Reforming Japanese intelligence agencies


    Circular structure showing the Japanese intelligence community; via released under Attribution 4.0 International


    Japan has sought to reform its intelligence agencies. The country has confronted various national security challenges since the end of the Cold War. Gray zone situations concerning Japanese territorial integrity by China, North Korea and to a certain extent, Russia, forced Japan to confront it. Terrorist attacks that take place sometimes have Japanese nationals killed or wounded, either on purpose or as casualties during an attack. These two scenarios usually bring forth concerns that intelligence collected by Japanese intelligence agencies are inadequate or not enough. Reforms to help Japanese intelligence agencies reform their operations for national security reasons have been stalled after the postwar government was established.

    While Japan seeks to improve their intelligence capabilities, it will no doubt try to push reforms that would make intelligence collecting easier and overcome bureaucratic obstacles for national security purposes. However, the country will continue to work with allies and like-minded countries in improving its capabilities in order to overcome any limitations they have.

    Key Judgement 1

    Outside events will highly likely to influence Japan’s actions to reforms to its intelligence agencies

    • With gray zone events and terrorist attacks indirectly or directly threatening Japan, the country will be forced to counter new threats by either establishing new agencies tasked to tackle said threat or expand its mandate, budget and personnel. Kunihiko Miyake, an ex-Japanese diplomat, has stated that noble intentions will not be enough to prevent Japanese from being caught in dangerous situations [source].

    • The Taepodong missile launch in 1998 forced Japan to invest in satellites in order to track down future missile launchs from North Korea as Tokyo was caught off their guard because of a lack of tracking capability [source].

    • The International Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Collection Unit, under the control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was created by Tokyo in December 2015 to collaborate with foreign intelligence agencies. This was influenced by the deaths of two Japanese hostages by ISIS fighters in February 2015 [source] and by the Paris-wide terrorist attacks on November 2015 [source]. Such a decision was understood to be a knee-jerk reaction. This speaks to the lack of an intelligence agency dedicated to only conduct foreign intelligence operations.

    • Japan will continue to direct its existing intelligence agencies to improve on their capabilities. This includes having a part of the defense budget in 2015 allocated to ISR capabilities to better defend Japanese airspace and waters from Chinese territorial incursions and North Korean missile tests [source].

    Key Judgement 2

    Japan will likely make changes in order to centralize intelligence operations

    • After Japan was occupied by the Allied Forces, the Imperial military and intelligence agencies were disbanded due to their role in World War II. As such, postwar Japan opted for a decentralized model for intelligence agencies to operate after its sovereignty was restored in 1952 [source]. This resulted in a fragmented intelligence apparatus.

    • The Cold War has made Japan dependent towards the US for external security needs while they concentrated on its economic recovery. This was seen as a mix of success and frustration from the Japanese intelligence community [source].

    • The decentralization of intelligence agencies played a role in the lack of cooperation from its domestic partners. This was seen as an obstacle by Japanese intelligence personnel [source] and their foreign allies [source].

    • Setting up the National Security Council in December 2013 to replace the functions of the Security Council was seen as a success story for streamlining intelligence operations and inter-agency cooperation [source]. It also made major decisions, such as reinterpreting Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution [source]. This would not have taken place if Shinzo Abe was not elected as prime minister in 2012 as he actively sought to make changes for the benefit of the intelligence community to work together for mutual interest instead of keeping vital information for themselves [source].

    Key Judgement 3

    Japan will highly likely rely on the intelligence capabilities of its allies to make up for any shortcomings

    • Japan’s previous attempts to reform its intelligence capabilities were met with strong resistance from politicians and most of the public due to strong reminders of how Imperial military intelligence operated in the past [source].

    • While Japan will seek assistance from its allies to help improve their capabilities to do intelligence operations more smoothly, its weakness in foreign intelligence experience means that Tokyo will rely on its allies and their experience in conducting foreign intelligence missions [source].

    • Any shortcoming from domestic intelligence agencies will likely have to be examined according to what the priorities of the government of the day.

    Mark Christian Soo
    Mark Christian Soo
    Mark is a graduate of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) under the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) with a Master's Degree in Strategic Studies. His research interests focus on Japanese, East and Southeast Asian defense/foreign affairs policy.

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