Who was the real Tiger Tanaka?

Article by Graham M. Thomas

The dedication in You Only Live Twice reads, ‘TO Richard Hughes and Torao Saito BUT FOR WHOM ETC….

Richard Hughes and Torao ‘Tiger’ Saito were two friends of Fleming’s. Both were journalists, both had accompanied Fleming on his travels through Japan, and both had now been metamorphosed into characters in the novel: Hughes became Richard Lovelace ‘Dikko’ Henderson, ostensibly of HM’s Australian Diplomatic Corps but in truth a spy for Australia’s Secret Service in Tokyo, and Saito had become ‘Tiger’ Tanaka, head of the Japanese Secret Service

Tanaka takes a pivotal role and is a presence throughout the novel. Bond meets him first in Tokyo to negotiate a deal between the British and Japanese secret services; and then, after Tanaka insists that for the deal to go through Bond needs to assassinate Blofeld aka Dr Shatterhand, he accompanies Bond through much of the mission.

It is generally accepted that the Henderson character – at least reasonably if not closely – matched the real life Hughes. Hughes published his memoirs, a biography was written and, as a larger than life character, much is known about the man. And despite Hughes’ blustering about Fleming’s lampooning, it is likely that he was rather pleased with his portrayal. On the other hand, less is known about Saito, and so the opportunity to compare the fictional Tanaka with the real life Saito is a little diminished.

YOLT dust jacket

In the novel, Tanaka is described as having a big creased brown face with a wide smile but a face that could suddenly flick to the look of a cruel samurai. We know he enjoyed sake, Suntory whisky, and that he spoke impeccable English. His age is not stated explicitly but he is in early sixties when he meets Bond, and close to retirement.

He was highly educated having taken a First in PPE at Trinity, Cambridge, had a firm understanding of the West, a Black Belt at judo, and was a spy in the Japanese Embassy in London during the 1930s. On Japan’s entry into the Second World War, he was appointed as the personal aide to Admiral Onishi then Chief of Staff for the 11 Air Fleet, and who later was responsible for setting up the kamikaze units. As Japan’s fortunes deteriorated, Tanaka volunteered and was training as a kamikaze pilot just as the War ended. His age was nearly forty. Of his reasoning for participating in the War Tanaka said, ‘I plead youth and the heat of a war that I thought would bring much glory to my country. I was mistaken.’

Just as Bond had Universal Exports, Tanaka’s cover was the Bureau of All Asia Folkways, producing literature that was offered for free to foreigners such as, according to Tanaka, the Americans, Swiss and Germans. Later, with obvious distaste, Tanaka goes on at length about the Americanisation of Japan– the Scuola di Coca Cola he calls it. It is clearly a subject that angers him but in the end he apologies to Bond and says he was ‘letting off steam.’

‘For the time being,’ he said with distaste, ‘we are being subjected to what I can best describe as the “Scuola di Coca-Cola”. Baseball, amusement arcades, hot dogs, hideously large bosoms, neon lighting – these are the part of our payment for defeat in battle. They are the tepid tea of the way of life we know under the name of demokorasu. They are a frenzied denial of the official scapegoats for our defeat – a denial of the spirit of the samurai as expressed in the kami-kaze, a denial of our ancestors, a denial of our gods. They are a despicable way of life’ – Tiger almost spat the words – ‘but fortunately they are also expendable and temporary. They have as much importance in the history of Japan as the life of a dragonfly.’

Hughes was a close friend of Fleming and according to his biographer the two enjoyed much mutual admiration. Fleming undoubtedly felt he could be free and yet honest with his fictional characterisation of Hughes. It is probable that he was more respectful in approaching the fictionalisation of Saito, who had become a friend only through Hughes’ introduction and, of course, Fleming would be more than aware of the formal way that the Japanese approach friendships.  As a consequence, Fleming was less likely to take liberties.

So who was the real Torao Saito?

Torao Saito mid 1950s

Torao Saito mid 1950s

Torao Saito was born in Tokyo in 1902 at a time when Japan was going through a period of radical modernisation and westernisation.  The early 20 century was also the time when Japan flexed its military muscles and, in 1910, had annexed Korea.

In the 1920s Saito attended Waseda University, one of the most prestigious in the country, and graduated from its Department of Architecture in 1930.

It is this same year that the first accessible and tangible record crops up: an inscribed book that comes from Saito’s library. The book Wie Baut Amerika was written by the celebrated architect Richard Neutra – Austrian born but by 1930 living and practising in the US.

“With much appreciation for the fine reception in Tokyo. Dedicated to Mr. T. Saitô Richard Neutra June 10th 1930”

Neutra had visited Japan that year and given talks in Tokyo and Osaka. It is a matter of record that a small reception had been held in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, and perhaps it was this reception that Saito had organised so well.

Rather than working as a full-time architect after graduation, he joined instead the Asahi Newspaper Co. first as a science reporter and then as an aviation correspondent. Asahi was then – and still is  – one of the oldest and largest of Japan’s national newspaper and magazine groups, and generally thought to hold liberal views. However this period also coincided with Japan invading Manchuria and becoming increasingly right wing and nationalistic, with the government progressively dominated by the military.

While working at Asahi, the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937 and Japan attacked Pearl Harbour at the end of 1941.

By then Saito had been promoted to editing Asahi’s monthly magazine Koku Asahi (Aviation Asahi) having launched it the beginning of 1941. It’s role simply was to expound on the greatness and superiority of the Japanese air force, explain in depth an understanding of foreign fighting craft and, as the Second World war progressed, publish the numbers and types of enemy aircraft that had been shot down.

A photo taken by Saito during the war

Koku Asahi (Aviation Asahi)

Koku Asahi (Aviation Asahi)

It would seem that Koku Asahi was highly successful and continued to be printed through to the final month of Japan’s defeat even though paper and ink supplies were in short supply due to damage caused by air raids and when most other aviation magazines had been discontinued.

But at some stage, he also became a war correspondent attached to the Imperial Navy.  The image below, illustrate Saito’s reporting style as he reports on the enemy’s inability to counter attack Japan’s air supremacy.

Many years later, the Australian war correspondent Denis Warner wrote in the New York Times,

‘Torao Saito, a noted Japanese war correspondent, and later a close friend, used to claim that his home, a long way from the Nakajima aircraft factory, had been destroyed and that I was responsible!’

After the War, Saito continued to be employed by the Asahi newspaper group including taking on the editorship of the monthly Kagaku Asahi  (Scientific Asahi), a leading science magazine that made general science popular throughout Japan. According to Hughes, it was during the Occupation that he and Saito became friends when they met at the Asahi offices in late 1945. Three years later in 1948, Hughes and a group of like-minded people decided that there ought to be a branch of the Sherlock Holmes fan club, the Baker Street Irregulars, in Japan, and so they started one, naming it The Baritsu Chapter. Saito was one of the first members.

By 1953, Saito had been appointed as chief editor of This Is Japan, a lavishly illustrated, large format journal published annually. Running to over three hundred pages and printed in both colour as well as black and white, this contained articles authored by Japanese and foreign experts on many aspects of the country: its culture and arts, the sciences, manufacturing, and every day life. The annual was distributed free to embassies and foreign businesses in Japan, and overseas through the Japanese embassies to governments, academics and education institutes. Hughes wrote an article for the first edition entitled The Vanishing Occupation, one called So You Understand the Japanese in the second edition of 1955, and the next year an article on the islands of Japan, when it was noted that he was a foreign correspondent for the Kemsley Newspaper Group, and the Economist. Over the years, Saito was able to persuade a great number of distinguished people to contribute including a plethora of Japanese and foreign writers, artists, actors, filmmakers, diplomats and politicians and, from abroad, diplomats journalists. Ultimately, Fleming was among them.

Did this mean that he had dropped the practice of architecture all together? Apparently not. The large number of houses destroyed in the Second World War gave Japan a new, if rather unfortunate opportunity to rebuild and to develop housing design. In 1958 Saito was joint editor of a book called Japanese Houses Today. Inside it stated that he had been an architect of many houses in Japan and examples of his work were included.

House designed by Saito

House designed by Saito

It was in 1959 that he first met and befriended Fleming when he accompanied Fleming and Hughes on the former’s first visit to Tokyo. Fleming arrived to research the capital for a Sunday Times article – that was later collected together with articles on other major cities to become the book Thrilling Cities.

In the article, Fleming described Saito thus:

‘He was a chunky reserved man with considerable stores of quiet humour and intelligence, and with a subdued but rather tense personality. He looked like a fighter – one of those warlords of the Japanese films. He had, in fact, been a judo black belt, one rank below the red-belt elite, and there was a formidable quality about him that I enjoyed.’

By now Hughes lived in Hong Kong and while he would have been a more than adequate guide on his own, the presence of Saito undoubtedly opened doors not least the visit to a geisha house and to a renowned fortune-teller.

Following this trip, Fleming wrote an article that appeared in the 1961 edition of This is Japan called Spy Writers Reconnaissance in Japan, which is very much the same as the chapter on Tokyo in Thrilling Cities.

One year later, Saito joined Hughes and Fleming again, on this occasion for Fleming’s tour of Japan when researching background detail for You Only Live Twice. Hughes was later to describe the trip in a chapter titled Sayonara to James Bond in his memoir Foreign Devils and while he says that both he and Saito drew up the itinerary for their fourteen day trip, it is clear that Saito was responsible for all the detailed arrangements. Happily, as Hughes pointed out, all three middle aged men travelled together without once falling  – in part, Hughes believed, as they never suffered a hangover not because of temperance but because they stuck to drinking sake.

Torao Saito 1962 in Canada

Torao Saito 1962 in Canada

It was also in 1962 that Saito attended and lectured at the 55th Annual Assembly of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, which is where the portrait of him was taken.

As touched on above, in You Only Live Twice Tiger complains about the Scuola di Coca Cola – the takeover of Japan by American culture.  Interestingly in the 1964 edition of This is Japan, he assembled seven famous writers to compose a requiem to ‘lost Tokyo.’ One of them, Masajiro Kojima, wrote, ‘The Japanese who are so fond of abandoning what is their own, once took a fancy to building exact replicas of Chinese towns. This time it seems they are abandoning their own traditions in order to build the perfect American town.’ It would seem that Fleming was only capturing Saito’s strongly held beliefs.

Saito’s last edition of This is Japan as editor was in 1966 after which he retired but remained as an editorial advisor for the 1967 edition. Richard Hughes continued to write for This is Japan until it was folded with the 1971 edition. In his final piece he wrote,

This is Japan was a damned good publication. In its field, I know none better. It was put on the road, lonely, cocky and enquiring, by a small skeleton team of old Asahi pros – old in experience but not in years – under the direction of ‘Tiger’ Saito.

‘Tiger’ was an editor and administrator of drive, imagination and manifold talents. He delegated authority with aplomb and assurance. He was himself both a newspaper reporter and a photographer of distinction. He was also an architect and an airman and he brought therefore a sense of design and harmony and a predilection for wide horizons to his editorial planning and thinking. Any pressman who worked with him became a better pressman. Tiger is my oldest Japanese friend…’

This suggests that Saito was still alive but in Hughes’ memoir published only a year later in 1972, he refers to Saito as his ‘late friend.’ From this we can reasonably conclude that Torao Saito died some time around 1971. Hughes also roguishly complained that like himself, Saito had been shamefully lampooned in You Only Live Twice. He might have also mentioned that Fleming could not resist writing at least one gentle joke at Saito’s expense: Bond is staying on the ama island where he marries Kissy. He is shown the toilet, a ‘little shack with the hole in the ground and the neatly quartered pages of the Asahi Shimbun on a nail.’


In the original manuscript of You Only Live Twice, now held at Indiana University, Fleming wrote a note,

“I have visited Japan twice and, on the second occasion, as a conscientious biographer, I followed, as closely as prudence would allow, in the footsteps of James Bond. I was accompanied by the two expert investigators to whom this book is dedicated—one, the Far Eastern Representative of The Sunday Times, and the other the Editor-in-Chief of that distinguished annual This is Japan published by the Asahi Shimbun. But, without these two friends at hand, and in my endeavour to do justice to the extremely foreign excitements and circumstances which James Bond will certainly have experienced, during the actual writing of this book I had very occasional recourse to four recent works of reference on Japan, all of which, for a closer understanding of the background to James Bond’s perilous undertaking, I heartily recommend.

They were:

Meeting with Japan by Fosco Maraini, Hutchinson 50/- Hekura: The Diving Girls’ Island by Fosco Maraini, Hamish Hamilton 25/- The Heart of Japan by Alexander Campbell, Longmans 21 /- The Horned Islands by James Kirkup, Collins 35/-“

Incidental Intelligence

Richard Hughes: Ian Fleming’s Man in the Orient

Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities: Tokyo

Bondo-San in Japan: Interview with Graham M. Thomas

You Only Live Twice Dust Jacket

The extraordinary untold Japan story of ‘You Only Live Twice’ (Japan Times)

4 thoughts on “Who was the real Tiger Tanaka?

  1. I was so amazed by a coincidence for the interest to Torao Saito; I am an architectural historian just started to dig into his life.
    As to his death, there is an obituary in Kenchiku-Zasshi, no.1038, May 1971, p.15; according to the article he did pass away 24 Feb. 1971. Your article is by far detailed than the obituary, though.

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