Secret societies are often relegated to the world of conspiracy theories and comic books. But they do exist, albeit not as secretly as you’d think. And Japan’s Black Dragon Society is an excellent example of this phenomenon.
By the end of the 19th century, a surge of right-wing nationalist secret societies began to appear in Japan. The country had emerged as a dominant modern power. As a result, many of these societies wanted the government to go a step further and expand territorial assets overseas, notably China and Korea. The Kokuryukai (黒龍会; Amur River Society, also sometimes translated as Black Dragon Society) remains one of the most well-known of these groups.
Black Dragon Society members were fervent employers of Pan-Asianist rhetoric. They professed a belief in “the unity of all Asian peoples”. But this was more of a cover for Japanese imperialist leanings. Initially formed in response to Russia’s overtures into Manchuria, the Kokuryukai inserted themselves into military and political situations both overseas and at home.
Black Dragon Society: Ideological Roots in the GenyoshaUchida suspected Japan and Russia would soon be at war, and with the Genyosha's support, he formed the Kokuryukai to combat the Russian threat. Click To Tweet
Before exploring the Kokuryukai, it’s pertinent to briefly look into the Genyosha (玄洋社; Dark Ocean Society).
Formed in 1881 by Fukuoka-born “Emperor of the Slums” Toyama Mitsuru (頭山満), the Genyosha mostly attracted gangsters and former samurai. They weren’t afraid to employ various intimidation techniques — often violent — to exert influence. Their clientele included manufacturing and mining companies, government officials, and organized crime families.
The Genyosha zealously endorsed Japanese expansionism. To further their agenda, they deployed agents in Korea, China, and Manchuria to stir up pro-Japanese sentiments and survey possible enemy positions.
In 1895 a group of Genyosha agents infiltrated Korea’s Imperial Palace and murdered Empress Myeongseong, long considered an impediment to Japanese expansionism. In 1898 Genyosha members attempted to assassinate foreign minister Okuma Shigenobu with a bomb; he lost a leg as a result.
The 1900 Boxer Rebellion soured straining relations between Japan and Russia, threatening Japan’s interests in Manchuria and Korea. Enter “continental adventurer” (大陸浪人; tairiku ronin) and Genyosha disciple Uchida Ryohei (内田良平). Uchida suspected Japan and Russia would soon be at war, and with the Genyosha’s support, he formed the Kokuryukai to combat the Russian threat. He identified the Amur River, Manchuria’s northern boundary, as the point of no return for Russia; any movement past that boundary would spell war.
Uchida Ryohei and the Birth of the Kokuryukai
Uchida was born in 1873, just a scant five years after the Meiji Restoration. Like Toyama, Uchida hailed from Fukuoka, the closest city to the Asian mainland, and thus a hotbed for nationalist and militaristic discourse. His father was famed jojutsu master Uchida Ryogoro (内田良五郎), and he grew up dabbling in various martial arts, including kendo, judo, and sumo. Uchida’s uncle Hiroaka Kotaro (平岡浩太郎) was a co-founder of the Genyosha and the owner of a successful coal mining business.
Uchida became involved with the Genyosha sometime in the 1890s, joining the offshoot Tenyukyo (天佑侠; “Heavenly Blessed Heroes”). He traveled to Korea in 1894 to assist the peasants in the Donghak Rebellion. After studying Russian at Toyogo University, he traveled to Siberia in 1895, opening a judo school in Vladivostok, which conveniently served as a front for more covert activities. He also paid a visit to St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1897.
In 1901, Uchida formed the Kokuryukai in Tokyo along with 59 other men, including future “Taisho Democracy” figurehead Inukai Tsuyoshi (犬養毅) and prominent people’s rights activist Oi Kentarou (大井憲太郎). Toyama was involved as well, though to what extent remains under debate. Some scholars depict Toyama as either fully involved in the Kokuryukai or only vaguely cognizant of Kokuryukai activity. While Toyama did maintain ties with the Kokuryukai, Uchida was the undisputed leader and instigator behind many Kokuryukai plots.
Black Dragon Society’s Influence on Foreign Policy
The majority of the members hailed from Kyushu, but the Kokuryukai made a point of recruiting nationwide. The organization boasted close to 1000 members by the 1910s and operated a cohesive network that included politicians, diplomats, businessmen, and other secret societies both domestic and foreign. Most of their funding came from affluent businessmen and industrial companies; Hiraoka Kotaro frequently sent funds from his own company to the Kokuryukai.Scholar Eizawa Koji called Uchida Ryohei "the originator of fascism in Japan." Click To Tweet
Many members prided themselves on operating outside the murky world of politics. Without strong political power within, however, the Kokuryukai relied on various propaganda to influence public and political opinions. Uchida wrote various memoranda for bureaucrats and high-ranking military personnel and paid personal visits when he believed he needed to make a stronger impression to drive his point across. The group also published a variety of journals.
But dissemination wasn’t without its challenges. The government banned Kokuryukai’s first effort Kaiho (会報; Bulletin) due to its stance on expansionism (despite many politicians sharing those same Pan-Asianist sentiments). A point was made to distribute the journals in other languages, including classical Chinese and English.
Preparing for the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)
In its infancy, the Kokuryukai had two main goals: prepare for war with Russia, and sway public opinion in favor of this preventative war.
Many of the members supplied maps and possible enemy outposts based on their own experiences on the continent. Uchida, realizing the importance of understanding the enemy’s language, opened a school for Russian and Chinese. Japan’s military lacked the internal resources for espionage and overseas reconnaissance and often relied on the Kokuryukai for help gathering intelligence on Russia. The Kokuryukai even went as far as to purchase two islands off the Korean peninsula on the slight chance battle ensued in northern Korea. The fighting ended up taking place in Manchuria, reducing the islands to husks.
As mentioned earlier, the Kokuryukai’s Kaiho was discontinued due to government pressure. But they soon began printing its successor, Kokuryu (黒龍). Despite its small circulation, the government also banned this journal for its vehement anti-Russian stance. In 1901 Uchida wrote Demise of Russia, which implied Japan would struggle to recover lost ground if they waited for Russia to make the first move. Unsurprisingly, he was forced to cease publication. But a couple of months later he released a more palatable version titled Discourse on Russia.
Not all of their publications faced opposition. The group also published a two-volume biography on renowned samurai Saigo Takamori (西鄕 隆盛), who Pan-Asianists long revered. They produced materials tailored for army officials and diplomats, such as A Guide to Conquering Russia and Kokuryukai’s New Map of Manchuria and Korea. During the Russo-Japanese War, Kokuryukai members frequently took on translation and interpretation jobs for the Imperial Army. Their expertise and experiences abroad proved crucial for military intelligence; how influential, however, is still up for debate.
Handling the “Korea Problem”
Japan eventually forced Russia to forego any plans to claim any territory in East Asia. Following the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the Kokuryukai turned their attention towards Korea. In 1907 Uchida co-sponsored the Iljinhoe, a pro-Japanese political party that believed a union with Japan would jumpstart Korea’s economy. Japan annexed Korea in 1910, but many Kokuryukai members were unhappy with the unequal treaty. They had hoped for a more balanced union between the two countries.
The problem was set aside in light of a new enemy: leftist political beliefs on the home front.
Domestic Intervention and Attacking Taisho DemocracyThe Taisho democracy's advocacy of a "cooperative foreign policy" (協調外交; kyocho gaiko) rankled the right-wing nationalists who believed Japan was destined for total leadership over all of Asia. Click To Tweet
The objectives of the Kokuryukai shifted to the domestic scene in the 1920s and 1930s. The Taisho democracy’s advocacy of a “cooperative foreign policy” (協調外交; kyocho gaiko) rankled the right-wing nationalists who believed Japan was destined for total leadership over all of Asia. The Kokuryukai began heavily relying on their print publications to spread their message. The inaugural issue of the group’s new venture Ajia Jiron (亜細亜持論) explicitly stated their Pan-Asianist views:
“The Japanese Empire, as the last [independent] representative of Asia, is the only one that can face and fight the West as the backbone of the Yellow race…. We need to formulate a comprehensive foreign policy…, implant the idea of Greater Asianism, the great achievement of the foundation of our country, in the minds of the people, and bring about a comprehensive solution to the East Asia problem….Ajia Jiron 1:1, July 1917. Taken from Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History, 1850–1920
Some of the contributors included professors and retired military officers, including former Lieutenant-General Sato Kojiro (佐藤鋼次郎), a strong advocate of national mobilization. Many articles on East Asian affairs, however, carried a latent undertone of Japanese superiority over “inferior” China and Korea.
Political Rallies of the Black Dragon Society
Political rallies became another propaganda tactic. In 1918, the Kokuryukai hosted the “People’s Rally on China Policy” and called for the government to support Sun Yat-sen, a close confidant of the Kokuryukai. The rally reportedly attracted 30,000 attendees.
They also held the “Rally to Promote the Abolition of Racial Discrimination” to campaign for a racial non-discrimination measure in the League of Nations charter. When Japan failed to do this, the Kokuryukai formed the League for the Equality of Races to address the “America problem.” The 1924 US legislation banning Japanese and Chinese immigration led to more rallies, which were attended by Diet members, distinguished scholars, and other political activists.
Like the Genyosha, the Kokuryukai didn’t shy from using more violent tactics to get their message across. In 1919, members publicly humiliated the Osaka Asahi president by dragging him through the city streets before leaving him lashed to a lamppost. In 1925 Uchida himself was implicated in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Sato Takaaki (加藤 高明), who earned the Kokuryukai’s distaste for his help in drafting a universal suffrage bill.
In the 1930s, the image of a black dragon found its way to the US when Kokuryukai agent Satokata Takahashi exacerbated pro-Japanese sentiments among male Black nationalists in Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit. Agitating abroad was nothing new for the Kokuryukai; they provided aid to anti-American Filipino Emilio Aguinaldo and China’s Sun Yat-sen. Unfortunately, despite their powerful connections, by the late 30s, the Kokuryukai was losing relevance, unable to keep up with the changing times.
The Forced Disbandment of the Black Dragon Society
Uchida’s death in 1937 is considered by many the beginning of the Kokuryukai’s growing obsolescence. During World War II, Western propaganda feverishly hyped the Black Dragon Society as a sinister, pervasive influence in Japan’s wartime decisions. Despite the vast inaccuracies, much of this sensationalism actually worked to promote future research into Kokuryukai history.
A 1942 article in the Milwaukee Sentinel highlighted Toyama as the “sinister, cynical and wholly inhuman old man” behind the Kokuryukai, even though Toyama never claimed to be the group’s leader. (This same article also claimed one of the Kokuryukai’s objectives was to kill Charlie Chaplin). The Kokuryukai also made its way into the comics world — in 1941, Fawcett Comics introduced the Black Dragon Society in Master Comics #21 as a pro-Emperor terrorist organization. The 1945 US propaganda film Know Your Enemy: Japan introduces the “dreaded” Kokuryukai with a graphic of the islands of Japan morphing into a black dragon, calling it a “secret gangster organization” peopled by “fanatics” and led by Toyama, “chief of Japan’s Murder Incorporated.”
The arrival of Occupation authorities spelled the end for Japan’s nationalist and right-wing organizations. Under the “Undesirable Organizations” decree, the Kokuryukai was forcibly disbanded. Attempts to resurrect the group in the following decade largely failed, but their long-lasting print campaign to paint themselves as the premier nationalist group was a success. While it’s difficult to quantify to an exact degree how influential the Kokuryukai really were in major military decisions, no one can say they weren’t perseverant or easily forgettable.
What to Read Next
Jacob, Frank. “Secret Societies in Japan and Preparation for the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)”, Diacronie, No. 28, 4, 2016.
Saaler, Sven. “The Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society) and the Rise of Nationalism, Pan-Asianism, and Militarism in Japan, 1901–1925”, International Journal of Asian Studies, 11, 2 (2014), pp. 125–160.
Saaler, Sven & Szpilman, Christopher W. A. Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History, 1850–1920. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2011.