Ever since the Portuguese arrived in Thailand in 1513 the country has warmly welcomed millions of “farangs.” Almost all have been greeted as honoured guests. However, there was one man who stood out in a totally negative way. Although he was among other ‘uninvited’ visitors at one time, he would become Thailand’s most notorious uninvited guest.
Colonel Tsuji Masanobu arrived in Bangkok in June 1945 on a special mission. The WWII was not going well for the Japanese. In fact, some senior military leaders felt that Thailand might denounce their Japanese ‘comrades’ and join the Allies on what was quickly becoming the winning side. Tsuji’s task was to somehow disarm 150,000 Thai army and police force personnel being held in ‘check’ by only 10,000 Japanese troops. But what made Tsuji’s assignment to such a delicate military task was a repugnant, unsavoury reputation.
By all accounts it was Colonel Tsuji that did the major planning for the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore in 1941. The rapid, unexpected success against superior British forces in the campaign established his reputation as a brilliant staff officer. But his uneven staff work on Guadalcanal in 1943 led to several major Japanese military blunders and the Japanese military’s ultimate withdrawal from the island in a major defeat.
But also this was the start of his deep involvement in wartime atrocities. Tsuji played a significant role in the massacre of Chinese civilians in Singapore, the brutality and summary executions of American POWs during the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and later executions of captured civilian officials. Tsuji committed more atrocities against civilians in China. Not even his poor Japanese military colleagues were spared. He once burned down a geisha house in anger at the moral laxities of the officers inside.
All his superior officers were anxious to transfer him after his repeated, exasperating and outspoken insubordination. He eventually appeared in every part of Japanese captured territory. But he always managed to avoid outright dismissal or severe punishment due to several high level backers or patrons in Japan’s War Ministry who covered him.
The end of WWII found Bangkok in chaos. Japan had just surrendered to the Allies on 14 August 1945. Although Thailand had been forced to become an ‘ally’ of the Japanese back in December 1941 it was not known exactly what retribution the American and British governments would extract from Thailand’s reluctant wartime participation in the Axis. The Japanese troops were all expected to quickly go ‘into the bag’ (as the British are fond of saying of captured enemy POWs). However, Tsuji decided that was not a good plan for him to be taken prisoner. In fact, he knew his fate would not be a positive one. He was a marked man with a large price on his head. He needed to disappear from Bangkok quickly.
With WWII now officially over Tsuji knew his days were numbered. He removed his uniform on 17 August 1945 and entered the bombed out ruins of Wat Liab which contained a large Japanese ossuary. He donned Buddhist monks’ robes, took the assumed name of Aoki Norinbu, and hid inside the vault. But he would not remain an uninvited guest of Thailand for long. By the middle of September British troops finally entered Thailand to assume control of the country. They had heard rumours that Tsuji was disguised as a monk and began an extensive search for him. Tsuji also heard about this search through his contacts.
On 29 October he went to Chiang Kai Shek’s Fascist Blue Shirt Society on Surawongse Road where he was warmly received. Two days later, disguised as a Chinese merchant, he went to Hua Lamphong Railway Station with two escorts for the trip to Ubon Ratchathani. He crossed the Mekong River in a canoe, passing through Vientiane, then Hanoi and finally arriving at Chungking, temporary headquarters and wartime capital of Chiang Kai Shek’s government. He was finally safe.
He was only able to finally return to Japan in 1949. By then the trials of all the Japanese war criminals was completed. He also managed to avoid the attention of U.S. military occupation forces. Tsuji was elected to the Diet in 1952 and reelected in 1956 in spite of being denounced by a colleague as a war criminal. He wrote a number of self-serving books and articles on his escapades and finally disappeared during the civil war in Laos in 1961. He was never seen again.