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Japanese soldiers with the Viet Minh

[This subject has fascinated me ever since I read reports that the Japanese genius and war criminal Colonel Tsuji Masanobu had spent his last years in Vietnam, helping defeat the Americans. At last someone has done serious research into the subject. As a French scholar, using French archives, Christopher Goscha concentrated on the years 1945-1950, and there is of course no proof that any of the individuals he mentions were still serving with the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong during the "American War." What follows is condensed, with Prof. Goscha's permission, from his article "Belated Asian Allies," which appears in A Companion to the Vietnam War, edited by Young & Buzzanco and published by Blackwell in 2002. -- Dan Ford]

Belated Asian Allies

Goscha estimates that perhaps 5,000 Japanese stayed behind in Vietnam in the fall of 1945. (The translator renders their status as "deserters," but I don't think that's honest. How can you desert from an army that has surrendered?) Famously able to subordinate the means to the end, the Communists naturally put them to use in their war against the French. As Goscha points out, the Viet Minh had very little experience in warfare or government, as opposed to guerilla resistance of the sort they had used against the occupying Japanese. They would have been glad of the expertise available in the left-behind Japanese population, both military and civilian.

Vietnam was divided at the 16th parallel by the victorious Allies, with the Chinese occupying the north and the British occupying the south. The Chinese gave the Viet Minh considerable freedom of action, while the British brought in French troops to relieve them of the burden of occupation; the French of course moved quickly to put down any independence movement.

The first Japanese aid came in the form of arms: in the north, Vo Nguyen Giap equipped his troops with French weapons that the Japanese had issued to its puppet Indochinese Guard. Japanese weapons made their way into the black market soon after the surrender. It wasn't long before Japanese soldiers and officers also became available: there was no immediate way home for these men, even if they wanted to go. They hadn't been defeated in the field; they couldn't understand why the Emperor had ended the war; they had nothing to greet them at home but shame and desolation. Many had Vietnamese wives or girlfriends. When the war ended, they thought of themselves in the tradition of the ronin or leaderless samurai warriors. Like the ronin, they simply gravitated toward whatever employer was willing to hire them.

And the Viet Minh wanted them, the officers and NCOs particularly, as training cadres. In September 1945, there were about 50,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians in northern Vietnam; by December 1946, about 32,000 had been repatriated and 3,000 escaped to the island of Hainan, leaving 15,000 still in the country. Perhaps a third of these, Goscha believes, may have joined the Viet Minh as cadre, combat troops, or civilian experts. In the British-occupied south, with the French returning and pressing the Viet Minh hard, a much larger proportion of the Japanese garrison was repatriated; Goscha estimates that only a few thousand remained in the summer of 1946, and that perhaps only a few hundred actually joined the Communist forces. (Apparently a larger number simply melted into the population as farmers and shop-keepers.)

In Thai Nguyen province, the Japanese apparently ran an arms factory. In Hanoi, a western-educated Japanese scholar named Kiyoshi Komatsu directed the Viet Minh's "International Committee for the Aid and Support of the Government of the DRV." In Quang Ngai, a Viet Minh officers' school had six Japanese officers on the faculty; in southern Trung Bo province, 36 out of 50 military instructors were Japanese. Major Ishii Takuo, a young officer of the 55th Division in Burma, deserted in Cambodia in December 1945 with several comrades and made his way to Vietnam, where he became a colonel in the Viet Minh, provisional head of the Quang Ngai military academy, and later "chief advisor" to Communist guerrillas in the south. Some specialists, including doctors and ordnance experts, were forced to work for the Viet Minh against their will. The French identified eleven Japanese nurses and two doctors working for the Viet Minh in northern Vietnam in 1951.

"One of the results of the Japanese presence in the Viet Minh army was an increase in French losses at the beginning of the war," Goscha writes. During the first battles in the north, Japanese soldiers served in the front lines. In Hue in 1947, the French reported battling a Japanese assault force of 150 men. Also in 1947, Colonel Ishii helped set up an ambush that killed upwards of 70 French soldiers.

Koshiro Iwai led Vietnamese units into battle and led commando raids behind French lines; by 1949 he was a Viet Minh battalion deputy commander. Later he became a planner for the 174th Regiment, helping the Viet Minh to employ their newly acquired Chinese cannon.

In 1951, the Viet Minh began to repatriate their Japanese (and European) helpers via China and Eastern Europe. After the Geneva Accords of 1954, which divided Vietnam into two halves, 71 Japanese left the Viet Minh and went home, and others returned over the years. "A handful would remain in Vietnam well into the 1970s," Goscha writes. "Others would never return." This doesn't necessarily mean they helped in the war against the Americans; more likely, these stay-behinds had simply gone native.

Supporting information

[Here's another discussion of the same question, by George Moore, which appeared on the moderated Vietnam War newsgroup several years ago. -- DF]

A number of years ago, there was some discussion [here] about the Imperial Japanese soldiers who, in 1945 and 1946, volunteered to serve with the Viet Minh in exchange for protection from World War II era Allied war crime tribunals. Cecil B Currey's new book Victory At Any Cost: The Genius of Vietnam's General Vo Nguyen Giap reviews the subject. Below are some notes about it for any student who wants to look into it. Most critically, it should be easy these days to get a copy of the original American DIA report about it. See below. With a copy of that report in hand, a most interesting article could be written about a long forgotten subject.

See page 125, where it is a question of Viet Minh repression of opposition groups just after the Chinese Kuomintang armies pulled out of Hanoi and northern Vietnam in June of 1946:

"In this activity, Giap had the help not only of his regular Viet Minh cadres but of another special unit as well. In 1945, Giap had enlisted 1,500 fanatically "antiwhite" Japanese military personnel who offered their services to him following Japan's surrender to the Allies. For them it was more attractive than the idea of returning to a defeated and occupied homeland. These soldiers were led by 230 noncommissioned officers and forty-seven gendarmes of the once dreaded Japanese Kempetai, all of whom were wanted for questioning by the Allies on charges of suspected war crimes. The entire group was commanded by Colonel Mukayama from the general staff of the 38th Imperial Army. Giap arranged for them all to receive Vietnamese citizenship and false identification papers. Mukayama became one of Giap's firm supporters and willingly served him when called upon, as he was in this instance, to attack opponents of the Viet Minh regime."

Unfortunately, the footnote to this text points only to the words "DIA Document". It does not matter however, because there is the name Colonel Mukayama. A search of old DIA documents for this name will certainly yield the original DIA report on the subject. It would have been written in 1945 or 1946.

On page 166 of this same book [Curry's book] is the note that "Colonel Mukayama was killed in December of 1947 at Cho Chu during a battle with French paratroopers."

A quick search of the index of the classic 1952 book from Philippe Devillers Histoire du Vietnam de 1940 a 1952 yields the same name Mukaiyama. Devillers has him listed as a Lieutenant Colonel. See page 282. "Pendant tout le printemps et l'ete (1946), les preparatifs dans les "chien khu" sont intensifies. Des technicians et des specialistes japonais pretent leur concours au commandement viet-minh comme conseillers techniques adjoints aux chefs ou comme instructeurs. Parmi les officiers nippons fanatiquement anti-blancs, venus apres la capitulation offrir leurs services au gouvernement vietnamien, figurait par exemple le lieutenant-colonel Mukaiyama, de l'Etat-Major de la 38e armee."

A quick translation of the above: "In the spring and summer (1946), preparations in the "chien khu" intensified. Japanese technicians and specialists offered their services to the Viet Minh as technical consultants and as instructors. In this group of fanatically anti white Japanese officers who offered their services to the Viet Minh government after the capitulation in Tokyo, was, for example, Lieutenant Colonel Mukaiyama, from the General Staff of the Imperial Japanese 38th Army." End translation.

Another angle on the subject is in a relatively new book by Professor [Jacques] Valette: La Guerre d'Indochine, 1945-1954. See page 27, where he reviews the role of the Japanese: "Des deserteurs japonais se sont mis au service du Viet-minh, beaucoup venant de la Kempetai. Les service francais ont eu quelque tendance a en gonfler les effectifs: `armee de 10,00 hommes" pres de Hue, `7,000 Japonais' entre Nam Dinh et Quinhon, au Tonkin, `7,000 repartis surtout dans les provinces de Backan, Vietri et Lang-son'. Au printemps 1946, ils revisent leur estimation: 2,000 Japonais dans les groupes armes du Viet-minh. Quant aux Chinois, ils etaient indifferents au probleme; des prisonniers furent embauches par eux, habilles en civil parce que techniciens."

A quick translation of the above: "Japanese deserters put themselves at the service of the Viet Minh, many of them coming from the Kempetai. The French services tended to over estimate their numbers: `army of 10,000 Japanese' near Hue, '7,000 Japanese' between Nam Dinh and Quinhon, in Tonkin, `7,000 above all in the provinces of Backan, Vietri and Lang Son'. In the spring of 1946, the French services revised their estimate: 2,000 Japanese were serving in armed Viet Minh groups. As for the Chinese, they were indifferent to the problem; their Japanese prisoners were hired and given civilian clothing because of their technical capabilities." End translation.

Needless to say, Backan, usually spelled Bac Kan or Bac Can, Vietri and Lang Son were Viet Minh controlled areas at the time. It was the first Viet Minh "liberated" zone.

The footnote for this text reads: "Note about the situation in the Hue region. Non dated and not signed - established for the services of the DGER in 1946. Private archives."

What this means is that the note is now in the possession of Professor Valette. As of 1994, he was a Professor at the University of Poitiers in France and the President of the Indochinese War Commission at the Institute of Contemporary Conflicts. He is also the author of a book on Japanese French relations in Vietnam between 1940 and 1945.

DGER is the acronym for one of the World War II era military intelligence services, Direction des Etudes et de la Recherche, which was later combined into the SDECE. Some explanation about it is on the web page. Most of their old Indochina related documents are available to the public at the main French Indochina archive in Aix-en-Provence in southern France. This archive, long used by many students, now has a web page.