Army Colonel Norihiro Yasue, the Man Jews Will Never Forget
On April 26, 1954, a memorial service was held at the Aoyama Funeral Hall in Tokyo. Many Jews in Japan and from abroad attended, including the Israeli minister to Japan and the Jews living in Japan. They read out the message of condolence:
“We are deeply grateful to him, who set aside his own interests and saved the Jews. He is a person the Jews will never forget.”
The referred man was Army Colonel Norihiro Yasue, who saved tens of thousands of Jewish refugees, and tried to build a refugee settlement in Manchuria. Even when dismissed immediately after the Tripartite Pact was signed, he maintained his humanitarian beliefs and died in a Siberian labor camp in the summer of 1950.
After the war, the rescued Jews searched for Yasue’s surviving family to repay his kindness. It was Michael Kogan, called the father of the Space Invaders, who found the family for them and organized the memorial service.
In 1953, he established the Taito Trading Company, and succeeded in the domestic production of jukeboxes. He changed the company name to Taito Corporation in 1972, and the Space Invaders become a big hit. Taito means Jews of the Far East.
Kogan and others offered to support Yasue’s family, but they refused courteously, and only the memorial service took place. “Including the settlers, migrants, and those who received visas, Yasue saved over 50,000 Jews,” Kogan told the family.
Turns Pro-Jewish After Mingling with the People
Yasue was born in 1888 in Akita City at the former family residence of Hirata Atsutane, a Japanese classical scholar. After going to preparatory military school, he joined the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. In 1909, he graduates as the 21st class, together with Kanji Ishiwara and Kiichiro Higuchi. He later studies Russian at the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages.
In 1918, after the Russian Revolution, Japan joins the Western powers in Siberian intervention. Yasue also goes to the front as a liaison officer to the White Army that was fighting against the revolutionary army. He joined a sweeping operation in an area under revolutionary-army control about 400 kilometers into Siberia from Manchuria near the border.
The Japanese troop retreated in succession as it struggled against the Red Army and was almost wiped out. As the troop lost control through repeated withdrawal, Yasue took command, and led them out of crisis. A certificate issued by the brigade commander remains as the proof of his accomplishment.
“His earnest actions to recover under a hail of bullets at the front has significantly heightened the general spirits.”
The Siberian intervention, his first and last combat, motivated him to become an expert on Jewish issues.
Because Trotsky and many other revolutionaries and revolutionary army leaders were Jews persecuted by Imperial Russia, every member of Russia’s White Army had a copy of the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Through interactions as a liaison officer, Yasue naturally became drawn to the Jewish problem.
Back in Japan, Yasue realized there was no one in the country well versed in the situation of the Jews and became engrossed in this issue. Some Japanese officers and soldiers had an anti-Semitic view, seeing the Russian Revolution as an upheaval by the Jews. Although Yasue created the first Japanese translation of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” he pursued his research from an objective standpoint.
His stance gained high esteem, and in 1927, he was allowed to visit Europe and the Middle East to research the Jewish issue.
As he mingled with the people of Israel and talked with the young leaders about the future of the Jews, patriotic Yasue becomes concerned about the tragedy of the people without a country and turns pro-Jewish.
In his book, “The Jewish People” he published after returning to Japan, he warns the Japanese sympathizing with the anti-Jewish movement that was surging in Europe:
“Of the tens of millions of Jews, not all are involved in the revolutionary movement, nor are they all plutocrats. No one should be deemed dangerous just for being a Jew. Some are bad for our country, and some are good and harmless.”
Gives Hope to the Jews
In 1922, there were 11,000 Jews, mostly of Russian descent, in Manchuria. With the outbreak of the Manchurian Incident in 1931, many moved to other places, such as Tianjin, Shanghai, and the U.S. Yet there were still 5,500 Jews mainly in Harbin in 1937.
At the request of the Jews living in Manchuria, the First Far East Jewish Conference was held in Harbin on December 26, 1937. Over 1,000 Jews attending from Japan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong filled the venue.
Yasue belonged to the Third Division Headquarters and attended as an assistant of his fellow alumnus Kiichiro Higuchi, who was the chief of the Harbin Special Services Agency, and prepared the draft of Higuchi’s congratulatory address for the conference.
“The Jews do not have their homeland anywhere in the world. Today, as massacres take place in some parts of the world, and we see the pursuit and expulsion of Jews, I am deeply grieved in the name of humanity and as a human being. Some countries expel people as undesirable elements, while legally they should be their fellow citizens. Where are they expelling these people? Personally, I truly detest such acts. Before expelling the Jews, give them land, their home country.”
The Jews have a friend in the Far East. Japan is the Messiah. Thunderous applause filled the venue. Some were even shedding tears. The congratulatory address intended to support the conference theme to counter persecution of the Jews was Yasue’s plea from deep within.
In his book, Emmanuel Prat writes Yasue was a torch of hope for the Jews. “The person at the center of the conference was not General Higuchi but Colonel Yasue, and it was Yasue that taught the general the history of the Jews.”
Kogan was the leader of the youth organization that escorted Yasue throughout the conference.
The conference took place after the signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact between Japan, Germany, and Italy, which went unreported in Japan. A congratulatory address advocating the Jews had a large impact since it was contrary to the national policy. Germany specifically protested against Japan, while criticism also arose within the Japanese Army.
One month later, Yasue becomes the chief of the Dairen Special Services Agency. Higuchi wrote, “As the optimal person for handling the Jewish issue, I recommend Colonel Yasue as the chief of the agency.” With the Army’s consensus, Yasue shifts from a Jewish issue researcher to working-level personnel in charge of the measures.
The Spirit of Hakko Ichiu: “All the World Under One Roof”
When Yasue became the Dairen Special Services Agency chief, Lieutenant General Hideki Tojo was the Chief of Staff of the Kwantung Army. Yasue’s classmate at the Army Academy, Major General Kanji Ishiwara, removed from the center of the Army, was the Vice Chief of Staff.
Yasue had been nursing the idea of five races consisting of Japanese, Manchu, Han Chinese, Korean, and Mongoloid. Ishiwara’s presence led to promoting the “six-race harmony concept” by adding the Jews.
Immediately after taking office, Yasue established “The Current Guidelines on the Measures for the Jews,” which was the Kwantung Army’s policy concerning the Jews.
It incorporates Yasue’s claim that, “the spirit of Hakko Ichiu, Japan’s ideal of considering the world as one house, means treating all races without discrimination.”
The guidelines state that “Based on justice and equity, when the Jews depend on Japan and Manchuria, the ideal is an inclusion under the spirit of Hakko Ichiu.” Yasue continued to use the Hakko Ichiu rhetoric to persuade related organizations that were reluctant to protect the Jews.
This was after 1935 enactment of the Nuremberg Laws that defined those with at least one Jewish parent or grandparent as a Jew and deprived them of civil rights. For Nazi Germany intensifying the persecution of the Jews, the announcement of humanitarian measures by the intimidating Kwantung Army was a great shock.
Equal Treatment for Jewish Refugees
From early 1938, the persecutions intensified, and Jews from Germany and Austria began rushing to Manchuria and Shanghai by the Trans-Siberian Railway and by sea.
On October 7, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a notice to its offices abroad to refuse Jewish refugee acceptance, stating, “From an overall perspective, it is not good to accept those excluded by our allies, and undesirable for them to enter Japan.”
Yet 20 days later, on October 27, Jewish refugees arrived at the Manzhouli Station on the Soviet border, with more to follow. Yasue helped them evacuate to Tianjin and Shanghai via Manchuria, and let everyone through by providing visas until the sixth group.
Yasue then headed to Tokyo to meet with Army Minister Seishiro Itagaki and advises the importance of the Jewish problem. Itagaki accepts this, and makes a proposal at the Five Ministers’ Conference, and establishes the “Jewish Measures Guidelines” for providing equal treatment for the Jews as other foreign nationals. This was an exceptional measure for Japan, a German ally.
Meanwhile, the Jewish population in Shanghai increased rapidly. The number of refugees alone reached 17,000, and a local committee formed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Navy, and Army responded to the refugees. Yasue becomes the committee chairman while also acting as the chief of the Dairen Special Services Agency.
Although the “Jewish Measures Guidelines” states equal treatment of the Jews, it does not mention taking initiative for rescue. Japan can issue transit visas to refugees with money and a predetermined destination, but it was impossible to save refugees who barely escaped.
Yasue envisioned a grand scheme to provide a settlement for the Jewish refugees. It was called by the code name Fugu (Blowfish) Plan, in reference to a delicious but deadly poisonous fish.
The Third Far East Jewish Conference from December 23, 1939, adopted a secret resolution requesting the Japanese government to establish a special district to house Jewish refugees. The Dalian Special Services Agency prepared the draft, which was approved by the Kwantung Army and reported to the Army Ministry and the General Staff.
David Kranzler, an American researcher on Far East Jews before the war, writes in his book “Japanese, Nazis & Jews” that “This was backed by the desire ignited from Yasue’s visit to Palestine, to build a country of some sort for Zionists in Manchuria. He tried to build Israel in Manchuria.”
Later, Yasue asked the Special Investigation Team of the Manchurian Railway Research Department to conduct a survey, and in May 1940, compiles the “Estimated Area Required for the Jewish Refugee Settlement.”
The settlement was to be set near a major city on the plains, such as Harbin, to create a satellite city with fully developed commerce and industry for supplementing the major city, and to allow autonomy for the refugees.
The number of refugees has already exceeded 20,000. Considering further increase, he planned the city area to be 3.3 million square meters for 30,000 people, 5.5 million square meters for 50,000 people, and 7.5 million square meters for 70,000 people. If the land is leased to refugees, it stated that the rent must be inexpensive.
The British government had also announced to accept refugees. But while it knew the Jews were urban people not suited to farming, the condition was farming settlement. Yasue’s plan to have them engage in commerce and industry was more viable.
Even Planned to Avoid Japan-U.S. Clash
With Yasue’s consensus-building efforts, another secret resolution, “Petition Requesting American Jewish Organizations to Participate in the Special District Construction” was adopted. It also intended to improve the deteriorating Japan-U.S. relationship by attracting Jewish capital in the U.S. to the project.
In no time, the All-World Jewish Congress in Geneva responded and contacted Abraham Kaufman, President of the Far East Jewish Conference, to offer support.
Stephen Wise, President of the American Jewish Congress and an aide of President Roosevelt, sent a letter to Carl Kinderman , a Jew living in Tokyo. It said, “Whatever proposal they make to solve the Jewish refugee problem in Japan, us Jewish organizations should accept it with the utmost consideration.”
The Fugu Plan was in a full drive towards two objectives: to secure a settlement for the Jewish refugees and to avoid the clash between Japan and the U.S.
Sudden Dismissal from Chief of Special Services Agency
However, news that shatters Yasue’s dream reaches Dairen.
On September 27, 1940, the Tripartite Pact is signed in Berlin. Subsequently, the Army Ministry announced the cancellation of the Fourth Far East Jewish Conference scheduled in Dairen.
The following day, Yasue received a telegram from the Army Ministry.
“Assigned to reserve. Local special mission.”
This was an abrupt dismissal from the Chief of Special Services Agency. Because Yasue was not a graduate of the Army War College, some see it was appropriate for Yasue to go no higher than a field officer. Yet the timing was peculiar. The truth was that out of concern for Nazi Germany, they ousted Yasue, a leading advocate of the Jews.
Immediately, Yasue flew to Tokyo and confronted Tojo at the Army Ministry.
“In the Far East, we’ve established a cooperative relationship between the Jews, White Russians, Muslims, and Japanese. However, my dismissal means Japan doesn’t admit the need for that. If we lose the support of the Far East Jews, we will eventually turn the American Jews against us. In the end, the U.S. as well as the whole world, except Germany and Italy, will become our enemy. Are you going to wage war on the whole world?”
Even Tojo balks at the exasperation of Yasue, who is usually affable and never raises his voice.
Tojo tried to soothe him, saying, “I have no intention of going to war with the world. I’ll have you back on active duty soon, so could you continue your current job?” But Yasue said, “No way now,” and stormed out of the room.
Then he barged into the General Staff Office and inquired why they cancelled the Far East Jew Conference. “It suddenly came from the higher level of the Army Ministry,” was the vague answer from the person handling the Jewish issue. “Was it the minister?” “It was ordered from very high up, so there’s nothing we can do about it,” was all the person could say.
On December 30, Yasue called on Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka at his private residence in Sendagaya. The two had been close from when Matsuoka was the president of the Manchurian Railway Company and had cooperated in maneuvers against China.
“We must also face the Jews with the noble spirit of Hakko Ichiu. Why should Japan blindly follow Germany and expel the Jews? Japan has its own circumstances. You are the only one that treats the Jews truly for the sake of our country.”
Matsuoka held deep trust in Yasue, and he promised to provide continued support.
The following year, in January 1941, Yasue establishes the private Yasue Agency, with the Manchurian Railway providing monthly expenses of 2,000 yen. This was when a section chief earned 200 yen a month.
With his indiscriminate treatment of Manchus, Jews, and Koreans, people favored Yasue wherever he went. One day, when he went out with his fourth son, an elementary boy, he had a Manchu shoeshine man polish his shoes in the streets of Dairen. “How is your wife’s illness? If she still isn’t better, I’ll send the doctor again,” he said to the man and squeezed a 10-yen-note into the hesitating man’s hand.
After walking away, Yasue tells his son, “Just because he’s a shoeshine man, you mustn’t look down on him. There are things to learn from people regardless of their occupation.” The son was more surprised by his father’s polite way of talking than the large sum of money he had given.
His Name Inscribed into the Golden Book
On December 8, the war between Japan and the U.S. began. Yasue failed to achieve a reconciliation between Japan and the U.S. through Jewish policy and was placed under the surveillance of the military police.
While the Japanese side sought to eliminate Yasue from the records, the Jewish society put him back into the limelight in November, just before the war begun.
Yasue, along with Higuchi, had his name inscribed into the “Golden Book” that records the history of the Jewish people. On the cover of the book, it says, “This also includes the names of the foreign friends who have done great deeds for the Jewish people,” and honored the two men for their distinguished service in protecting and saving the Jews. This shows the gratitude of the Jewish people.
In 1944, the war situation worsened, and Saipan finally fell on July 7. That day, Yasue received a letter from Ishiwara, who was in the reserve.
“Japan is already defeated.”
For some time, Yasue had been secretly negotiating for peace with the U.S. through the Far East Jewish Community, while also discussing with the Nationalist government.
In the negotiations, the U.S. had responded, “If Japan withdraws from the southern region and mainland China, the U.S. will leave only Manchuria to Japanese occupation.”
However, the Army Central Command stubbornly refused to make peace. Immediately after the end of war, Yasue muttered regretfully to his family, “The young lieutenant colonels and majors on the General Staff objected.”
End of War and Determination
Yasue was at his home in Dairen When the war ended on August 15, 1945.
He said, “It’s the fault of us elders, letting this happen. I’ll take the blame. When the Soviets come, they will arrest me, but I’ll neither run nor hide. I’ll face it with my head held high. You young people are responsible for the future of Japan. We count on you.”
Although already a civilian, he was prepared, and began putting his affairs in order, such as burning the sensitive letters from the Nationalist government senior official.
In the meantime, Japanese, Manchu, and Muslim people came one after another to bid farewell to Yasue. A White Russian leader also visited. Yasue told him, “We’ll get you a military plane, so flee to North China.” But the man said, “With Japan defeated, there is no place for me. I’m prepared.” The two men firmly shook hands as tears ran down their cheeks.
Among the visitors was a Korean barber from the prestigious Yamato Hotel. The barber was returning to his hometown, and offered his beloved tools of trade, saying, “I would like Mr. Yasue to take these as a token of my respect.”
Eight days after the war ended, a Soviet military police car stopped in front of Yasue’s home. The time had come. They took him away immediately. He returned home the next day but was taken away again. In the city, there was violence and looting by the Soviet troops, and Yasue’s family spent restless days lying low.
Then one day, the Korean barber came to the house and told the family that Yasue was held captive in the Kaikosha building. “He’ll be out on the second-floor balcony at seven tomorrow morning,” he said, and handed a note to Yasue’s eldest son. It said he was receiving harsh interrogations. The son thought the note would make other family members nervous and burned it on the spot.
The next morning, the eldest son hid in the garden of Kaikousha. Exactly at seven, Yasue appeared on the balcony. The son rushes and tries to hand a note by throwing it up, but it does not reach the balcony and drops in the garden.
The two get flustered. Yasue darts back to the room, and the son climbs over the wall, onto the street. Yasue with a startled expression, concerned about his son. That was the last time the son saw his father.
Shuffled from One Internment Camp to Another
On February 26, 1947, the repatriation ship Hidehiko Maru carrying the four members of the Yasue family arrived at the port of Maizuru. The homeland was covered in snow on the day of return after so many years.
As for Yasue, the Soviets transferred him from a camp in the Urals, to Kamenogorsk Camp in Central Asia, then a camp in Uzbek. In the interim, he also served witness for a White Russian’s trial in Moscow and made a defensive testimony. Yasue told those around him he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Yasue’s family received three postcards from the labor camps. He seemed to have received their replies. In his message, he expressed joy at the family’s safe return, and cited two classic verses:
“What of silver, gold, or jade? Never would they compare to one’s precious child.”
“When you are down and out and shedding tears, you understand people’s true heart.”
The last communication was dated June 3, 1948.
In the early 1950s, his family found Yasue’s name on the list of deaths at the 21st Branch Office in Khabarovsk. When they inquired the repatriates, they found out he had died from a stroke at the height of summer in 1950. Since it was not clear exactly when he died, his family decided it was August 15.
The name Norihiro Yasue is inscribed in the Japanese cemetery in Khabarovsk. Despite the criticism of being against Japan’s national policy, he devoted himself to save the Jewish refugees and create a settlement in Manchuria. He was a determined humanitarian, to be remembered not only by the Jews but also by the Japanese.
Born in Fukuoka in 1963. Became a writer after working as a reporter for the Sankei Shimbun. Author of books including “Top-Secret Command: Operation for Preserving the Imperial Line—Our Life-Risking Mission” (from Tokuma Shoten), “The Battles of Attu and Kiska Islands: Humanitarian Generals Kiichiro Higuchi and Masatomi Kimura” (from Kairyu-sha), “The Commander of the Retreat from Kiska,” and “The Japanese Soldiers Who Fought Through in Imphal: Brave Soldiers Who Remained on the Battlefield” (from Kojin-sha NF Bunko).