The Rise and Spread of Japan’s Black Dragon Secret Society

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

For several decades—between the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century—the Black Dragon Society was intrinsically connected with Japanese history. What’s the origin of the Black Dragons, and who were the key members of this secret society? Let’s take a look at the key historic events that the Black Dragons have their tentacles in.

Three men wearing hoodies standing in a dark field, with the lights of the city visible at the horizon in the background.
The Black Dragon Society was created to take over the clandestine operations of another secret society—Genyosha. (Image: Sanchos303/Shutterstock)

The Japanese Meiji Restoration of 1868 ended 250 years of feudal isolationism, and started the crash transformation of Japan into a modern world power. As in any social upheaval, there were losers.

In this case, the big losers were the samurai warrior aristocracy. While some samurai prospered under the new order, most saw their traditional privileges stripped away. Among other things, they lost the right to kill any commoner who offended them. An army of peasant conscripts replaced them as guardians of the nation.

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Mitsuru Tōyama and Genyosha, or the Dark Ocean Secret Society

Some resentful samurai—including Mitsuru Tōyama—formed a secret society called the Koyosha to foment a counter-revolution. The rebellions failed, leaving the samurai defeated and further marginalized. But out of the ruins, Tōyama and some fellow samurai formed a new society in 1881. They named it the Genyosha, or the ‘Dark Ocean’.

It styled itself as a patriotic fraternity. Tōyama didn’t want to overthrow the new government any longer, he wanted to control it. And so, Genyosha pledged undying loyalty to the emperor. The group believed that Japan had a divine mission to bring all of Asia under its sway, and woes betide anyone who got in the way.

The Dark Ocean name wasn’t chosen at random. It referred to the strait separating Japan from Korea, the nearest foothold on the Asian mainland.

Mitsuru Tōyama was Genyosha’s mastermind. He was a fanatic but also a pragmatist. He brokered an alliance with yakuza gangsters whose gambling, prostitution, and smuggling provided loads of untraceable cash. A yakuza thug could be paid to do things a samurai might find beneath his dignity.

The Dark Ocean also cultivated influence among imperial officials who could provide protection. Tōyama despised the civil government but welcomed cabinet ministers and parliamentary deputies into his brotherhood. He also enrolled members of the zaibatsu, Japan’s emerging industrial elite.

As Tōyama’s influence grew, he earned the nicknames Darkside Emperor and Master Spy. To the yakuza he was the ‘Boss of Bosses’.

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Genyosha: Assassinations That Sparked Wars

In 1889, Genyosha carried out its first political act: a bombing aimed at the foreign minister, Ōkuma Shigenobu. He signed some treaties Tōyama didn’t like. Shigenobu survived but the point was made. Genyosha was not to be ignored.

Tōyama focused first on Korea, which was then a weak ‘hermit kingdom’ dominated by Manchu China. Genyosha wanted to change that. The society dispatched a hundred hand-picked agents to Korea to stir up revolution. When the Korean Queen Min looked like she might be an obstacle to Japanese ambitions, she was assassinated.

In 1894, Tōyama got what he really wanted, war with China. The brief Sino-Japanese War was a complete triumph for Tokyo. Victory was aided by intelligence from Genyosha agents spread across China.

But Russian-led pressure forced Japan to yield a hard-won foothold in Manchuria—the huge Chinese province bordering Korea. The Russians immediately moved in, and started to build a railroad. The stage was now set for a new war.

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Black Dragon Society: The Origins

Three old men dressed in traditional Japanese clothes seated in garden under a tree.
Tōyama Mitsuru (center) had formed the patriotic fraternity known as Genyosha, but when in 1901 Genyosha entered mainstream politics, Tōyama tapped a faithful follower named Ryōhei Uchida (right) to form a new secret order called the Black Dragon Society. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Tōyama’s growing power made him politically conscious. He decided to transform Genyosha into a mainstream political organization. So, in 1901, Tōyama tapped a faithful follower, Ryōhei Uchida, to form a new secret order: the Kokuryūkai, or Black Dragon Society.

Basically, it was created to take over clandestine operations, things like cooperation with the yakuza, and assassinations. Its boss Uchida especially appreciated the gangsters’ growing chain of brothels. Not only did they generate income but they also provided valuable intelligence, blackmail opportunities, and a means to push opium.

The Black Dragon River—better known as the Amur—separated Manchuria from Russian Siberia. The Dragons believed it was Japan’s manifest destiny to expand control to the Black Dragon River, and maybe beyond.

Black Dragon Society’s Influence on Japanese Military Intelligence

The Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904, and was fought in Manchuria. Black Dragon spies and saboteurs played an active part.

A Japanese intelligence officer in Sweden—Col. Motojiro Akashi—distributed money to Russian revolutionaries and dissident nationalists, in a bid to weaken Russia. In doing so, Akashi helped spark the abortive Russian revolution of 1905. Akashi wasn’t a Black Dragon, but he was abetted by the society’s operatives in Europe and Russia.

It was impossible to say where the activities and the Black Dragons began, and those of Tokyo’s military intelligence left off. There’s no better example than Black Dragon Kenji Doihara, who rose to become a general in the imperial army, and a right-hand man to future military strongman Hideki Tojo. Doihara started his clandestine career wandering Korea as one of Tōyama’s agents, disguised as a humble peddler.

Doihara’s Role in the Fall of Manchu Dynasty

A yellow background with a colorful dragon with four legs that have sharp talons, a long tail, a sort of mane around its   head, and the dragon's mouth is wide open, pointing toward a red circle in the top-left corner of the frame.
Black Dragon agent and army officer Kenji Doihara aided the revolution brewing against the Manchu dynasty in China, which led to the fall of the dynasty in 1911. (Image: !Original:清朝政府Vector: Sodacan/Public domain)

After Russia’s defeat, the Black Dragons turned back to China. Black Dragon agent and army officer Kenji Doihara aided the revolution brewing against the decrepit Manchu dynasty.

The Manchus fell in 1911. The result wasn’t peace and democracy for China, but 40 years of war-lordism and civil war—just as the Black Dragons desired. Dragon operatives inserted themselves into the entourages of future Chinese leaders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek.

In league with the yakuza and Chinese gangs, Doihara used opium to recruit agents, and corrupt enemies. In the process, he became an addict himself.

In 1928, he blew up the troublesome Manchurian warlord Chang Tso-lin. Three years later, Doihara used another bomb to engineer the so-called Mukden Incident—a false-flag provocation that provided the excuse for Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, another critical step towards World War II.

Doihara made special use of a female agent; a gender-bending Manchu princess named Eastern Jewel, who was among the few female Black Dragons. Doihara used her to seduce the heir to the Manchu throne, Puyi, and convince him to become puppet emperor of Japanese Manchuria.

All this intrigue earned Doihara the nickname ‘Lawrence of Manchuria’, a nod to Britain’s Lawrence of Arabia.

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Black Dragon Influence Wasn’t Limited to Asia

Uchida, who died in 1937, had created a world-wide organization. Black Dragon agents operated in Tibet, Mongolia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Morocco, and even Ethiopia.

One fascinating example was Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a renegade Russian officer who briefly made himself master of Outer Mongolia with the help of the Black Dragons.

Ungern was an ethnic German from the Baltics who combined a violent nature with a passion for Eastern mysticism. Before World War I, Ungern converted to Buddhism, or something he called Buddhism. He formed a secret society in the Tsar’s army, called the Order of Military Buddhists.

After the revolution, Ungern joined the anti-Bolshevik Whites, and led a rag-tag unit of cutthroats in Siberia called the Asiatic Cavalry Division. He expanded his politico-mystical horizons to embrace the idea of a vast Pan-Mongol state that would rise from the ashes of the Russian and Chinese Empires.

In 1919, Ungern met a certain Captain Suzuki. Suzuki wasn’t an emissary of the Japanese Army but rather of the Black Dragon Society, and maybe the Green Dragon. Captain Suzuki joined Ungern’s command at the head of 50 picked Japanese fighters. For reasons unknown, the baron accorded these warriors special status.

Ungern’s short-lived empire was crushed by the Soviets in 1921 and he was executed.

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Black Dragons in America

After World War I, the Black Dragons saw America as Japan’s new No. 1 enemy. And they saw racism as America’s Achilles’ heel. In 1920, a Black Dragon agent named Yusichi Hakida made contact in New York with ‘black nationalists’ who advocated political and economic autonomy for African-Americans.

Hakida believed that racial discrimination made African-Americans open to influence. Black Dragon propaganda claimed that Japan was the great champion of all ‘colored’ people against white oppression. This theme would be exploited with some success by another Black Dragon operative who appeared in Chicago in 1932.

He called himself Colonel Satokata Takahashi. He’d earlier emigrated to Canada under the name of Naka Nakune. He disappeared from his Tacoma, Washington home in 1926, and later resurfaced in Chicago and Detroit. In those cities, he cultivated black separatist organizations, such as the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the new Nation of Islam.

The Little Colonel—as Takahashi was nicknamed—formed a close friendship with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and he was the guiding hand behind two other organizations: The Society for the Development of Our Own, and the Pacific Movement of the Eastern World.

These organizations targeted disaffected African-Americans and preached that Japan was the champion of non-whites. Takahashi had two helpers. The first was Ashima Takis, who pretended to be Japanese, but was actually a Filipino-American named Policarpio Manansala. The second was a supposed Chinese aristocrat, Moy Liang.

The Pacific Movement of the Eastern World picked up followers from Detroit to St. Louis. In April 1934, immigration authorities deported Takahashi to Japan, but he wasn’t gone long. A few months later in August, he returned to Canada as Naka Nakune.

For the next five years, he secretly directed the Pacific Movement from north of the border. Then, in 1939, he snuck back into the United States using yet another alias, Hisazi Kubo. Federal agents tracked him down, and when Pearl Harbor was bombed, Colonel Takahashi was sitting in prison for immigration violation.

In July 1942, FBI agents also picked up Ashima Takis. He spilled the beans about the Black Dragon link to the Pacific Movement and the Black Muslims.

The Black Dragons influenced Japan’s destiny and thereby, the world’s. While it’s probably too much to argue that the Black Dragon Society single-handedly pushed Japan into fanaticism, militarism, and a devastating war, it unquestionably played a part.

Secret societies promote beliefs, beliefs guide actions, and actions have consequences. And if it happened in Japan, it could and will happen elsewhere.

Common Questions about the Black Dragon Secret Society

Q: How did Japan modernize?

The Japanese Meiji Restoration of 1868 ended 250 years of feudal isolationism, and started the crash transformation of Japan into a modern world power.

Q: What happened in the Russo-Japanese War?

The Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904, and was fought in Manchuria. Spies and saboteurs from the Black Dragon Society played an active part.

Q: Why did the Manchu dynasty fall?

The Japanese Black Dragon society focused on China after Japan defeated Russia. Black Dragon agent and army officer Kenji Doihara aided the revolution brewing against the decrepit Manchu dynasty, which led to the fall of the Manchus in 1911.

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