Amleto Vespa (c.1888 – 1940) was a mercenary and secret agent of Italian origin, who worked in Manchuria from 1922 to 1940, first for a local warlord, and then for the Empire of Japan. A self-proclaimed fascist and an admirer of Benito Mussolini, Vespa had no admiration for the Japanese administration of Manchukuo, which he described with considerable venom in a book published in 1938.
Vespa was born in the town of L'Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy into a poor farming family. Little is known of his early life, aside from what he subsequently wrote in his autobiography, in which he claims to have left the Italian countryside to fight in the Mexican Revolution against Emiliano Zapata, been involved in various political intrigues in Eastern Europe and to have married a Polish Countess. He also claimed to have traveled extensively in the United States, Australia, French Indochina and in Mongolia. He had two children, Italo a boy and Ginevra, a girl. After his disappearance they moved to the United States, but their whereabouts are unknown.
Vespa reached China in 1920, and worked for Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin for a number of years. The Italian consulate in Tianjin had arrest and deportation orders issued for Vespa, who was accused of smuggling weapons and dealing in drugs on behalf of Zhang. To avoid arrest and deportation, he managed to obtain Chinese citizenship in 1924.
After the Manchurian Incident of 1931, Vespa fled Harbin just ahead of the Kempeitai secret police. His family was captured and eventually freed after Vespa agreed to work for the new Japanese rulers of Manchuria.
Secret Agent of Japan
Vespa published an account of his life in Manchukuo in a sensationalist book intended for mass audiences in 1938: Secret Agent of Japan: A Handbook to Japanese Imperialism. According to Vespa, he began to meet with the chief of the Japanese secret service in Manchukuo, a "Japanese Prince" whose name was unknown to him. According to conversations with his Japanese superiors, Vespa reports that the Japanese wanted the colony of Manchukuo to be financially self-supporting. Vespa was instructed to compile reports on wealthy members of Harbin's Jewish community, White Russian and other foreign and Chinese residents. He was also instructed to recruit bandit forces to sabotage the China Far East Railway, which was run by the Soviet government.
Vespa claimed that the Japanese sold monopolies in gambling, prostitution and opium to racketeers to help pay for the conquest of China. In Harbin alone, Vespa counted 172 brothels, 56 opium dens and 194 stores selling narcotics. However, the situation was confused because there were five distinct Japanese security organizations in Manchuria, often at odds with each other, and individual officers sometimes kept for themselves money that was intended to pay for Japanese arms. Vespa sold protection to other racketeers and organized gang raids against rivals of the monopolies.
Vespa mentions that the areas under opium poppy cultivation increased rapidly after 1932, and that from 1937, opium was sent to China, under the guise of military materiels for the Imperial Japanese Army. In localities with no Japanese military detachments, shipments were sent to Japanese consulates. Imperial Japanese Navy vessels transported drugs to towns and cities along China's coastlines and Japanese patrol boats did the same on China's principal rivers. Vespa supposed that these shipments were meant to demoralize enemy troops and reduce their combat effectiveness.
Vespa also reported that many monopolies were awarded to ethnic Koreans. These monopolies included chimney sweeping and supplying Manchukuo flags, which were attempts to extort money from the local population.
The Kaspe Affair
Vespa's book also gives details of the Simon Kaspé kidnapping case. Joseph Kaspe was a prominent Jewish businessman who owned the "Moderne Hotel", the principal hotel in Harbin. His son Simon, a French citizen and a pianist from Paris, was kidnapped while visiting Harbin on 23 August 1933. Those directly responsible were said to be a White Russian gang. When foreign diplomatic pressure obliged the Japanese authorities to arrest the kidnappers, the gang executed Simeon Kaspe. Vespa relates the discovery of the mutilated corpse of Simeon Kaspe in November 1933 outside Harbin. Vespa recorded a number of other similar cases.
The Lytton Commission
Vespa also reported that Japanese secret agents were instructed to prevent complaints and petitions filed by the local population from reaching the members of the Lytton Commission during their visit. However, despite all these efforts, the Commission nevertheless was able to interview many individuals secretly, and it received many more written submissions which protested against the Japanese authorities.
Vespa appears to have died around 1941, probably shot by the Japanese.
- Vespa, Amleto (1938). Secret Agent of Japan. Little, Brown & Co.; 1st edition (October, 1938). ASIN: B00005XV1I.