Lakes Entrance. The Japanese could have flown, but they chose to go by road, a decision attributed by the intelligence authorities to a desire to record key infrastructure and geographical features – which sounds about right.

Like most of Hashida’s diary, his account of the bus trip is a mix of the mundane and the whimsical. As far as militarily useful information went, Hashida noted that south of Batemans Bay the road would be ‘difficult’ in wet weather; that the ‘beautiful’ bridge at Narooma was about 100 metres long (built in 1931, it’s actual length is 116 metres); that there was only one telephone line running besides the road; and that the open country of West Gippsland would be ‘useful for airports’.

On the sociological side, Hashida noted how at every stop the driver and the passengers went into the local pub for a beer or two. He found the oysters in the ‘village’ of Batemans Bay ‘delicious’. At Eden, the bus passengers were accosted by a policeman who demanded a 2 shilling contribution from each of them. With all the tact of Australian country policemen of the day, he explained to Hashida and Otabe that the levy was to build ‘Spitfires to protect us against the Japanese’.

Hashida and Otabe also chatted up two sisters travelling on the bus, one of whom Hashida dubbed ‘Miss Brisbane’ after her home town. According to a post-war article in the Melbourne Herald, although Hashida did not know it these two women ‘were special officers detailed to shadow him’ – but in fact Hashida did suspect ‘Miss Brisbane’. After dinner in Batemans Bay they went for a walk, and then had a beer. ‘I do not know who she is or what she does’, commented Hashida – which doesn’t sound like a man who has lowered his guard. The next night in Eden, he again went for a walk with Miss Brisbane and her sister – Hashida noting that Australian women liked beer as much as the men. The same happened in Lakes Entrance, and by now Hashida’s antennae were twitching: ‘The man in the back seat whom I cannot place is very probably a detective. The sister is also a suspect’.

Next: Hashida in Melbourne …

(Nick Hordern is the co-author, with Michael Duffy, of two histories of the Sydney underworld: ‘Sydney Noir’, which covers 1966-1972; and ‘World War Noir’, which covers 1939-1945. Both are published by NewSouth Publishing.)

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