Book Review: Japanese Foreign Intelligence and Grand Strategy

| Japanese Foreign Intelligence and Grand Strategy
Japanese Foreign Intelligence and Grand Strategy
Japanese Foreign Intelligence and Grand Strategy

BOOK REVIEW: Japanese Foreign Intelligence and Grand Strategy: From the Cold War to the Abe Era 

By Brad Williams / Georgetown University Press 

Reviewed by Stephen C. Mercado

The Reviewer – Stephen C. Mercado is an analyst, researcher and translator, who has worked in the Washington area and in East Asia on Asian issues as an all-source analyst and an open-source officer for the CIA. He is the author of The Shadow Warriors of Nakano, an intelligence history of the Imperial Japanese Army. The CIA has twice awarded him its Studies in Intelligence Award for his submissions to the Agency’s journal.

REVIEW – Intelligence may be the world’s second oldest profession, according to some writers, but it is a young area of inquiry for academics. Most of the scholarly works written in English since the field began to develop around the 1990s have had to do with US and British intelligence. Japanese Foreign Intelligence and Grand Strategy: From the Cold War to the Abe Era, written by Brad Williams, an associate professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong, which hit bookshelves in March this year, follows the eminent MIT scholar Richard Samuels’ Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community (2019) as the second of two academic works in English on the Japanese intelligence community.

Dr. Williams looks into why the government of Japan, the world’s third largest economy, has an intelligence community that is modest in relation to the country’s prominent international standing and lacks what all the world’s other great powers possess: a core intelligence organization with officers sent abroad to carry out foreign human intelligence (HUMINT) activities. In short, in this book he examines a key question: why does Tokyo not have more intelligence assets and its own version of a CIA or MI6?

The author attempts to answer this question in six chapters. The first one traces Japan’s changing place in the world as Tokyo recovered from defeat in the Second World War, endured a period of military occupation, then took a position as a “junior ally” to the United States during the Cold War before developing its classified intelligence capabilities in the years since the Berlin Wall fell in the West and China’s power rose in the East. The second chapter has to do with US covert action in Occupied Japan. The third chapter looks at Japan under the US umbrella during the Occupation and the Cold War. The fourth chapter is a review of how the Japanese focused their intelligence efforts on  economic growth and technological development. The fifth chapter has to do with government and popular opposition to development of HUMINT capabilities in particular and military intelligence in general. And the sixth chapter is largely a look at Tokyo’s acquisition of spy satellites and prospects for adding HUMINT to its capabilities to cope with changes since the Cold War.

Emerging from defeat and occupation, stripped of the formidable intelligence and military capabilities of its imperial era, Japan devoted resources during the Cold War to gathering intelligence to close the yawning economic and technological gap with the United States while sheltering under the US military umbrella. The author’s discussion of economic and technological intelligence gathered via the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), such other government auxiliary organs (gaikaku dantai) as the Japan Information Center of Science and Technology (JICST), and Japan’s extraordinary trading houses (sogo sosha) made Chapter 4 one of the two chapters I found most interesting.

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Whereas the search for intelligence on markets and technologies did much to propel the Japanese intelligence community in one direction, government and public opposition to a revival of military and human intelligence worked to restrain the growth of Japanese intelligence in those areas. Those restraining forces are the focus of Chapter 5, my other favorite chapter. Readers should find particularly interesting the author’s tracing of the efforts of the postwar National Police Agency (NPA) to forestall the return of a powerful military back to the struggle for power between the Interior Ministry and the Army in Imperial Japan. In the same chapter, the author also finds the root of the Foreign Ministry’s determination to control defense attache reporting from the embassies today in the independence of the former Empire’s military and naval attaches from the ambassadors of that era.

There is much to recommend in this book to readers. Dr. Williams wrote it after reading widely – from declassified CIA materials to the relevant books and media articles in Japanese and English – and interviewing experts (including Dr. Ken Kotani of Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies and MIT’s Dr. Samuels) in and outside Japan. Readers wishing to read more about the Japanese intelligence community will find a treasure trove of materials in the bibliography.

The author’s presentation of postwar Japan’s abnormally modest and constrained intelligence community as the result of Tokyo’s Yoshida Doctrine – stressing economic growth and technological development over political and military concerns while benefiting from close ties to Washington – is convincing. So, too, is his suggestion that changes in Japan’s domestic conditions and the international environment since the Cold War has spurred the development of the Japanese intelligence community and may well push Tokyo to “cross the Rubicon” to join the other great powers in developing its own classified HUMINT capabilities.

Having praised the book at length, I must also point to what I see as shortcomings. Dr. Williams in some parts of the book, writes more about Washington’s actions than those of Tokyo. The second chapter, for example, is a history of US covert action in Occupied Japan that fails to tell the readers how Japanese leaders endured, exploited or applied the lessons from those classified operations to their own intelligence community. The author in a few places also veers off topic into interesting but unconnected tangents, such as Washington’s fostering of postwar West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND). A university scholar, he uses academic jargon and some fashionable or awkward terms in a style that this reviewer found distracting at times.

I recommend this book as a solid work for those interested in the evolving intelligence community of the world’s third economic power. Facing an increasingly powerful China, both its main business partner and its foremost military threat, Japan has no choice but to develop its intelligence capabilities along with its diplomatic and military assets.

Japanese Foreign Intelligence and Grand Strategy earns a solid three out of four trench coats.


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