Photo/IllutrationFrom right, Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, Ambassador to Germany Hiroshi Oshima, German Field Marshal Wilhelm Kaitel, German Major General Paul von Hase and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on March 27, 1941, review troops along a street outside Anhalter Station in Berlin decorated alternately with Hinomaru flags and Hakenkreuz flags. Matsuoka was to sign the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact in Moscow on his way back from here to Japan. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

CHIGASAKI, Kanagawa Prefecture--Just by chance, a scholar studying wartime political history moved to a home near a man who had been ambassador to Nazi Germany and influenced Japanese policy during World War II.

Masaki Miyake, now an 84-year-old professor emeritus of the history of international politics and diplomacy at Meiji University, relocated to this seaside city half a century ago and was researching the Tripartite Pact of 1940 between Japan, Germany and Italy. The accord became a major turning point in Japan’s path toward war against the United States.

One of his neighbors was Hiroshi Oshima, who started his career in the Imperial Japanese Army, served as a military attache and eventually became ambassador to Nazi Germany.

Oshima formed close ties with Nazi leaders, and his wire from Berlin, with a passage saying, “Adolf Hitler has spoken to this ambassador,” had a major impact on Japan’s policymaking.

Following Japan’s 1945 defeat in World War II, Oshima was prosecuted as a Class-A war criminal at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. He was convicted of war crimes and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

After being paroled in 1955, he lived in Chigasaki.

When Miyake visited him, Oshima agreed to give his accounts, with one proviso.

“I am a person with a record of failure,” Miyake quoted Oshima as saying. “Anything I am going to say could be taken as an excuse. So please make sure that what I am going to tell you will be kept between you and me.”

As Miyake continued his visits, Oshima agreed to be recorded.

Miyake has carefully kept those tapes to this day. After Oshima died, his widow granted Miyake full discretion over what to do with the recordings, but Miyake said he was hesitant to reveal the content.

An Asahi Shimbun reporter was recently given the opportunity to listen to more than 10 hours of interviews on the audiotapes. They were recorded in 1973, when Oshima was 87 and had only two more years to live.

ACCOUNTS OF GERMAN-SOVIET WAR

Among the highlights are accounts of the German-Soviet War. Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, despite a nonaggression pact signed in 1939.

“Hitler underrated the military power of the Soviets,” Oshima is recorded as saying. “The Soviet troops that invaded Finland in 1939 had quite a hard time of it. Hitler saw that, and he thought little of their war potential.”

Oshima said he had an opportunity to tour the Eastern Front soon after the war broke out.

“We tested Soviet artillery, which we had captured, and found it had a high accuracy of fire,” Oshima said. “The soldiers were also well-trained. That took me by surprise because I also believed the Soviet troops were weak.”

Oshima was asked rhetorically if Germany was certain to lose the war with the Soviet Union.

He said he believed the outcome could have been different if, from a purely military perspective, Germany’s war potential had been focused on attacking Moscow.

Hitler decided against doing so because he had a political desire to acquire oil from the Caucasus region, Oshima said.

The former ambassador was also asked why Germany attacked the Soviet Union in the first place.

“Russia was Germany’s longtime enemy,” Oshima said. “Hitler was consistent about that. To make Germany stronger, however, there was a need to undermine the Treaty of Versailles, so Britain emerged as the initial enemy.”

Oshima’s father, Kenichi, is known for having introduced German military systems into Japan. Oshima studied German from early childhood under Kenichi, who went on to serve as minister of war. The recordings of Oshima’s accounts contain many German words and phrases.

Oshima was posted to Berlin in 1934 as a military attache before being promoted to ambassador in 1938. He resigned in 1939 but was reappointed to the post following the formation of the Tripartite Pact in 1940. He remained ambassador through 1945.

When asked if he knew about the Holocaust, Oshima said: “There were rumors about it, but I never knew things were proceeding on such a large scale. Hitler, after all, had an eccentric character. Worldly people could never understand him.”

Oshima frequently refers to Hitler in the recordings. He says the fuehrer was “quick to pick up on things,” was a “great reader,” was “eager to ask others for their views,” and had a “very inquisitive mind.”

Oshima also recalled his duties as ambassador.

During the 1939 Japan-Soviet Battle of Khalkhin Gol, known as the Nomonhan Incident in Japan, Tokyo instructed Oshima to ask Germany for arbitration.

“I had only been told that Japan was winning, so I was not quite convinced by this ‘arbitration’ stuff, but I did ask Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister,” Oshima said. “Ribbentrop later complained to me, saying that he did convey the message to Josef Stalin but was put to shame by the Soviet leader, who said: ‘We are on the winning side. We won’t be the first to cease fire.’”

After the Japan-Germany-Italy Tripartite Pact was formed, Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka visited Europe in 1941 and signed the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact. At the time, however, Germany was preparing to attack the Soviet Union.

Both Oshima and Ribbentrop tried in vain to talk Matsuoka out of signing the pact with the Soviets, which would put Germany at a disadvantage.

“Matsuoka did not believe there was momentum for a German-Soviet war,” Oshima said.

‘JAPAN’S BIGGEST MISTAKE’

Oshima pointed out the Lugouqiao (Marco Polo Bridge) Incident of 1937, which triggered the Second Sino-Japanese War, was Japan’s “biggest mistake,” although he admitted to having been partly responsible for the development.

“Japan opened a war against China, but (I just don’t see) why it did such a thing,” Oshima said. “Hitler was very likely to do something. The most important thing for Japan was not to stir things up. But Japan’s eyesight fell short of reaching Europe.”

Those remarks betray his regret that Japan might have had different options at the outbreak of the German-Soviet War if there was no Second Sino-Japanese War.

Oshima also said the war was the result of Japan’s loss of respect for China.

The Vietnam War was still going on when the interviews were recorded.

“The United States thought it could walk over an enemy because it’s such a big power,” Oshima said. “It thought Vietnam was an easy opponent. It did the same thing that Japan had done.”

Miyake compared Oshima’s life to that of a recluse. Oshima had been asked to run in elections, but he firmly declined, saying, “I misled my nation, so I am not qualified to take up public office.”

Miyake said Oshima’s words helped to shape his scholarly works, including a 1975 book about the Japan-Germany-Italy Tripartite Pact. But he never directly quoted Oshima’s remarks.

He said of the recordings: “He still wanted to say something. It looks like Oshima’s last will and testament.”