For decades, Japan’s leaders have been unwinding a long list of self-imposed constraints on national security policy. Without any revision of its “pacifist constitution”, Japan now:
- has a robust Defense Ministry;
- openly discusses having a “tacit nuclear deterrent”;
- is acquiring formidable offensive weapons;
- acknowledges spending more than 1% of its GDP on defense; and
- encourages arms exports.
But Tokyo still has its hands full resisting or deterring foreign provocations, and is still early on in rebuilding a full spectrum intelligence capability.
Since Japan‘s intelligence community (IC) had never been the subject of serious study, and since Japanese strategists have begun to focus their attention on intelligence reform, I took the opportunity to produce my new book, Special Duty.
- Japanese strategists understand that a robust intelligence community is needed if Japan is to become a normal nation.
- The Japanese public now seems willing to accept a more empowered intelligence community—compelling support for oversight from conservative politicians who champion intelligence reform.
- Modest attempts to reform the Japanese intelligence community are already underway—though results have been mixed.
- Going forward, Japan’s focus will continue to be on enhancing its existing intelligence capabilities. As part of this, it will likely lean into its alliance with the US and press for “Five Eyes” membership.
1. Japanese strategists understand that a robust intelligence community is needed if Japan is to become a normal nation
Japan’s intelligence community has long lagged behind its international peers. Other intelligence communities have been pressured into reform by factors including:
- shifts in the strategic environment;
- technological change; and
- intelligence failures.
But the factors that resulted in reform elsewhere, often led to restrictions—and a deformed IC—in postwar Japan.
After aggressive expansion during its imperial moment, Japan’s Cold War intelligence community essentially deteriorated into a bureaucratic scrum, characterized by competitive and mutually incompatible intelligence units. Further, it operated under what, for many, was the increasingly annoying direction of the United States.
One manifestation of this political competition has been “stove-piping”—the failure of intelligence units to share raw data and analyses. This is a problem in all intelligence communities, but has long been particularly debilitating in Japan for more than a century.
Some prominent examples of post-Cold War Japanese failures include:
- On the counterintelligence front, politicians stood aside and allowed bureaucratic obstacles block the disabling of the murderous Aum Shinrikyō cult before it snuffed out 13 lives on a Tokyo subway in March 1995.
- In January 1997, Japan commissioned its Defense Intelligence Headquarters—focusing on signals and images. But the new unit failed an early test when a North Korean Taepodong-1 missile flew through Japanese airspace in September 1998. Within months, the government abandoned its longstanding formal ban on the military use of space, and initiated a spy satellite program.
2. The Japanese public now seems willing to accept a more empowered intelligence community—compelling support from conservative politicians who champion intelligence reform
Intelligence oversight did not exist before or during the Asia-Pacific War, but was surprisingly stout once Japan’s democracy was consolidated. And the Japanese public has long been wary of expanded intelligence powers: repeated initiatives to legislate counterintelligence measures were undone by public fears that any “anti-espionage law” would set Japan on a slippery slope to wartime surveillance and controls. Reform was stymied.
This tide has now turned, with the Japanese public increasingly conscious of Japan’s changing strategic environment— including the rise of China, North Korea’s nuclear breakout, and the relative decline of the United States.
Still, the Japanese public is no more willing than citizens in other democratic states to accept surveillance that may trespass on individual rights.
3. Modest attempts to reform the Japanese intelligence community are already underway—though results have been mixed
There has been some progress. The first major institutional shift—creation of a National Security Council in 2013—was a sweeping reform of foreign policy decision making and included a National Security Secretariat to provide National Intelligence Estimates to the Prime Minister and his cabinet. Open source, signals, and image intelligence have also been enhanced, and the number of military attachés has been increased.
But important efforts to upgrade human intelligence have been rebuffed. And despite creation of a civilian Cybersecurity Headquarters and a military Joint Cyber and Space Command, cyber defense remains under-resourced.
4. Going forward, Japan’s focus will continue to be on enhancing its existing intelligence capabilities. As part of this, it will likely lean into its alliance with the US and press for “Five Eyes” membership
- Tokyo will focus on enhancing its existing capabilities, not building new ones. Japan’s rich history of an expansive and intrusive foreign intelligence service is not a model for what is coming. Collection, analysis, and coordination among intelligence units will be further enhanced, but will not be centered on covert action or counterintelligence, as in prewar and wartime Japan.
- Washington will have to continue to deal with suboptimal intelligence cooperation between its two major East Asian allies, Japan and the Republic of Korea. Technological improvements and organizational enhancements in both countries will not address, much less help Seoul and Tokyo move past, deep mutual grievances.
- As Japan enhances its intelligence capabilities, Tokyo is likely to press for inclusion in the “Five Eyes” consortium. The US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee has already recommended this. We should expect sustained lobbying by the Japanese side, but also opposition from within the “Five Eyes” community.
- Long term, Japanese intelligence is most likely to continue to lean into the alliance. In a sense, the three possible futures for Japan’s intelligence community mirror Japan’s broader strategic options: lean into the US alliance; develop more autonomous capability; or selectively bandwagon with China. Of these, the first is most likely, but there are advocates for each.
- But, we should expect Japan to position itself to use the alliance to transcend the alliance —and build more autonomous capabilities—if necessary. As Tokyo observes declining US capabilities relative to China, it may hedge more aggressively than before. It may lean into US intelligence capabilities and technologies to shore itself up, taking care not to box itself in to reliance on the US.
Richard J. Samuels is the Ford International Professor of Political Science, Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community (Cornell University Press, 2019). Special Duty was named as one of Foreign Affairs’ “Best of Books 2019”.