JPRI Critique Volume 25 Number 2 (May 2019)
Chalmers Johnson and Ozaki Hotsumi: A Life-Long Intellectual Love Affair
Sheila K. Johnson


An Instance of Treason: Ozaki Hotsumi and the Sorge Spy Ring was my husband’s second book, written immediately after he had published his dissertation, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945. It is no accident that these two books, first published by Stanford University Press in 1962 and 1964, were closely related in time and also in my husband’s mind. In Peasant Nationalism he argued that Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 largely as a result of having organized the peasantry in North China to resist the depredations of the Japanese Army.

This dissertation was based on Japanese governmental archives detailing what their soldiers were doing and what sort of resistance they were encountering. However, when he was in Tokyo in 1961 completing that research, Chal also came across a book that presented a different Japanese wartime view. A used-book seller, Murata Shiro, who knew of my husband’s interest in wartime China, handed him a copy of Gendai Shina Ron, published by Iwanami in 1939. Chal read it and commented to Murata that it was amazing such liberal views could have been published in Japan during the midst of the “China Incident.” It was only then that Murata told him the author, Ozaki Hotsumi, was not only a liberal Asahi journalist during the 1930s, based in Shanghai from November of 1928 until February 1932, but he had also been a member of the Sorge spy ring who had been hanged by the Japanese government in late 1944. Murata sold him more copies of Ozaki’s writings, including Ozaki’s famous letters to his wife from prison, published after the war as Aijo wa furu hoshi no gotoku, and so began Chal’s fifty-year fascination with a Japanese intellectual who might have been his alter-ego.

It should be recalled that the years when Chal and I were students together at Berkeley from 1956 until 1961 were also the years when Eisenhower was president and the anti-Communist witch-hunts initiated by Joseph McCarthy were still ongoing. In May of 1960 we both marched in front of San Francisco City Hall against the House Un-American Activities Committee and also protested against the death penalty in the case of Caryl Chessman. Chal’s dissertation, when it was published, would place him on the political left, since he did not believe that traitors in the U.S. had “lost China” or that Chiang Kai-shek should or could have won the Civil War. His book about Ozaki drew a howl of outrage from General Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s Chief of Intelligence during the Japanese Occupation, who regarded Ozaki as a Communist and a traitor. This struck us as extremely ironic, since Ozaki was opposed to the very same Japanese government the U.S. was at war with at the time.

When Chal began teaching at Berkeley in the fall of 1962 his views on China were similar to Ozaki’s. One of his first students was ‘Jack’ (John Stewart) Service, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who had also been McCarthyized as a traitor. Chal and I became a close friends of Jack and his wife Carolyn, and through them we met other ‘old China hands’ such as Colonel Dave Barrett, Ed and Mary Rice, Robert Rinden, and Phil Sprouse. Chal admired them all as men who had dared to speak truth to power in the waning days of the war in the Pacific.

It was as a “China specialist” that Chal was invited, in November of 1968, to become a consultant to the Board of National Estimates of the CIA. Call it, if you will, a position similar to that of Ozaki when he was part of the Showa Kenkyu Kai. The Board met twice a year January and June at Camp Peary, Virginia, a then secret CIA training base. Consultants would read the CIA’s national estimates and offer their own opinions and analyses. In the evenings some of the older consultants would gather to drink whiskey and play poker, but Chal spent the time in the CIA’s library where he had unlimited access (because of his high security clearances) to all sorts of internal CIA reports. It was in one of those, then classified, reports about the CIA’s role in ousting Mossadeq in Iran that he first came across the term “blowback.” Although Chal officially remained a consultant until September, 1977, the Board of National Estimates actually became defunct in 1973 when William Colby became head of the CIA.

However, between 1969 and 1973, Chal not only traveled to Virginia twice a year; he frequently stayed an extra few days to visit the SCAP Archives, then (and still) housed at the National Records Center in Suitland, Maryland. He was researching another book about Japan involving a mysterious train wreck that occurred during the U.S. occupation on August 17, 1949, in Fukushima. Published in 1972, Conspiracy at Matsukawa, is an account of the train-wreck, which was blamed on sabotage by Japanese railroad workers, although it may instead have been caused by American intelligence operatives trying to curb union activism. Chal must have felt himself to be somewhat like Ozaki, collaborating with his government on the one hand, but at the same time learning about and investigating what crimes it might have committed in the past.

Chal was a life-long fan of George Simenon’s mystery novels—he quotes one in the preface to Conspiracy at Matsukawa—and of John Le Carré’s spy novels. He also identified strongly with the dilemma that Ozaki faced during World War II. If you believe that your country is heading down the wrong path and you’re given an opportunity to do something about it, what would you do? In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg faced a similar problem when he decided to secretly Xerox and make public the Pentagon Papers about the war in Vietnam, and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning in 2010 when he passed classified U.S. government documents to Wikileaks. In both cases this was called treasonous behavior and the perpetrators faced (and in Manning’s case served) a long prison term.

The line between patriotism and treason, and the line between crusading journalism and historical writing is often simply a matter of time. Had Ozaki lived until the end of the war, he might have been declared a hero. Or would he have been thrown in jail as a Communist by the American occupation, which was willing to pardon Kishi? Such questions continued to trouble Chal long after he completed his book about Ozaki. After it was first translated into Japanese in 1966 and published by Kobundo, some of the participants in the story were still alive. Chal met for the first time Ozaki’s younger brother, Ozaki Hotsuki, as well as Sorge’s mistress, Ishii Hanako. We held a luncheon at the Kokusai Bunka Kaikan which was also attended by one of the members of the spy ring, Kawai Teikichi, who presented Chal with a heavily annotated copy of the Japanese translation of his book. He also apologized for not having been “a better spy!”

Throughout the years that followed there was ample reason for Chal to remain interested in Ozaki. Shortly after his book was published, the Soviet Union for the first time acknowledged that Sorge had been a wartime spy and made him “a hero of the Soviet Union.” Other books and articles about the ring followed. However, the most startling development occurred in 1980, when Ito Ritsu—the Communist who had unwittingly betrayed the ring to the Japanese police in 1940, who went missing in 1953 and was thought to have died in China—reappeared in Tokyo. This was the first time Chal seriously offered to update his book, although it was ten years before Stanford Press agreed to bring out a new edition.

By 1990, when Chal’s ‘reprise’ of the Ozaki/Sorge case came out, he was almost 60 and at the end of his academic career. He did what most professors seem to do in their old age: he collected some of his best articles in a volume called Japan: Who Governs, and he devoted himself to editing and published the works of others for what I used to call our Mom-and-Pop think-tank, better known as the Japan Policy Research Institute. However, a 1995 rape-incident in Okinawa and a personal visit there in February of 1996 stirred his sense of outrage and his desire to write not merely as a scholar but also as a critic. He had come full circle back to the days when he used to wonder whether he would have had the same courage of his convictions that Ozaki had.

Of course Chal never shrank from controversy as a scholar. But the “blowback trilogy”—the three books he published between 2000 and 2006: Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis—plus the essays and reviews collected in 2010 as Dismantling the Empire were, in a way, his effort to do what Ozaki tried to do in the 1930s. They both wanted to point out where their governments were going wrong by becoming involved in wars they could not win and creating empires they could not maintain.

I’m very proud to say that An Instance of Treason is the only book my husband ever dedicated to me and that I played a small part by suggesting both the epigraphs and the final passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.


Sheila K. Johnson is an anthropologist and the author of The Japanese through American Eyes (Stanford University Press) and Idle Haven: Community Building Among the Working-Class Retired (University of California Press), along with numerous articles and reviews. She is a co-founder of JPRI, and the widow of its first president, Chalmers Johnson. This essay was first published in Japanese as the introduction to a new translation of An Instance of Treason, published by Iwanami Shoten in 2013.



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