Major Hashida’s Diary: a Japanese spy in wartime Australia, Part 5

Part 5: Exploitation

Earlier parts told the story of the duel between Hashida and the Australian intelligence establishment during his two-month stay in Australia in early 1941. But long after he had left Australia, Hashida continued to haunt the Australian authorities.

Hashida might have left Australia, but the fallout from his visit was just beginning. His visit would fuel controversy, both in political debate and within the intelligence establishment, for years to come. 

Hashida complained about the attitude of the authorities in Australia, but compared with the Dutch officials in Netherlands East Indies, they had treated him with kid gloves. He arrived in Surabaya on the evening of 16 March 1941, entering the Netherlands East Indies on a transit visa. But when he explained his travel plans to the Dutch it became obvious that he was intending to breach the conditions of his visa. So he was put on a train and escorted to Batavia, where he stayed with Japanese trade officials in that city. 

A few days later he was arrested and his documents, including his diary and sketch maps of coastal localities like Wyndham and Darwin, were confiscated. The Dutch authorities ordered him to leave the Netherlands East Indies by aircraft at the first available opportunity, and in the meantime confined him to a hotel room. At one point in these proceedings he had to be forcibly restrained. Hashida eventually left for Japan on 21 March on board a Japanese merchant ship.

The Japanese authorities began immediately to demand the return of Hashida’s documents. Hashida’s sketch maps fuelled Dutch suspicions of espionage, but the Japanese Consul General in Jakarta defended them on the grounds that ‘that the curiosity of Major Hashida concerning military objects in Australia is perfectly natural as he is a member of the Army General Staff and that as he was accompanied by Australian officials there should be no objection to his intelligence activities’. The problem was that Consul General Akiyama in Sydney had previously insisted that Hashida’s visit was purely commercial, that he was in Australia ‘to investigate wool, metal and other industries and their relation in Japanese requirements’. The contradiction between the two explanations was seized on by Canberra as evidence of Japanese bad faith and intention to carry out espionage.

In the post-mortem on Hashida’s visit, Military Intelligence were adamant about two things: that Hashida had been on an intelligence mission and that he had not succeeded in acquiring any sensitive information. Even before the documents seized by the Dutch had been seen by Australian officials, MI was insisting that their surveillance of Hashida had been so strict that he ‘could not have collected any information of importance beyond what is available to an alien member of the public during a hurried visit through the country’.

It took a while for the Australians to get their hands on Hashida’s diary. The original document was retained by the Dutch officials, who produced a Dutch translation which they passed to the British Consul General in Jakarta. He translated it into English and sent it on to the Department of External Affairs in Canberra. It wasn’t until 17 July – four months after Hashida’s arrest – that External Affairs passed a copy of the translated diary to the Department of the Army. The maps were more accessible. Assessing them, on 20 May MI commented that they ‘could be made by anyone … if the Japanese have not got better maps and sketches of these areas of Darwin then their Agents, who are known (to be) in Darwin, are very poor indeed’. The Japanese spies ‘known’ to be in Darwin were among the fishing community who operated in Northern Australian waters, some of whom travelled to and from Japan.

MI’s judgement, that Hashida actually hadn’t learnt much during his visit, became the accepted wisdom. The Department of External Affairs Canberra said as much in a cable to the British Consul in Jakarta on 21 August. This stated that ‘while it is clear that Hashida came to Australia on an espionage mission … there is little from an intelligence point of view of real value in the notes’.

But at the same time the Australians concluded that Hashida’s real goal, if not to gather secret information, was to organize other people to do so: to manage the espionage network which already existed among the Japanese business community. ‘His true mission,’ External Affairs continues, ‘appears to have been to place the espionage system on a better footing, to contact existing agents and arrange for an extension of activities’.

As a result of this assessment, those Japanese businessmen Hashida had met during his visit came under closer scrutiny. For example Ic – that part of Military Intelligence which maintained surveillance of postal traffic – intercepted a letter from Japan to a Mr Kawaguchi, who left Australia as part of the evacuation of the Japanese community in August 1941. The letter, from Kawaguchi’s wife, referred to photographs they had taken when they had accompanied Hashida on the outing to Healesville Sanctuary zoo in February: ‘It seems he (Hashida) wishes to have these pictures’, she wrote. Kawaguchi’s baggage, all 17 pieces of it, was subjected to a ‘thorough search’ before it was allowed to be loaded on board ship, but no photographs, of koalas or anything else, were found.

The performance of the intelligence agencies during the Hashida visit came under scrutiny. Commenting on Hashida’s diary, on 17 July William Hodgson, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, made the snide remark that ‘methods of shadowing suspects in Australia, based on this case, appear to be the subject of levity, rather than efficiency’. He was referring to instances where Hashida had commented on the overt surveillance; for example, on one occasion he told his hire car driver in Sydney to drive deliberately slowly so that the MPI shadows could keep up; in his diary Hashida had remarked: ‘Very funny!’ But Hogdson was being obtuse: MI and Hashida had been playing cat and mouse. Much of the time Australians wanted Hashida to know he was under surveillance, and Hashida wanted them to know that he knew.

But in the end, everyone seemed to make of Hashida’s visit whatever they wanted, like this extraordinary rant by Lt Col Powell, the head of Ib in Sydney. In a memo summing up the visit, Powell listed the social evils that Hashida would have witnessed in Australia: ‘individualism amounting to anarchy, industrial unrest, lack of political unity … wastefulness of men and materials’. In short, he would have seen that Australians ‘are pleasure loving to an amazing degree and unwilling to sacrifice their comforts … they lack any appreciation of what war conditions mean …’ Powell noted with masochistic approval that in contrast Hashida came from a country ‘hard-hit by the deprivations of war’ and geared for conflict. If there was to be war between the two countries, Powell seemed to be saying, the Japanese would deserve to win.

Hashida went on to enjoy a considerable afterlife within the Australian intelligence establishment. A full two years after his visit Robert Wake, the Queensland head of the Commonwealth Security Service – a new organisation created to bring a measure of coherence to Australian security intelligence – wrote to the CSS head office in Canberra, asking for a copy of Hashida’s diary. ‘Apart from any Queensland contacts which may be included, it is possible that contacts in other States may provide links with Queensland suspects’, Wake said. So in March 1943 the CSS circulated copies of the Hashida diary to Wake and to his other state offices.

Three weeks later Wake reported to Canberra that Hashida’s name was not mentioned in an ‘Alphabetical List of Japanese Army Officers’ which had been recently siezed in the fighting in New Guinea. His absence bore out the guess made in February 1941 by Major Grey, the MI officer in Melbourne, that Hashida was not a line officer.

The context of Wake’s report shows just how good the Allies had become at exploiting intelligence. Between 2-5 March 1943, Allied airpower had destroyed a Japanese convoy carrying troops from Rabaul to Lae in the Battle of the Bismark Sea. Days later, boats and rafts from carrying survivors from the sunken convoy began to wash up on Goodenough Island off the eastern tip of Papua. From one of these, Australian troops recovered documents which were sent back to Brisbane and translated. Among these was the Japanese Army List showing ‘the names of all Japanese officers and their units’ – and not just in New Guinea or the South West Pacific Area, but everywhere, including China.

This was a major coup, important enough to warrant an allied intelligence conference in Washington dedicated to its exploitation. What is particularly noteworthy is the speed with which the intelligence was exploited by the Australians; the Army List was recovered from the jungles of Goodenough Island sometime between 8-14 March and Canberra knew about Hashida’s non-appearance in it on 22March. Not bad for the analogue, piston-engined age.

The Hashida legend lingered on into the post-war era. In the days after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, a flood of ‘now it can be told’ stories appeared in Australian newspapers. The one about Hashida which appeared in the Melbourne Herald, was entitled ‘Ace detectives beat Jap spies’.

The journalist had obviously been briefed by an expansive  intelligence source. As we have seen, the report mentioned that ‘Miss Brisbane’ and her ‘sister’, who had struck up a friendship with Hashida on his bus trip from Sydney to Melbourne, were in fact informants for Military Intelligence. And, that the Victorian Police Commissioner had spun out his meeting with Hashida long enough for the Japanese officer’s hotel room to be searched.

Apart from that, Hashida is decribed in the Herald article as an ‘ace Japanese spy’. It told how, over a ‘three month period’ (actually two months) he had ‘made a detailed military survey of nine-tenths of the Australian coast’. If ‘detailed’ implies working with maps, the distance Hashida actually ‘surveyed’ was less than two hundred kilometers. The article’s exaggerations may be attributed to the euphoria of victory.

Two things emerge from the story of Hashida’s visit. One was that in the years before Pearl Harbour, while Japan did have an intelligence presence in Australia, it was a far cry from what we know to be the much more extensive Japanese operation in British Malaya and Singapore. The other was that far from being blind to a Japanese threat, the Australian intelligence establishment was acutely sensitive to it.

(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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