In December 1940, three months after Japan, Germany and Italy signed their Second World War “Tripartite Pact” alliance, a convoy of Japanese military leaders traveled to Berlin to learn from their new allies.
The group was led by General Tomoyuki Yamashita, a seasoned militarist who had spent his entire adult life waging war. Now climbing into the ranks of the Imperial Japanese Army, Yamashita’s ascent had barely begun. In the space of a few years, he would become famous worldwide as the “Malaysian Tiger”: a fierce military leader and the mastermind behind the brutal Japanese conquest of Singapore.
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Yamashita and the Führer did not get along.
A few weeks after his arrival in Germany, Yamashita was introduced to Adolf Hitler, the Nazi leader. Each had their own purpose for the meeting. Hitler intended to pressure the Japanese army to declare war on Great Britain and the United States. However, faced with the wrath of Russia and the current costs of Japan’s war against China, Yamashita has no interest. Instead, he hoped to inspect German military techniques and improve his own prospects for war in Japan. Despite Hitler’s warm promises of an open exchange of information, the Japanese delegation’s questions about radars and other equipment were rejected by senior Nazi officials. Instead, the Japanese were treated to a sort of tour of the most successful German military sites in the occupied territories.
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In private, Yamashita was disappointed with the Führer. “He can be a great speaker on a platform,” he told staff, “but standing behind his desk listening, he looks a lot more like a clerk.” Nevertheless, he played the relationship publicly, declaring to the Berlin correspondent Asahi newspaper that Hitler had been deeply influenced by Japan’s military might since childhood. “Hitler stressed that in the coming era, the interests of Japan and Germany would be identical because the two have common spiritual foundations,” he said. “Hitler and Mussolini are united [with Japan] not of any consideration of interest but of a deep spiritual understanding. “
Germany and Japan had a mutual interest in gold.
Understanding may have been partly spiritual, but it was also financial. In 1938, the Third Reich plundered Europe’s gold reserves, giving Germany up to 100 tonnes of hard currency. In the years that followed, the Nazis seized gold from central banks in Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Netherlands, prompting the United Kingdom to ship its gold to Ottawa for keep it. Japan, meanwhile, appears to have plundered the rich gold resources of northeast China, as well as other Asian territories, giving rise to later stories about vast hordes of treasures hidden by Yamashita in the Philippines.
As the conflict continued and Germany’s resources began to run out, Japan reached out: in 1944, the Japanese submarine I-52 was sunk by Allied forces. It was believed that his mission was to deliver more than two tonnes of gold, in addition to opium, metal and other raw materials, to the Nazi war machine.
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An initially difficult relationship between Yamashita and Hitler seems to have become more cordial over time. Speaking to journalists in June 1941, six months after meeting Hitler, Yamashita said that the spirits of Nazism and Japan were so similar that they amounted to “almost a surprising coincidence”. In 1942, the Japanese authorities clashed over the advisability of continuing the Japanese conquests beyond their efforts in the Netherlands, India and Burma. Yamashita was among those who were swayed by Hitler’s arguments about the conquest of India and the supply of East and South Africa to Japan. He pushed for further expansion, whatever the risk.
But Yamashita’s crusade for more territory at any cost would ultimately be his loss. In the last months of 1945, he was sentenced to death for war crimes before a US military court. In February 1946, he walked the 13 steps to the gallows, taking with him all the secrets of hidden gold.
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