Major Hashida’s Diary: a Japanese spy in wartime Australia, Part 1

Any account of Australia in World War II will tell you that the outbreak of the Pacific War came as a terrific shock – and so it did. But this is not the same thing as saying it was unforeseen. Long before Pearl Harbour, the Australian security establishment was seized of the threat from Japan, including the threat of an attack on Australian soil. This awareness was abundantly on show in its reaction to the visit of the Japanese military intelligence officer Major Sei Hashida.

On 19 March 1941 Major Hashida was arrested in Batavia, now Jakarta, the capital of the Netherlands East Indies. He had arrived from Australia three days before on a transit visa, but the Dutch authorities suspected his real intention was to conduct espionage. When they confronted Hashida there was a fracas, his personal papers were seized and he was deported. Among his papers were his diary, sketch maps, and other records of his recent two month tour of Australia, which had taken him from Brisbane clockwise around the coast to Darwin.

Hashida’s visit to Australia is often cited as an egregious example of Japanese espionage, which it was, but this suggests that it was a clandestine, furtive affair. On the contrary, it was public and highly controversial – not least because Hashida was helped on his way by Australian officials.

His mission came against the background of rising geopolitical tensions. Australia was at war with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and its ground, air and naval forces were engaged in the Middle East and Europe. In September 1940 the Japanese had occupied the northern part of French Indochina, a move which prompted the United States to embargo its oil shipments to Japan. The Japanese High Command believed these sanctions could only be countered by capturing the oil fields of the Netherlands East Indies, something which would require the siezure of the British base at Singapore, and would thus involve Australia in open conflict with Japan. And just days after invading Indochina, the Japanese had concluded the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, thus becoming their diplomatic, if not yet their military, ally.

As part of the increasing tempo of events, in November 1940 a German maritime raider had laid mines off the east coast of Australia, sinking a few ships. And in February 1941 an Australian Army brigade disembarked in Singapore to reinforce the British garrison there. The rundown to the Pacific War was picking up speed and when Hashida arrived in Sydney, Pearl Harbour was just eleven months away.

His visit began with a stuff-up, which cost the Australians the initiative. The British authorities in Tokyo had issued Hashida with a visa for Australia without consulting their colonial counterparts, and Canberra did not find out until after he was actually on his way, leaving authorities faced with the choice of refusing him entry or letting him land.

On the one hand, there was concern that Hashida, a member of the Japanese Army’s General Staff, might obtain information which could be useful in the event of a Japanese attack. On the other hand Canberra was loath to offend Tokyo: diplomatic relations between the two had just been upgraded and Japan was Australia’s second largest export market. In the end Canberra decided to allow Hashida into the country, with the intelligence authorities consoling themselves with the thought that they would watch him like a hawk. So when his ship arrived in Brisbane he was allowed to land, and was shown around by one of the many Japanese businessmen who would assist him in the coming weeks. After a brief stopover he sailed on to Sydney.

The existing Japanese intelligence network in Australia was based in the Japanese Consulate in the skyscraper-gothic style Grace Building in York Street Sydney. Some of the Consulate staff had intelligence backgrounds: Consul General Masatoshi Akiyama had served as an intelligence officer in southern China and Counsellor Mitsumi Yanase was on the staff of Japanese Naval Intelligence. Drawing on informants from among the small Japanese community and some well-paid Australians, the Japanese network’s main activities had been the collection of information – most of it open source – and the cultivation of influential Australians who they hoped would promote pro-Japanese attitudes among decision makers.

The Australian intelligence establishment responsible for countering such foreign intelligence penetration was unwieldy and largely untried. In early 1941 its main arm was the Australian Army’s Directorate of Military Operations and Intelligence (MI), based in Army headquarters in Melbourne. Two of Military Intelligence’s sections would be involved in the surveillance of Hashida: Ib dealt with domestic security and counter-intelligence and in Sydney it operated out of Victoria Barracks in Paddington; Ic was the censorship arm, based in Reservoir Street Surry Hills. In the wartime context ‘censorship’ meant the scrutiny of traffic through the postal and telegraphic system; the manual ancestor of today’s mass electronic surveillance systems.

In NSW, Ib section acted in close cooperation with the Police, through a joint organisation called MPI – Military Police Intelligence. MPI was a bureaucratic structure unique to NSW: formalising the informal practice in other states, Army officers directed its operations – such as choosing whom to target – and the police did the legwork of surveillance and investigation.

Then there was the Commonwealth Investigation Branch (CIB), a small-scale, federal, civilian organisation whose focus before the war had been on communists and radical labour activists – unhelpfully, it had the same acronym as the NSW Police’s Criminal Investigation Branch. Other intelligence players included the RAN’s Naval Intelligence Division, which ran its own domestic network, and the Commonwealth Postmaster General’s Department – the remote ancestor of Telstra, which intercepted telephonic communications on request from Military Intelligence (MI).

The Pacific War opened with a cataract of military disaster for the Western allies. Struggling to explain this litany of failure, many argued that it boiled down to the fact that the Japanese were innately good at spying, that there was a generic Asian predilection for espionage – the sort sneaky stuff that was beneath White notions of fair play.

This was nonsense. Certainly the Japanese devoted a lot of effort to espionage and surveillance, but then so too did the western powers.

As we shall see, in 1941 Australian devoted considerable resources to intelligence work. Quite apart from the Hashida visit, MPI records of reveal its intensive surveillance not just of Japanese officials, but of their business community as well. MPI watchers followed every step of Sydney’s Japanese residents and their wives as they commuted into the city, lunched, and then returned to their homes in Mosman or the Eastern Suburbs.

The attention paid by Military Intelligence, MPI and CIB to Hashida’s visit mean that it is well documented. There are daily reports by plain-clothes watchers and informants, as well as a more consolidated account of his doings by Ib. There is also Hashida’s diary – that confiscated by the Dutch authorities in Batavia, who passed it on to the Australians. Because the surveillance of Hashida’s visit was so intensive, the records provide a lot of insight into the operations of the intelligence agencies – including a rare glimpse of the internal workings of Ic, almost all of whose records have been destroyed.

As a result of this close surveillance, we know that while they may have been the spear point of a ruthless military empire, Japanese officials in Sydney didn’t stint themselves the ordinary pleasures of life. For example, they were enthusiastic punters – intercepts by the Postmaster General’s Department of Consulate telegrams and telephone calls and passed to Ib show frequent references to racehorses.

The journalist John Sleeman served the Consulate in a variety of capacities – for example, he compiled a report on the charcoal production capacity of NSW, in an era when charcoal was a strategic commodity, used instead of petrol as a motor vehicle fuel. However, probably the most important function owerver, HoHoweHowever, the most important service Sleeman performed for the Consulate was to place the Japanese staff’s illegal bets with off-course bookmakers.

Sleeman employment with the Consulate made him a target of MPI surveillance. One day they were following him around the city when he hailed a cab, whereupon his shadow jumped into a following taxi and, in the finest traditions of the profession, ordered the driver to ‘follow that vehicle’. Unfortunately the cab commandeered by MPI was powered by charcoal gas, the wartime substitute fuel source, which delivered considerably less power. Sleeman had chosen a petrol-driven cab … which accelerated away out of sight.

Next: Hashida explores Sydney and Canberra …

(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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