Japan History Lab

Sorge: The Spy In Their Midst

By: Dan Hitchen

In the annals of history, there has rarely (if ever) existed a spy of the same calibre as Richard Sorge. Sorge is a legend in the world of espionage because of the quantity and quality of the intelligence he passed on to the Soviet government. Sorge, with his primary Japanese contact Ozaki Hotsumi, was the head of a spy ring in Japan from 1933 until 1941. Sorge’s arrest in October of that year stunned all who knew him, most of all his friends at the German embassy who saw him as the jovial, alcoholic, womanizing intellectual he demonstrated himself to be. With his arrest came a subsequent halt of information to the Soviet Union, but the damage had already been done. Much of Sorge’s information had a resonating impact on the rest of the war, ultimately providing a noteworthy contribution to the total victory over Axis forces in 1945.

Like most authoritarian regimes, the Japanese government was acutely paranoid of subversive activities, and police organizations, such as the notorious Kempeitai and the Tokkō (Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu), were resolute in their search for foreign agents and their accomplices. With that in mind, it is worth exploring how Richard Sorge and his group spent eight years successfully spying on a government that was actively looking for them. The key to Sorge’s success rested on his uncanny ability to manipulate and charm those around him while masterfully coordinating the various intrigues of a multitude of informants from all levels of government. In addition, and most glaringly, it is important to examine just what kinds of information Sorge was able to extract from his contacts and how he used that information to influence events throughout the Second World War.

However, the story of Richard Sorge does not begin in 1933. He was born in Baku, in modern-day Azerbaijan, on October 4, 1895. His father was a German engineer working in the oilfields, and when Sorge was eleven years old the family returned to Germany. When the First World War erupted, Sorge patriotically joined the army and saw action on both the Western and Eastern fronts, wounded on each occasion. As the war progressed, however, the horror and disenchantment it festered within him influenced young Sorge to turn to Communism. Sorge was a natural convert; his great-uncle Friedrich Adolf Sorge, whom he deeply admired, was a contemporary of Marx and Engels, as well as a prominent Communist emigre to the US. With the encouragement of the radically Socialist doctor and nurse who cared for him in a military hospital, Sorge returned to university, finishing with a PhD in Political Science. It was at university, with the Russian Revolution in the background, that Sorge was radicalized and became a card-carrying member of the German Communist Party.

Moving forward to September 1933, and after a considerable period of time spent in the Soviet Union (where he learned tradecraft), Germany (where he built his cover as a legitimate journalist), and China (where he worked for the Soviets aiding the Communists against the Guomindang), Sorge found himself in Tokyo. Recognizing the very capable work he had accomplished in China during the previous three years, the Soviet government sent Sorge to Tokyo to head what later became known as the Sorge Spy Ring. Before leaving, he first returned to Germany to secure assignments from a number of newspapers in order to establish a reason to live in Japan indefinitely. Upon his arrival, Sorge began the delicate task of probing the government for informants, a dangerous proposition in “notoriously spy-conscious” Japan. In order to avoid suspicion during his search, Sorge stayed clear of both the Soviet embassy and the underground Japanese Communist Party (it is worth mentioning that this separation from his Soviet handlers and the Japanese left wing is one of the reasons Sorge was so successful in the future).

By May 1934, Sorge had established a spy ring with a number of Soviet agents in his charge, a safe house from which he could make radio transmissions to Moscow and develop microfilm, and couriers to deliver the microfilm to the Soviet embassy. Though it was a sophisticated enterprise, the Sorge Spy Ring was useless without a high-level government informant, which is where Ozaki Hotsumi enters the picture. An acquaintance of Sorge’s from his days in China and a secret Communist agent, Ozaki was a trusted advisor (due to his expertise on Chinese affairs) to Prime Minister Konoe. Through Ozaki, Sorge was finally capable of gaining concrete military intelligence and accessing top level government policy, allowing him to more effectively alert the Soviet Union to outside aggression. Sorge was now in command of one of the most efficient espionage units in history, having infiltrated all levels of a regime in pursuit of a fifth column, having done so without arousing meaningful suspicion, and all the while maintaining his ability to do so indefinitely.

It was his ability to do so indefinitely that became one of Sorge’s most spectacular achievements. Despite the Japanese being especially suspicious of foreigners, Sorge rented a house in a cramped residential area across the street from a police station, from which the inside of his house was clearly visible. Sorge shrewdly assumed that he was under constant surveillance by the authorities, and accordingly kept to a strict daily routine; he rose at five every morning, exercised, read the paper, took an hour’s nap after lunch, then went to work. Following work, he would head to the German embassy and then usually to a bar to drink copiously with the friends, especially Lt. Colonel (later ambassador) Eugen Ott, he made there upon his arrival in Tokyo. Sorge was viewed by his German compatriots as a loyal Nazi, an astute observer of international affairs, and a keen liaison between German and Japanese officials. That the German embassy saw Sorge as such a reliable asset played directly into Sorge’s hands, as it gave him “free run of the embassy.” It was not with the slightest difficulty that Sorge was from then on able to sort through wastebaskets, to peruse and photograph secret files, or to literally have documents delivered to him in the embassy’s conference room. The immeasurable trust placed in him by German officials, in conjunction with his deliberately repetitive daily routine, is what allowed Richard Sorge to survive for so long as a secret spymaster.

With a solid cover and an extraordinary team, the Sorge Spy Ring’s activities went into full swing. Initially the group’s mission was to discover any change in the Japanese government’s policy towards the Soviet Union as well as to detect any aggression from the Japanese military towards the Soviet Far East. Later, as the Wehrmacht drew ever closer to the Soviet frontier, the ring’s attention would turn towards intercepting intelligence on European affairs as well. Sorge’s broadcasts were received mostly without alarm in Moscow, having consisted largely of mundane check-ins and minor reports on Japanese activities. On a number of occasions however, Sorge’s intel would or, tragically in one case, could have proven decisive had it been acceptable to Stalin. Three such occasions are worth discussing for these reasons: the Soviet-Japanese border conflict of May-September 1939, the lead-up to Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, and the prelude to the Battle of Moscow in October 1941.

The Soviet-Japanese border conflicts (sometimes referred to as the Nomonhan Incident) arose at a time when the Japanese military was deciding what direction it wished to expand the Empire in. A long-popular goal had been to establish Japanese hegemony in Siberia, and so the army began probing the Soviet positions along the border for weaknesses. Unfortunately for the Japanese, Sorge was able to send their troop movements to Moscow, and as a consequence the Japanese were decisively defeated by the Red Army. Sorge further conveyed that the Japanese did not intend to follow up their defeat with an escalation into full-scale war against the Russians, and so the Russians “conducted themselves accordingly,” averting another devastating war in the Far East. However, an even greater consequence of Sorge’s influence at Nomonhan was that it convinced the Japanese that the road to empire did not lead north through Siberia, but south through the European and American colonies in Southeast Asia and east through the Pacific Ocean.

Not all of Sorge’s findings were heeded though, and in June 1941 the ignorance resulting from one such instance manifested itself in the most apocalyptic conflict in human history. The Tokyo ring had come across compelling evidence that Hitler would invade the Soviet Union, evidence which the top Red Army commanders believed to be the truth. Sorge already believed a Russo-German War to be inevitable, and by May 1941 his suspicions were confirmed for him by senior German officials sent to advise the ambassador on wartime precautions. Sorge even set the date for the German invasion as “June 20 [with perhaps] two or three days delay.” Despite the veracity of his claims, and endorsement from the Red Army high command, Sorge’s intel was ruthlessly dismissed by Stalin, who referred to him as a “bastard who’s set up factories and brothels . . .” Had Stalin listened to his generals’ pleas, history may have taken a different course, but as a result of his stubbornness millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians paid the price during Wehrmacht’s onslaught towards Moscow.

In spite of the immense calamity now facing the Soviet regime, Sorge had one final coup to carry out. With the German Army nearing Moscow, and the Red Army lacking in manpower, the Soviets were searching desperately for a solution. That solution lay in the Far East, where they had stationed a large, well-trained and well-equipped army to defend against a Japanese attack. But, without reassurance that the Japanese would not attack, the Russians could do nothing to help themselves. However, the Sorge ring had, by October 4, received definitive proof that the Japanese had no plans to attack the USSR unless the most impossibly favourable conditions were met (ie: that the Kwantung Army outnumber the Soviets three to one and that there be a civil war in Siberia). With the firm knowledge that the Japanese would not attack them, the Red Army secretly transferred 400,000 of their finest troops westward to defend Moscow. This action proved decisive in halting the German advance before the onset of winter, giving the Soviet Union much-needed time to regroup and organize a series of counter-attacks. Though it did not mark the beginning of the end for the Nazis, the Russian victory at Moscow helped rally the Soviet people and prevented the total collapse of the USSR, which had far-reaching effects on the rest of the war as well as the twentieth century.

Two weeks after transmitting his fateful report, Sorge was arrested in Tokyo on espionage charges. Tokkō detectives had suspected for some time that there was a cell working in Tokyo. On October 10, the Tokkō cleverly extracted a damning statement from Kitabayashi Tomo, a suspected Communist spy. Detectives duped Kitabayashi into revealing more about the Sorge contact she had accidentally named during her interrogation; when she mentioned him, piquing their interest, the detectives accused her of being a liar on the [false] basis that they had conflicting statements from the man. Upon discovering his location, they arrested the man in question, Miyagi Yotoku, and tortured him relentlessly until he finally gave up details of the group’s activities, learning of both Ozaki and Sorge in the process. Hardly a week after first hearing of the spy ring, the Tokkō arrested Sorge at his home. Sorge spent the next three years locked up at the notorious Sugamo Prison in Tokyo awaiting his fate. On the morning of November 7, 1944, Richard Sorge was hanged in the Sugamo Prison courtyard, where his accomplice Ozaki had suffered the same fate earlier in the day (incidentally becoming the sole Japanese citizen executed for treason during the war).

Though he ended up losing his life in the process, Richard Sorge has gone down in history as one of the greatest spies of all time, even serving as one of the primary inspirations for James Bond. Despite their feverish efforts to discover individuals like Sorge and Ozaki, the police were unable to do so for a long time. Only when chance landed in their laps were the Tokkō finally able to unravel the labyrinthian complexity of his spy ring. Sorge’s outgoing, playboy charisma disguised the machinations of a cunning agent and allowed him to avoid discovery for the better part of a decade while influencing events far beyond his lifetime.


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  • Sebag Montefiore, Simon. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.
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  • Willoughby, Charles A. Sorge: Soviet Master Spy. London: William Kimber, 1952.