Japan’s Spy Buildup Hits Snags and Obstacles

World War Two memories, China fears, slow intelligence upgrades

2 mins read
This illustration by Till Lauer illustrated a 2019 story in The Economist headlined, “Japanese spies, once renowned, have fallen on hard times“

Japan’s efforts to re-arm in response to escalating threats from China and North Korea are well-known. Less understood are controversial efforts by some in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to reestablish world class intelligence and counterespionage capabilities. 

Not everyone is on board.

“There has been a group interested in getting intelligence right for decades,” says MIT’s Richard Samuels, author of Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community. “They’ve tried a lot of engineering and reengineering but have encountered much institutional inertia.” 

Successful reforms in the 1990s and 2000s focused on consolidating and coordinating military intelligence, Samuels told SpyTalk. In 1997 the Japanese government created the Defense Intelligence Headquarters, modeled on the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, to consolidate signals and imagery intelligence operations against potential adversaries. These technical collection efforts expanded between the mid-2000s and mid-2010s as tension mounted across East Asia, and as Japan sent more personnel abroad for UN peacekeeping assignments.

But this was the easy part. For historical reasons, spying operations of any sort, particularly domestic counterespionage work aimed at squelching foreign espionage networks on Japanese soil, were much more sensitive topics. 

Ghosts in the Woodwork

Tokyo’s dark record from World War Two was always a consideration. In  the 1930s and ‘40s, Japan had famously infiltrated agents across Asia in advance of their conquering forces. During wartime, anti-spying paranoia against everything foreign at home, even against people who simply spoke a foreign language in the closing years of the war, created an escalating climate of fear. It was a legacy that post-war Japanese voters were loath to see revised, fearing a return to militarism, neighborhood informants, and other mass spying against the population. 

Under the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan made significant progress in reforming foreign intelligence collection and slowly expanded HUMINT (human intelligence gathering) abroad. But domestic “counterintelligence,” said Samuels, “was a sort of stepchild to a lot of these reforms.”

For this reason, since the 1950s counterespionage investigations have been conducted not by a powerful agency, such as the  FBI or Britain’s MI-5, but by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Its Public Security Bureau (PSB) can be effective but lacks sufficient manpower, according to a  former senior Japanese intelligence official interviewed in Tokyo by SpyTalk, asking for anonymity in exchange for talking freely about such sensitive matters.

The PSB does have federal input. It cooperates with a counterintelligence unit under the Justice Ministry, the similarly named Public Security Intelligence Agency. The PSIA labors under a cloud, however, which may have diminished its power. It was blamed for insufficient attention to the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult after its 1994 sarin gas attack on the Matsumoto subway system, which was followed by the cult’s even more deadly strike on the Tokyo subway the following year. In a decades-long mea culpa of sorts, PSIA devotes considerable attention to the remaining cult members in Japan.

Though further efforts to consolidate and strengthen Japan’s intelligence and counterintelligence organizations might seem logical in Washington, such plans face significant opposition from those government institutions, politicians, and parts of the business community that support closer relations with Beijing.

Source: SpyTalk

Matt Brazil

Matt Brazil is a former US Army officer, diplomat, corporate security investigator, and adjunct professor of modern Chinese history. He spent most of my career in East and South Asia. He is the co-author of Chinese Communist Espionage, An Intelligence Primer. He is a contributing editor at SpyTalk.co and a Research Fellow with the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC.

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