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Documents show gov't tried to control reporting of 1940s Sorge spy incident

A Justice Ministry notice stored at the National Diet Library in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward gives detailed instructions to newspapers about the reporting of the Sorge spy ring incident that was revealed by the Japanese government in 1942. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Internal government documents indicating the Japanese government tried to control media reporting of the "Sorge Incident" in the 1940s involving an international espionage ring centering on Soviet spy Richard Sorge have been discovered, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

An undated picture of Richard Sorge is seen among the documents held by the National Diet Library that cast light on government efforts to control media reporting of the Soviet spy and his international espionage ring. (Mainichi)

The documents indicate efforts by relevant government offices to try to cover up some aspects of the case that ran counter to their interests, and to trivialize the impact of the case by giving detailed instructions to newspapers not to cover the issue as top news. The incident, which was first revealed by the Japanese government in May 1942, showed that Sorge, working undercover as a German embassy adviser, had access to the core of Japan's governing structure and sent top-secret information about Japan to the Soviet Union. A total of 35 people were arrested in the incident, which is said to be the largest espionage case in Japan's modern history.

Experts have emphasized the importance of the newly discovered internal documents, saying that perhaps this is the first time that the government's intervention into the reporting of the incident has been shown in detail.

The documents were left by Taizo Ota (1903-1956), who headed the division 6 of the criminal bureau of the Ministry of Justice that investigated what were considered thought crimes before the end of World War II in Japan. They have been donated to the Modern Japanese Political History Materials Room of the National Diet Library in central Tokyo.

The papers include guidance to the media from the Justice Ministry about the treatment of the incident when the government announced the roundup of the espionage ring on May 16, 1942, while Sorge and others were arrested in October the previous year.

The ministry specifically ordered newspapers not to run the story about the spy ring at the top of their front pages, not to use a headline larger than four-column length, and not to use pictures. It also prohibited the use of information other than that announced by the government, along with any mention of the fact that reporting on the case had been curbed by the government. Although the guidance was issued under the name of the Justice Ministry, opinions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were apparently reflected on the instructions.

Another document titled "Gaimusho hikoshiki iken" (Unofficial opinions of the foreign ministry), states that there should be no mention of the fact that one of the arrested suspects, Kinkazu Saionji, was commissioned to work for the ministry. In one more document titled "Daishin-in kenjikyoku iken" (Opinion of the prosecution bureau of the Supreme Court of Judicature), it was stated, "'Important' in the expression 'important secret items' apparently needs to be deleted." These opinions were reflected in the announcement by the Justice Ministry.

This images shows the article about the Sorge Incident run on Page 2 of the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun on May 17, 1942. The report follows government instructions exactly -- no front-page coverage, the headline depth limited to four-columns, and no picture. (Mainichi)

Kinkazu Saionji was the grandson of Kinmochi Saionji, an elder statesman of prewar Japan and was close to Hotsumi Ozaki, a former Asahi Shimbun reporter who served as an advisor to Fumimaro Konoe, who first became the prime minister in 1937. Ozaki, a Soviet spy, was also arrested in the case and was executed along with Sorge in November 1944.

The Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun, a predecessor of the Mainichi Shimbun, reported on the espionage case on Page 2 under the headline "'Kokusai chohodan' wo kenkyo / Shubosha naigaijin 5 mei kiso" ("International espionage group apprehended / Five Japanese and foreign key plotters indicted). The article completely followed the Justice Ministry guidance. The headline was four columns deep, and no picture was used, and there was no mention of the fact that Kinkazu Saionji, who was among the arrested, was working for the foreign ministry on commission. The Asahi Shimbun gave the case similar coverage. These reports are an indication of the relationship between newspapers and the state at the time.

Sorge Incident expert Tomiya Watabe said the documents are a sign of the serious efforts by government officials to craft the announcement of the spy case. "They (the authorities) had been saying that they had destroyed the left-wing forces, but the case shocked them because spies infiltrated the top echelons (of Japan's power structure)," explained Watabe, adding that those managing state power "seemed to have tried to feel secure by exerting complete control over the media."

The documents have been open to the public at the National Diet Library since the spring of this year.

Naoki Ota, a Sorge Incident specialist and a professor emeritus of Tokai University, commented that the documents perhaps represent the first time that detailed government control of newspapers over the incident's coverage has been revealed. Ota pointed out that Kinkazu Saionji's commission with the foreign ministry was deleted because the ministry wanted to evade responsibility over the case. "The documents clearly indicate and give a warning about the fact that state institutions tend to hide facts in critical occasions," said Ota.

(Japanese original by Hideyuki Tanabe, Cultural News Department)

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