Japanese Intelligence : A need for context

Japanese Intelligence : A need for context

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Keywords : Keywords : Intelligence; Japan; Military History; Civil rights

Intelligence and secret wars are played out in spaces where legality doesn’t apply and their boundaries are blurry, making it a difficult subject to deal with in an objective and peaceful manner. This is also due, as Alain Dewerpe points out, to the persistence of a romantic undertone around intelligence, as well as  a distrust for what was considered the sewers of politics. Another problematic aspect of this subject is the dichotomy between surveillance and protection of the public: when a whistleblower like Edward Snowden uncovers an abuse of power, governments, democratic or not, emphasize the need to use clandestine operations in order to defend the public, whether physical or not.

In Japan, these issues have been the subject of intense debates since the end of the Pacific War.

Last December, the decision to send a warship and two reconnaissance planes of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to conduct an intelligence gathering mission in the Gulf of Oman was met with criticism: it was made by the Cabinet without being discussed or voted on by the Japanese Diet. This decision once again raises the question of the use of Japanese military forces, even for non-violent action such as intelligence gathering, as well as the lack of democratic control provided by the law in such matters. We will first discuss the recent changes in Japanese intelligence paradigms and then show their historical roots.

Following the defeat and dissolution of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1945, the Japanese authorities worked tirelessly to re-establish intelligence services worthy of the name. Among the promoters of such reforms was Gotôda Masaharu (1914-2005), Minister of Justice (1993) and Secretary General of the Cabinet of Yasuhiro Nakasone (1918-2019). Today, this objective seems within reach, in particular since the establishment by the Abe administration of the National Security Council (NSC) and the passage of the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets (SDS) (December 2013 ).

The main merit of these two laws is to fill a number of gaps that appeared in the process of rebuilding the Japanese intelligence apparatus, and in particular the problem of compartmentalization  between intelligence agencies depending on the ministries to which they belong (it is a known problem of the Japanese administrations in general). Therefore, Before 2013, there was no obligation for them to cooperate with each other. These two laws have also made possible the standardization of the designation of what is secret and what is not, in order to rationalize the informations and also to reassure the American ally about to the seriousness of the Japanese intelligence apparatus. In this simplified framework, the National Security Council, which reports to the Prime Minister, has the role of giving political decision-makers a single source of information which is the product of the collaboration of the various agencies.

However the State Secrecy Law had its fare share of criticism, mainly about the vagueness of its wording and the fact that no independent body of verification and control has been established. In face of these problems, each chamber of the Diet set up an Intelligence Oversight Committee (Jôhô kanshi shinsakai), but their role is still consultative, and their independence from the executive branch questionable. This lack of democratic control over state secrecy poses many problems with regards to freedom of information and therefore of the press, which remains the main point on which critics are focused.

To explain the advent of this new paradigm of Japanese intelligence, one must consider many factors, first of all, Japan's relationship to its international environment. At the end of the Second World War, Japanese intelligence services were reconstituted little by little, first under the control of the American occupation authorities, and then under Japanese control while still depending on the American ally. After serving American interests during the Cold War, Japanese intelligence services are now forced to work in a deteriorated geopolitical situation. They are facing the rise of China, the North Korean threat, and more recently the volatility of the current occupant of the White House. In this context, the Abe administration has stated its objective to increase defense spendings, which, due to the  Yoshida doctrine — saving money by subcontracting Japanese defense to the United States — currently  amounts for less than 1% of the GDP.

In addition to the rejection of the use of military force for the purpose of national defense, Japanese pacifism is also anchored in the fear of the return of a military regime and the loss of civil liberties such a regime would bring. The opposition to the State Secrecy Law, among which were major daily newspapers, the Mainichi shinbun, the Asahi shinbun and the Tôkyô shinbun, as well as the majority of the regional press, part of the civil society and political opposition, exemplify this fear. Since intelligence, at least at first glance, does not require the use of military force, opposition to the law mainly shows a legitimate fear of witnessing the undermining of democratic rights, including, above all, the right to information. This state of mind is deeply rooted in the history of the country and its intelligence activities - whose actors have proven to be very volatile.

In Japan, modern military intelligence was born with the founding of the General Staff of the new Japanese Army in 1871, which was placed under the control of the Ministry of the Army. In addition to institutional actors, such as military attachés, there is a whole galaxy of actors who took part in these activities in a more or less clear and official way. In fact, Army officers, such as Fukushima Yasumasa (1852-1919), or Akashi Motojirô (1864-1919), were the less numerous group of the intelligence actors, which included students, businessmen, diplomats and other political agents. Among these actors were the non-institutional agents of influence, who appeared in the 1880s - and whose role is largely undervalued by historiography.

Fukushima Yasumasa during his crossing of Siberia. (Bibliothèque Nationale de la Diète)

For the most part, these actors have worked to facilitate Japanese expansion in Asia, whether  it be territorial, political or economic. For example, before the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, a group supported by the ultra-nationalist association Gen.yôsha, the Tenyûkyô, tried to carry out insurrectional actions by helping the Korean peasant rebellion, Tonghak; in Russia, members of the Kokuryûkai association headed by Uchida Ryôhei (1879-1937), settled in Vladivostok in order to gather information about the Russian presence in the Far East, and in China, they came to help various revolutionaries, including Sun Yat-sen In order to serve Japanese interests