The South Manchuria Railway Company as an Intelligence Organization

The intelligence activities of the South Manchuria Railway Company (SMR) “Research Department” (Chōsabu) are well known in Japan. However, according to recent studies based on comments by retired SMR officials—the memoirs of senior SMR representatives such as Viscount Shinpei Goto (first SMR president) or Yosuke Matsuoka(14th SMR president); recent research on some of the specific intelligence gathering and operational activities of the SMR Mukden Branch Office; and research on the Muslim Movement, which was conducted collaboratively between SMR and the Japanese Imperial Army—it appears that SMR as a whole operated as an intelligence organization from its establishment until the end of World War II. Interestingly, there are positive and negative views and analyses of these recent studies, making it difficult to evaluate the quality or effectiveness of SMR as an intelligence organization. Furthermore, as one retired SMR official predicted in the 1980s, “If Japanese officials would like to establish a full dressed intelligence organization in the future, they will confront the same difficulties that we faced at the SMR.”

There is currently a debate in Japan over how to strengthen the effectiveness of intelligence gathering and organizations, and one can point to many lessons from the history of SMR. This is a summary of a research paper produced in Japanese that describes various elements of SMR’s intelligence gathering and operational activities including historical background, organizational concepts and structures, and the recruitment, training, and promotion system. The paper also compares SMR’s intelligence gathering activities to those of the Kwantung Army and concludes with an overall assessment of SMR including lessons learned with an eye toward the future organization of Japanese intelligence gathering. This study in no way intends to justify Japanese colonial rule of Northeast China, and the views expressed are solely those of the author.

Akihiko Maruya