The Tokyo Spy ring was a established by the Soviet Union as a means of determining Japanese diplomatic and military intent towards the Soviet Union during World War II. The ring was meant not only to learn about Japanese intent, but also to influence it. The ring was run by Richard Sorge, a German national who worked as a journalist in both Germany and Japan. He was recruited as a spy after becoming a communist during his convalescence from injuries suffered during World War I. He was assigned to Soviet military intelligence (GRU) in 1929 and spied on both England and Germany during the run-up to World War II. He operated for a while in Shanghai, China were he became romantically involved with Ruth Kuczynski and Agnes Smedley, both considered Soviet spies. Smedley introduced Sorge to Hotsumi Ozaki, a senior Japanese journalist for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun who was an expert on China and hoped to prevent a Sino-Japanese war. Ozaki would eventually become the most important member of the spy ring, save for Sorge.
Sorge put the spy ring together beginning in May of 1933. He went to Berlin, Germany to familiarize himself with contacts in the press in order to develop his cover as a journalist in Japan. He also immersed himself in the propaganda of Nazi Germany, associating with Nazi’s in order to gain information as well as credibility for his press credentials. He traveled to Japan in September of 1933 and began to assemble the ring. Warned to stay away from the Japanese Communist Party, he brought in a radio operator, Red Army officer Max Clausen and his wife Anna (Clausen operated a blueprint machinery and reproduction business that was financed by the Soviets but which he made profitable). In addition to Ozaki he brought in two other journalists working as agents for Comintern (Branko Vukelic, a senior journalist for the French Havas News Agency knowledgeable on trends in international relations. A Yugoslav, Vukelic worked with the French magazine “Vu”), and Miyagi Yotoku (an artist who worked with the English-language newspaper “the Japan Advertiser” and assisted Sorge with translating documents). The spies pursued relationships with Senior Japanese politicians, garnering information about Japanese foreign policy. Ozaki was able to gather secret information from Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe. All of this information was funneled back to Sorge in Germany, but running the network with the rising activities of the Nazis became very difficult and the GRO sent him to Japan to run the operation firsthand.
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He had joined the Nazi party and was thus able to pass himself off as a German journalist in Japan, working with the German embassy in the country. He befriended the German Ambassador Eugen Ott, and used his friendship to gain trust within the embassy, from which he gained information from telegraphs and documents (he also seduced Ott’s wife).
The amount and quality of information that Sorge and the spy ring were able to pass to the Soviet Union was staggering. With Germany beating the Soviet Union in the war, Sorge warned of the exact date of the launch of Operation Barbarosa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union (although Soviet Premier Josef Stalin specifically belittled the information). Later, Sorge was able to communicate information that Japan had no plans to join in the German attack on the Soviet Union unless several conditions came into existence to shift matters to the Japanese advantage. Based on this information, the Soviet Union no longer had to worry itself about an attack from Japan and shifted its personnel to engage in the Battle of Moscow where the German army suffered its first tactical loss of the war. Many consider this information to have helped change the course of World War II and the fortunes of the Soviet Union. The ring also alerted the Soviet Union about Japanese attack strategies for the Battle of Leningrad.
Eventually, Japanese intelligence began to fear that a spy network existed and was undermining the war effort. In September 1941, Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu (the Japanese Special Higher Police) arrested one of Miyagi’s associates. The associate identified Miyagi as a spy, leading to Sorge and Ozaki being surveilled. Having intercepted numerous messages, Ozaki became a clear suspect and was arrested on October 14, 1941 and Sorge and Clausen four days later. Because of his German credentials, the Japanese eventually thought him to be a German agent. Eventually, they realized that he was working for the Soviets. Sorge, even under torture, denied being a Soviet agent and the Soviet Union denied knowing him as well, even when he was offered in a trade for a captured Japanese spy. Sorge was convicted of espionage and hanged on November 7, 1944 as was Hotsumi. Clausen was found guilty and given a life sentence while his wife Anna was sentenced to seven years. At the end of the war, the United Stated released them from prison and they eventually returned to Germany. Vukelic was sentenced to life imprisonment and died the following winter on January 15, 1945. Miyagi died in custody during his trial in 1943.
Often, it is posited that the downfall of the ring came about because of Stalin’s embarrassment over having not believed Sorge’s warnings about Operation Barbarosa. He was denounced by Stalin as a double-agent and thus the Soviet Union did little to help its spies when they were caught. In fact, Sorge and his comrades were unknown to most in the Soviet Union until 1964 when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev saw a French film about the spy ring (“Qui êtes-vous Monsieur Sorge?” directed by Yves Ciampi). Sorge was soon-after named a “Hero of the Soviet Union,” the highest honor awarded by the nation, and Sorge and Vukelic’s families were each awarded the equivalent of 1.5 million yen. Ozaki and Miyagi were posthumously awarded “the Order of the Patriotic War.”
History has viewed Sorge and his work very favorably. He is considered by most as the greatest Soviet spy and accorded accolades by some of the most prominent people involved in the war or clandestine activities. Said Douglas MacArthur, General fo the U.S. Army “[His was] a devastating example of a brilliant success of espionage.” Kim Philby said “his work was impeccable,” and writers Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy said, respectively, “Sorge was the man whom I regard as the most formidable spy in history” and “Richard Sorge was the best spy of all time.”