Rising Asia Journal
Rising Asia Foundation
ISSN 2583-1038


University of Bath

Subversive Ontology: Approaching Japanese
Intelligence Culture as a Non-Western
Intelligence Practice

Keywords: Five Eyes, comparative intelligence culture, Japan, ontology, subversion

This article aims to achieve several goals. Theoretically, engaging with two theoretical approaches of Western intelligence culture which emerged in the past twenty years, this article aims to devise a new approach to better understand Japan’s intelligence culture as a non-Western intelligence culture.

Policy-wise, this article contextualizes the English-speaking intelligence policy discussion for Japan to join the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance. It delineates the origins of the ‘Five Eyes’ and the ideation and considerations for Japan to join the ‘Five Eyes.’

Empirically, it examines the historical development of Japan’s intelligence system from before the First World War to the 2010s. By identifying the patterns along the interface between international dynamics and domestic politics that have entangled Japan’s intelligence system after the Second World War, it argues that Japan’s subversion-oriented intelligence culture has been prevented from developing by the United States.

Finally, based on the lessons learnt, in the light of ancient Chinese and Indian strategic thought, this article reflects upon the cultural uniqueness of Japan’s intelligence culture through the prism of ‘subversive ontology.’

Facing a rising China as her neighbor, recently Japan was in discussion to join the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing alliance, which primarily consists of the five English-speaking countries of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.[1] This is the first time in history for the Western intelligence community to consider including a non-Western intelligence culture. 

In response to this global public policy discussion, this article aims to achieve a few goals. First, to contribute a theoretical advancement. In response to the recent “cultural turn” in Western intelligence studies,[2] there is a knowledge gap for the global intelligence community to better understand and conceptualize the diversity of non-Western intelligence cultures. As there is a lack of theoretical/conceptual literature to approach non-Western intelligence culture, based on a case study of Japan’s intelligence development, this article will generate a new approach for capturing the diversity in non-Western intelligence systems in terms of their epistemologies and ontologies.

Second is policy analysis. The article will trace the idea for Japan to join the Five Eyes to the transnational discussions among the English-speaking think tanks and scholars since 2018. It will answer two research questions: What was the origin and development of the Five Eyes? What are the strategic considerations of the Five Eyes?

Third is to make an empirical contribution. Building upon published historical sources, it will examine the key historical developments of the Japanese intelligence system right before the First World War (WWI) and then since the Second World War (WWII). By identifying the main phases of development in the Japanese intelligence system before WWI and after WWII, it will identify the key cultural repertoire and institutional constraint that should inform us about Japan’s intelligence culture’s specific ontology, dubbed as “subversive ontology.”

Finally, in reference to a selection of classic insights from ancient Asian strategic thoughts, the article will reflect upon the meaning of subversive ontology in contemporary intelligence practice.

1. Theoretical Issue: Approaching Non-Western Intelligence Cultures as Alternative Epistemologies and Ontologies

What theoretical advance can we make to the studies of intelligence culture? In the past twenty years, there has been a small, yet growing, wealth of literature dedicated to the studies of intelligence culture in the English-speaking world. In particular, most of these scholars were concerned about the intelligence failures committed by the United States and U.K. intelligence communities, and how intelligence failures were correlated with American and British intelligence cultures.[3] This section will trace the historical context behind this emerging field of knowledge, identify the mainstream approach, and discuss the significance and implication of a minority tenet—‘intelligence analytical culture,’ which enables the studies of non-Western intelligence cultures in terms of their epistemologies and ontologies.

1.1 Historical Context

In 2001, the September 11 terror attacks did not only shock the American state and society, but also exposed the intelligence failure of the American intelligence community, which was unable to prevent the attacks. In the West, the intelligence community conventionally consists of the official intelligence agencies within the state’s bureaucratic hierarchy, but also includes those organizations and individuals outside the state hierarchy, which can be domestic and foreign think tanks, intelligence assets and sources, academics, media, and civil society organizations.[4]

In 2003, based on the intelligence that Saddam Hussein of Iraq possessed “weapons of massive destruction,” the U.S.-U.K.-led military coalition invaded Iraq and toppled the Saddam Hussein regime. However, they found out later that Saddam Hussein did not possess the so-called “weapons of massive destruction” as claimed by their intelligence agencies. The September 11 attacks and the ensuing Middle East wars repeatedly showed the intelligence failures of the U.S., U.K. and Western authorities, causing massive casualties and long-term political turmoil in the Middle East.[5]

1.2 Two Approaches of Western Intelligence Culture

Against such historical backdrop, a mainstream group of scholars in the field of U.S. and U.K. intelligence studies conceived intelligence culture as equivalent to “organizational culture,” which refers to the values, beliefs, identity and artefacts shaped by, and emerged in, the interactions among the members of the intelligence community. This definition was widely recognized to be capable of understanding the factors involved, and processes of, the intelligence sharing and cooperation, institutional reform, leadership model, intelligence failure, intelligence analysis, decision-making, and intelligence theory formation.[6]  

For instance, in 2004, British intelligence scholar Philip Davis suggested that the U.K. and U.S. governments’ intelligence failures were directly correlated with their intelligence cultures. In the first place, Davis established that there was definitional difference of intelligence between British and American intelligence communities. In the United States, intelligence basically includes all information collected and analyses conducted in the broadest sense, and of both covert and overt nature. However, in the U.K., intelligence specifically refers to a particular type of information gathered by indirect and secretive methods.[7]

In other words, whereas American intelligence perceives ‘intelligence’ as a form of information, British intelligence perceives intelligence as a specially classified type of information.[8] U.S. intelligence emphasizes the concomitant uses of secretive and non-secretive methods to gather information, though the final product—intelligence constituted by analysis—must be secret. In contrast, from the beginning of gathering information, the British intelligence insists of conducting such process under the principle of ‘secret and mystery;’ the action and operation in gathering information and secrets must also be secret.[9]

In terms of organization and operation, American intelligence activities are mainly concentrated in several intelligence agencies, including Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the Department of State, and Defense Intelligence Agency of the Pentagon.[10] They provide daily intelligence briefs to the White House.

However, in the U.K., whilst the intelligence research and judging processes are highly decentralized to each departmental/unit of the local governments, they are also highly centralized into the hands of a few intelligence agencies through a collegiately collaborative system at the national level. These collegiate processes involve formal and informal discussions, but the final research and judgment processes are concentrated in the three intelligence agencies under the guidance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: (1) Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), (2) Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and (3) the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre of the Ministry of Defence.[11]

Davis attributes American intelligence failure to the lack of collegiality and relative weak consensus-making capability among the U.S. intelligence agencies, rendering the results of contradictory intelligence judgements issued by different intelligence agencies. In comparison, British intelligence failure was occasionally caused by one-sided and mistaken intelligence judgements resultant of the institutional integration processes underpinned by sometimes over-collegiate intelligence collaboration processes which did not pay sufficient attention to minority reports, anomalies, and outliers.[12]

In parallel with the above mainstream approach, a minority approach was established in a C.I.A.-published report entitled “Analytical Culture in the U.S. Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study” written by the C.I.A. intelligence scholar, Rob Johnston, who approached intelligence culture from the perspectives of epistemology and cultural anthropology. While Johnston explored the various cultural factors contributing to intelligence failure, he proposed that the foundation of approaching intelligence culture was actually ‘intelligence analytical culture,’ which looked into the core relationship between intelligence and epistemology as a form of worldview.[13]

In the first place, Johnston suggested that intelligence inevitably involves tradecraft, but tradecraft was neither an art nor a craft. Tradecraft was considered by Johnston as a scientific process. In the conventional “intelligence analytical culture,” “traditional intelligence cycle” expected the intelligence practitioner to first engage with the “planning and direction” procedure, then to conduct “collection,” followed by “processing,” then the “analysis and production” step would ensue with the “dissemination” as the final step, but would start the next intelligence cycle by engaging again with the “planning and direction” procedure (Figure 1).

Figure 1The Traditional Intelligence Cycle[14]

Influenced by positivism, Johnston suggested that in reality the intelligence cycle is actually full of possibilities of “jumping step” and “reverse.” Because intelligence’s objective is to seek for the objective truth, intelligence practitioners should patiently conduct a series of recursive analyses so that the intelligence cycle could spiral forward, in which the next intelligence cycle will get closer to the objective truth than the previous intelligence cycle (Figure 2).[15]

Figure 2: The ‘Real’ Intelligence Cycle

A fascinating point that Johnston made in his notion of “intelligence analytical culture” was that the intelligence practitioner’s personal worldview or Weltanschauung can also cause intelligence failure.[16] In other words, there is actually nothing wrong in taking things personally because intelligence itself is a product of culture, which is inevitably ingrained in the practitioner’s mind and soul, which are also products of culture. But because Western intelligence analyses strive to de-personalize, henceforth in general assuming the presence of deception, intelligence practitioners were always culturally expected to review information’s validity and reliability from a skeptical viewpoint, in which they tend to seek for deceptiveness, anomaly and outlier in information.[17]

Actually, I think Johnston’s positivistic intelligence epistemology can also be a form of intelligence culture. We can say that relying on positivistic methodologies to establish objective truth as the main or sole objective of intelligence is quite a uniquely and personally Western intelligence culture. For instance, the ancient Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu (circa 544-496 B.C.E.), dedicated the entire final Chapter 13 of his seminal The Art of War to the use of spies. Sun Tzu’s epistemological embedding was actually a form of “radical inductivism.”[18] Sun Tzu trusted neither gods nor ghosts, did not rely on deductive knowledge generalized from past experience and observed phenomena, and did not rely on his advisors and commanders who appeared to have the relevant experience, skills and track record.[19] Who Sun Tzu only personally trusted for genuine intelligence were the men from the enemy’s camp, who were able to tell him personally the exact circumstances of the other side’s ever-changing situation. Because the empirical reality in war is by nature continuously unfolding and fast-evolving wherein new dynamics and emerging variables always come into play, Sun Tzu’s radical inductivism had presented an ancient, non-Western intelligence epistemology which shaped present-day China’s intelligence apparatus.[20]

The above discussion on comparative intelligence culture is very instructive for us to think about how to approach contemporary Japanese intelligence culture. In the following pages, I will however argue for the use of ontology to conceptualize Japanese intelligence culture. Epistemology and ontology are both essential for understanding non-Western intelligence culture. It is safe to say that, in contrast to the Chinese intelligence culture of “radical inductivism” epistemology, the Japanese intelligence culture is more ontological to the extent that the praxis of subversion was central in Japanese intelligence practice.

What did this subversive ontology mean? Before the First World War, the Imperial Japanese Army (I.J.A.) had already established a specific non-Western intelligence culture called “Special Duty Unit (S.D.U.)” (Tokumu Kikan; 特務機関), which is the main object of illustration in this article. My main argument is that our fellow Japanese colleagues were so personally dedicated in their intelligence practice to the extent that they made full use of their own personal self and resources to establish a series of rhizome-like secretive networks for which subverting the enemies into S.D.U. agents must go hand in hand with gathering intelligence on the ground. A significant strength of such approach is that by aiming at subverting the enemies of all races into spies working for Japan, it could arguably be the most inclusive intelligence system of mankind in history.

Through illustrating Japan’s intelligence development in light of this subversive ontology, I aim to establish a new approach to study other non-Western intelligence cultures by identifying their epistemological and ontological gist, which should be firmly grounded in the cultural and intellectual traditions of the Global South.

2. Policy Issue: Japan to Join the Five Eyes

In August 2020, the U.K. Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab (2019-present), and the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Motegi Toshimitsu[21] (茂木敏充; 2019-present), met in London. After the meeting, Raab said, “Japan is a close friend of the U.K. and our key security partner in Asia.”[22] Raab also stated, “Whether it’s our collective response to COVID-19, cyber security, climate change, or support for freedom in Hong Kong—the U.K. and Japan stand side by side, and I look forward to an even closer partnership in future.”[23]

In fact, by end of July 2020, the U.S.-U.K. right-wing think tank, Henry Jackson Society, had already held an international conference on how the Five Eyes could decouple from China. In the meeting, the chairman of Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Australian Liberal Democratic Party member, Andrew Hastie, suggested that the Five Eyes may consider forming a free trade zone by themselves, and inviting Japan to join the Five Eyes intelligence sharing system. Hastie’s suggestion was initially supported by the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairman and the Conservative Party member, Tom Tugendhat. The proposal also received positive response from the participating Japanese Defense Minister, Kono Taro (河野太朗; 2019-2020), who then promised to support the post-Brexit U.K. to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which was established by Japan, Australia, New Zealand and other Asia-Pacific countries in 2018.[24]

This section will discuss the strategic considerations explaining why the Five Eyes would like to invite Japan to join them. I will suggest that the Five Eyes, wishing to make use of Japan as a geopolitical pivot in Northeast Asia, henceforth would consider strengthening Japan’s post-WWII restricted intelligence system. To achieve this objective, I will experiment by presenting a framework of racial-international relations to visualize that though the Five Eyes are apparently multi-racial societies, in actuality their domestic and foreign policies were crafted to maintain the racial-cultural supremacy, security interest, and perpetual hegemony of the white ruling class of predominantly English-speaking Anglo-Saxons.[25]

I will infer that the Five Eyes intend to constrain/enable Tokyo to conduct offshore surveillance and offshore subversion operations against the rise and dynamics of China, Russia, and North Korea in the region. In the midst of America’s global decline, this was intended to speed up the transition in which the Five Eyes’ white ruling classes forge a new multilateral global hegemonic bloc with the Japanese ruling elite.[26]

2.1 Japan to Join Five Eyes: Ideational Origin and Policy Discussions

The inception of the Five Eyes was closely related with Japan’s WWII defeat. Soon after the Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced his Empire’s unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, the U.S. President Harry Truman (1945-1953) approved the establishment of a global signal intelligence sharing network with the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, which was known as the “Five Eyes Agreement.” The Agreement listed the United States as the “first party,” whereas the other four countries signed as the “second parties.” This post-WWII arrangement suggested that the United States was expected to be responsible for issuing all security clearance and laying down the requirements of the related procedure. In other words, the second parties could only share intelligence with America’s prior approval.[27]

In 1947, the United States and the Soviet Union formally started the Cold War. The Five Eyes were then responsible for conducting maritime surveillance and signal intelligence operations against Soviet ships. In the 1950s, the Five Eyes Agreement added three “third party” signing member-countries: Norway (1952), Denmark (1954), and West Germany (1955). But the extent of intelligence sharing between the Five Eyes and the “third party” member-states was very limited. After the Cold War ended in the 1990s, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Belgium, and Italy also joined the Five Eyes Agreement as “third party” member-states. Though the Five Eyes then became Fourteen Eyes, these countries were all ruled by white Westerners.[28]

International discussion about Japan’s potential membership in the Five Eyes alliance only started in the 2000s. Why? What were the political, racial, and cultural factors that had hindered Japan’s accession to the Five Eyes alliance? A main factor, this article argues, is that before the Second World War, the I.J.A. had already developed a sophisticated, relatively comprehensive, and innovative foreign intelligence strategy that effectively integrated the practices of espionage, subversion, regime change, and war. Known as the “Special Duty Unit” (Tokumu Kikan; 特務機関), this culture-specific Japanese intelligence strategy was beyond the Western white ruling class’ cognitive reach. It was reasonable that they felt threatened, which caused a high level of insecurity and mistrust for their Japanese partners after the Second World War.[29]

As a result, it was unsurprising that the recent idea of inviting Japan to join the Five Eyes could only be traced to October 2018. The American think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies, published a report entitled “More Important Than Ever: The U.S.-Japan Alliance for the 21st Century,” written by a research team led by the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Lee Armitage (2001-2005), and the American political science professor, Joseph Nye.[30]

Their report concluded that China’s rise and the North Korean problem had deeply changed the U.S.’ Asia-Pacific strategic environment. Despite the United States and Japan experiencing trade frictions in the 1980s, the two countries had experienced more common threats since the late 1990s, which made the U.S.-Japan alliance more important than ever. In order to deepen and renew the bilateral security alliance, the report recommended that,

One opportunity for deeper cooperation in the long-term is the inclusion of Japan in the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network with the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Japan already has strong relationships with these countries, but in the meantime, intelligence sharing on missile defense, anti-submarine warfare, and space-based imaging would mark an important step forward. Japan should move promptly to adopt the security protection required to make its inclusion in Five Eyes a realistic possibility.[31]

It was evident that the ideational origin for Japan to join the Five Eyes was first initiated by American strategists. Strategists of other Five Eyes members then joined the policy discussion. For instance, in June 2019, Australian intelligence scholar Nicholas Fishlock published an article entitled “Policies to Please Political Partners: The Development of Japan’s Intelligence Policy in the 21st Century” with the Swedish think tank, Institute for Security and Development Policy.[32] Fishlock approached the question from an Australian perspective, which entails the following main points.

In the first place, in December 2013 the government of the former Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, issued the “Specially Designated Secret Act,” as a response to the increasingly complicated security environment in Northeast Asia. After her WWII defeat, through Article 9 of “The Constitution of Japan,” the United States had been constraining the Japanese intelligence system from developing her own foreign intelligence capability. Japanese foreign intelligence had to rely on the U.S. provision, causing Japan to be excluded from the security discussion between North Korea and South Korea. Such constitutional provision also rendered Japan unable to respond to Russian deployments in the Kurile Islands, unable to manage and control controversial American behaviors in the region, and unable to effectively handle Japan’s territorial disputes and maritime frictions with China in the East China Sea and South China Sea.[33]

Secondly, in recent years, Japan has been enhancing her global influence through buttressing her leadership status in multilateral economic platforms and signing international trade agreements. Japan is in urgent need for a foreign intelligence apparatus to handle international frictions and emerging security issues.[34] The “Specially Designated Secret Act” therefore enabled the Japanese intelligence system to be restructured. It was so designed that the Prime Minister-supervised Chief Cabinet Secretary (内閣官房長官) would be able to direct the centralized state intelligence system through the Chief Cabinet Secretary’s own “Cabinet Intelligence and Research Organization” (内閣情報調査室, Naikaku Jōhō Chōsashitsu) as the  key leading state intelligence coordinating agency. Under this reform program, the former Prime Minister Abe set up the newly established “National Security Council” (国家安全保障会議, Kokka Anzen Hoshō Kaigi) to plan, coordinate and implement a series of inter-ministerial security policy reform measures. The reform also provided a more direct diplomatic channel for Japan, the United States and allies to discuss their security relations.[35]

2.2 Japan’s Post-WWII Intelligence System: Functions, Reform and Organizations

Thirdly, although Japan’s post-WWII intelligence capability was restricted, similar to other countries nowadays, the intelligence work of contemporary Japanese government can roughly be divided into five categories:[36]

  • Human intelligence (HUMINT) aims to develop and use domestic and overseas individuals and networks as intelligence assets and sources to gather secret intelligence and practice tradecraft for the intelligence agencies.
  • Signal intelligence (SIGINT) is mainly used by national defense departments to gather and intercept different sorts of wireless communications and network signals as the key method. SIGINT mainly gathers defense and military related secret communications for intelligence analysis purpose.
  • Image intelligence (IMINT) aims to capture, document, record and reproduce all kinds of photographs, images, films, and videos as the main method of intelligence gathering. Its applications are wide-ranging. Apart from gathering images about defense and military facilities, IMINT also uses outer-space satellites to record images and sends out human agents to such sites as ongoing protests and conflict zones to take photographs and record videos for intelligence analysis.
  • Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) uses open source research methods to gather publicly available information about any physical entities, wireless and online publications for intelligence analysis. These open sources include newspapers, magazines, books, and journals, which do not necessitate gathering classified or secret materials.
  • Cyber-based intelligence (CYBINT) is conducted through different methods of network surveillance, hacking, persistent backdoor installation, and censorship to gather and analyze the contents in cyber-space. CYBINT would be in the form of online information, data flows, and cyber activities, which include social media communications and emails.

In general, operating foreign intelligence should involve HUMINT as the necessary method. However, the post-WWII Japanese intelligence system has been restricted by the United States, which did not wish Japan to fully develop her own foreign intelligence function. This was mainly because British and American intelligence scholars espoused a racist belief that the “Japanese national psyche”[37] was accurately depicted by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who once said, “everyone Japanese, both male and female, is a born spy.”[38] This culture-specific national psyche granted the I.J.A. intelligence agencies an exceptionally privileged and sacred status in Japanese society, which facilitated the emergence, rapid development, and sweeping successes of their subversive networks across Asia.

As a result, despite the existence of some support for Japan to join the Five Eyes, some in American intelligence circles were cautious about the idea. For example, American intelligence scholar Richard Samuels cautioned in 2019 that though the I.J.A. intelligence organizations were forced to dissolve after WWII, elite I.J.A. intelligence officers were then absorbed by the following six post-WWII Japanese intelligence organizations:

  • The “Intelligence and Analysis Service” (情報分析局) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which already extended to OSINT operations in foreign countries in order to gather overseas intelligence.
  • The “Public Security Intelligence Agency” (公安調查廳) of the Ministry of Justice was responsible for conducting intelligence work on counterterrorism and anti-extremism.
  • The “Security Bureau” (安全局) of the National Policy Agency was responsible for investigating cyber/network crime, organized crime, and other cases related to national security. The Security Bureau also closely collaborated with the Public Security Intelligence Agency to conduct counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations.
  • The “Defense Intelligence Headquarters” (防衛情報本部) of the Ministry of Defense was established in 1997 and made responsible for the military intelligence operations of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, including maritime intelligence, especially SIGINT.
  • Different intelligence departments within the Ministry of International Trade and Industry were responsible for gathering economic and technological intelligence, which constitute the core of Japanese economic and trade intelligence. In the 1980s when the U.S.-Japan trade war broke out, Japan’s high capability in gathering economic and trade intelligence surprised the United States to the extent that the American government suspected that Japan did not completely give up HUMINT after the WWII defeat.[39]
  • The Cabinet Intelligence and Research Organization under the Chief Cabinet Secretary was responsible for providing the Prime Minister regular intelligence reports. Since 2013 when the National Security Council was formally established, the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Organization was authorized to coordinate all the above departments and agencies across the governmental bureaucracy. It was also the key intelligence contact point between the governments of Japan and other countries’ intelligence agencies.

2.3 Japan-Proposed “Intelligence in Diplomacy” Practice

Fourthly, Japan’s wish to join the Five Eyes also stemmed from her own realist needs. According to the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security (1960), though the United States appeared to provide foreign intelligence to Japan in order to compensate Tokyo’s inability to gather foreign intelligence, American provisions were not able to meet Japan’s growing needs. What Japan really required was the concrete intelligence that would help Tokyo to judge and craft suitable policies in accordance with the rapidly changing external circumstances. Therefore, in 2018, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Armitage and American political scientist Nye made a proposal to the American government to include Japan in the Five Eyes. This was intended to enable Japan to develop foreign intelligence, on the one hand. On the other, it was intended to require and normalize Japan to share her foreign intelligence with the Five Eyes.[40]

Fifthly, including Japan in the Five Eyes would enable the United States and its allies to further make use of Japan’s unique geopolitical territory and position in the northern Indo-Pacific region, in complement with Australia’s unique geopolitical territory and position in the southern Indo-Pacific. This prospective arrangement was intended to enable the Anglo-Saxon ruling class in the United States, U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to have a very capable non-white Asian country to assist in dealing with the increasingly complex Indo-Pacific geopolitical landscape. This was also intended to make use of Japan to contain China, Russia, and North Korea as one of the geopolitical pivots in order to serve the interest of the Five Eyes’ white ruling class.[41]

Sixthly, against the backdrop of the above discussion on racial-international relations, the Abe government encountered a number of diplomatic challenges, adding to Japan’s urgency to establish a foreign intelligence apparatus. Only in 2013, did a series of concomitant crises—the Algerian hostage crisis, the North Korean nuclear and missile tests, and the Japan-China dispute over Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands—force Abe to gather the Foreign Affairs Minister, the Defense Minister, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, and other national security-related departments’ chiefs into the Prime Minister-led National Security Council. Since then, the Prime Minister was not only able to direct, review, and reform national security and intelligence policies, but was also able to re-centralize the once de-centralized intelligence powers from the ministries and their departments. The Prime Minister has been more able to implement different security and intelligence policies into every unit of the entire governmental bureaucracy, enabling the central authority to be more capable of executing policy orders. It was Abe’s key achievement in having successfully established the National Security Council and reforming the natural security intelligence system.[42]

Moreover, the National Security Council also became Japan’s diplomatic contact point with foreign governments, which provided a dialogical platform for foreign heads of states and allies’ national security councils, covering such timely issues of cyber-security, missile technology, and military activities. The Ambassador of Japan and scholar, Kitaoka Hajime (北岡元), proposed the “diplomacy in intelligence” practice.  Accordingly, Western intelligence work was dominated by the zero-sum game logic of realism, which was contradictory to the positive-sum game thinking of diplomacy. Kitaoka, therefore, suggested the novel “practicing intelligence through diplomacy” praxis with the goal of achieving win-win outcome as the “realist equilibrium” for the two gaming parties.[43]

Finally, Australian intelligence scholar Tim Legrand also suggested that the informal liaison within the Five Eyes has been fostering the national security discussion and legislation of the member-states. Fishlock believes that the similar views of Kitaoka and Legrand were worth considering and able to provide a suitable theoretical foundation for Japan to join the Five Eyes.[44]

2.4 Five Eyes’ Possible Requirements from Japan

Nonetheless, Fishlock considered a few requirements that Japan would need to fulfil in order to join the Five Eyes. First, Japan had a record of leaking classified secrets before 2013. In the 2000s, it was reported that officers of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force sold military secrets to a Russian defense attaché, causing classified footage concerning a Chinese submarine to be publicly disclosed. In 2007, an investigation of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force found that 38 officers without suitable security clearance possessed highly classified information about the U.S. Aegis combat system. In 2010, classified footage regarding a clash between a Japanese government ship and a Chinese fishing boat was made public, causing diplomatic crisis. These incidents of leakage aroused suspicion that the Japanese intelligence community possessed an anti-America sentiment that caused classified materials to be leaked to China and Russia. The Five Eyes would, therefore, require Tokyo to implement appropriate measures to effectively guard secret intelligence.

Secondly, in 2013, the Abe government quickly passed the “Specially Designated Secret Act,” triggering criticism from Japanese society. Abe was criticized for pleasing the United States and its allies at the expense of the Japanese people’s safety. It also aroused an increased societal interest in monitoring security intelligence agencies and the civil demand to protect the whistle-blowers.[45] Moreover, in Japanese political culture, there was a tendency and habit to depoliticize the intelligence community and to conceal embarrassment. Some Five Eyes members were concerned if Japan could openly discuss sensitive topics. The Five Eyes would likely ask Tokyo to protect press freedom, open government, and civil society.[46]

Thirdly, from 1895 to 1945, Japan did excellently in HUMINT and SIGINT, which partially explains why victorious Japan was able to intercept Russian military communications in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). However, in a similar vein, a main reason why the United States defeated Japan in the Pacific War and assassinated the Commander-in-chief of the I.J.A. Combined Fleet, Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (山本五十六; 1884-1943), was because the United States was able to intercept Japan’s military communications. The United States judged that the main threat stemming from Japan’s Pacific War had to do with the I.J.A.’s exceptional HUMINT capability, which installed networks of subversion in Asian countries. After WWII, the United States, therefore, only allowed Japan to develop SIGINT, IMINT and OSINT, but not HUMINT. Because HUMINT and subversion work are two sides of the same coin—though the Five Eyes would consider permitting Japan to develop foreign HUMINT operations—they would demand to have access to all intelligence gathered by Tokyo, and to participate, and even supervise Japanese conduct of foreign subversion work for the Five Eyes’ interests. This arrangement would render Japan a junior partner of the Five Eyes.[47]

In sum, since 2018, the right-wing forces of the United States, U.K., and Australia have been speeding up the policy discussion to let Japan join the Five Eyes. Regarding their strategic intent, there are a few judgements to be taken away.[48]

First, the Five Eyes aimed to capitalize on Japan’s increasing pressure to restore her foreign intelligence apparatus, in order to serve the Five Eyes’ Anglo-Saxon white ruling class.

Second, the Five Eyes would set out conditions to require Japan’s foreign intelligence system only to operate within the Five Eyes intelligence sharing framework, which would allow the Five Eyes to have access to the foreign intelligence that Japan would secure. This would also shape how Japan will re-develop and re-deploy her foreign intelligence network in favor of the Five Eyes’ future and to preemptively prevent any adversarial consequence.

Finally, the Five Eyes intended to constrain/enable Japan’s newly centralized state intelligence system to contain China, Russia, and North Korea. It was intended to smoothly transition the declining American unilateral hegemony to a new global hegemony project continuously led by the Five Eyes’ Anglo-Saxon white ruling class.

3. Empirical Issue I
Pre-WWI Japanese Intelligence Cultural Repertoire: Formation, Variations, and Operations

What was the gist of this Japanese culture-specific intelligence strategy? Centering on the I.J.A. intelligence officer as a free agent-actor, each individual intelligence officer established his/her own tightly knit and seamlessly organized “special duty units” (S.D.U.s) (Tokumu Kikan; 特務機関), who also supported his/her S.D.U. members to further establish one’s own S.D.U. Henceforth, the S.D.U.s formed a decentralized intelligence network that was able to perpetually expand outward. Whilst these S.D.U.s were still commanded by the I.J.A. headquarters, each of them enjoyed very high degree of freedom in designing and conducting operations on their own. As a relatively advanced free intelligence agent model at that time, the S.D.U.s were able to achieve two contradictory goals for the Empire of Japan: (1) enabling the I.J.A. intelligence officer to be the maker of her/his own destiny; (2) serving the interest of the Japanese Empire together as a unified whole.[49] This intelligence culture could be traced to the late nineteenth century.

After the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), a member of the Japanese right-wing elite, Konoe Atsumaro (近衛篤麿; 1863-1904), wishing to improve Japan-China relations and strengthen Japan’s intelligence work on China, established a pan-Asia political movement and organization in Japan—the East Asia Common Culture Society. In 1900 and 1901, he opened two campuses of the East Asia Common Cultural College in Nanjing and Shanghai, respectively, where Japanese students were recruited to learn Chinese language and culture. Despite the graduates not receiving training in tradecraft, they were recruited by the I.J.A.’s intelligence arms.[50]

In the meantime, the I.J.A.-associated right-wing leader, Toyama Mitsuru (頭山滿; 1855-1944), established the “Dark Ocean Society” (玄洋社). As a shadow intelligence and spying organization for the I.J.A., Dark Ocean Society organized armed groups in the Korean peninsula, Manchuria (northeastern China), and other Chinese provinces. Many members of the Dark Ocean Society graduated from the East Asia Common Cultural College. Some of them were assigned by the I.J.A. to Southeast Asia and South Asia to collaborate with the anti-colonial revolutionaries in Asia.[51]

In 1901, Dark Ocean Society leader Uchida Ryohei (內田良平; 1873-1937) received support from the Japanese government’s cabinet and the zaibatsu (財閥; big business conglomerate) to establish the spying organization—Amur River Society (黑龍會). Their geopolitical goal was to contain Russia by keeping Moscow out from the north of the Amur River and from the entire East Asian region. Apart from running espionage schools and promoting militarist foreign policy agenda, Amur River Society also supported the Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat-sen, conducted assassinations, plotted subversive operations, and drew military maps.[52]

The above right-wing organizations were supported by the I.J.A. and the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to assist in launching a number of coup d’état and political incidents in the Korean peninsula and China. The espionage network then covered Central Asia, Russia, and northern Europe. The most well-known was perhaps Akashi Motojiro’s (明石元二郎; 1866-1919) signature “Falling Flowers and Flowing Water” (rakka ryusui; 落花流水) covert operations in Russia and Finland. These included the assassinations of imperial Russian officials, launching bloody subversive movements, and to support the Finnish revolutionary party to launch violent anti-government protests within Russia. These operations successfully embroiled the Tsar in continued internal troubles and external turmoil.[53]

Based on the experience of successfully containing Russia, during the First World War Japan further experimented with a new and flexible special duty agent organizational model known as the “Tokumu Kikan” or S.D.U.s. Despite the majority of S.D.U.s belonging formally to the military hierarchy, a substantial number of the S.D.U.s were semi-official intelligence organizations operated by I.J.A. officers outside the formal military hierarchy.[54]

After the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, Japan aimed to prevent the Bolshevik encroachment to the East. In 1917, the I.J.A.’s Kwantung Army (関東軍) assigned Ishimitsu Makiyo (石光真清; 1868-1942) to Siberia, Amur Oblast, and Primorsky Krai of the Russian Far East, instructing him to assist the Cossacks to resist the Red Army. Aiming to enable the independence of the Russian Far East from Moscow, his geopolitical goal was to create a pro-Japanese buffer state.[55]

Being fluent in Russian language, Ishimitsu Makiyo established the “Ishimitsu Kikan” in 1918. Using the Japanese mining companies in the Russian Far East as bases and for cover, Ishimitsu Makiyo recruited local Japanese for translation, and financial and administrative purposes. Because the Cossacks were unable to resist the Red Army and protect the Japanese, they asked the Japanese to arm themselves and fight with them together against the Red Army. Ishimitsu Makiyo requested help from the I.J.A. Tokyo eventually sent out several tens of thousands of troops to Siberia to assist the Cossacks. With the Republic of Siberia then established, Ishimitsu Makiyo served as the first Japanese ambassador to the new republic.[56]

Moreover, in 1937, U.S. intelligence reported that a Japanese female intelligence officer established the “Kawashima Kikan,” probably led by the Manchurian princess, Kawashima Yoshiko (川島芳子; 1907-1948). It was reported that the Kawashima Kikan used such tradecraft techniques as sex lure and honey trap to actively operate along the Soviet border with Manchuria. These female-led S.D.U.s were commanded by the intelligence department of the Kwantung Army in Harbin of today’s Heilongjiang province of China. Later, the I.J.A.’s other S.D.U.s were also established in Chinese cities of Shanghai, Nanjing, Hankou, Qingdao, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Fuzhou. In the United States, S.D.U.s were also found in localities where they mostly used Japanese companies as bases and cover.[57]

Left: Kawashima Yoshiko in the 1920s. Source: Kamisaka Fuyuko (1984), Dansō no Reijin: Kawashima Yoshiko-den, Tokyo: Bungeishunju.
Right: Kawashima Yoshiko in uniform of the Manchukuo Military. Both photos are in the public domain.

In 1938, the Japanese Ministry of War established the “Training Unit for Rear Unit Agents” in Tokyo. After a year, the unit moved to the Nakano district of Tokyo and was renamed as the “Nakano School” (陸軍中野学校; Rikugun Nakano Gakkō). Until Japan surrendered in 1945, the Nakano School had trained more than 2,500 spies. It was considered to be Japan’s elite military intelligence training institution. Students were required to study history, psychology, and foreign languages. They also received spiritual training in imperial Japanese values. Intended learning outcomes consisted of mastering and applying tradecraft techniques in practical contexts, including but not limited to the skills of deception, disseminating false information, infiltration, detection and investigation, sabotage, propaganda, hiding, broadcast, explosives, and coding. Students also had placements in factories, news agencies and broadcasting stations in Manchuria.[58]

When Japan saw herself facing likely defeat in the later stages of the Second World War, the Nakano School extended its syllabi to cover guerrilla warfare and agricultural self-sufficiency to prepare its graduates to conduct protracted guerrilla warfare in foreign territories. After hiding in the Philippine jungles for twenty-nine years after Imperial Japan surrendered in the Second World War, the Nakano School graduate and I.J.A. intelligence officer, Onoda Hiro (小野田寬郎; 1922-2014), formally surrendered to the Philippine authorities in 1974. The incident reflected the Nakano School’s emphasis on willpower training and its enduring impact on the graduates.[59]

Left: Onoda Hiro (right) offering his military sword to Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos on the day of his surrender on March 11, 1974. Photo by the courtesy of Malacañang Palace, Manila, is in the public domain.
Right: Onoda photographed as a young officer in 1944 or 1945.

Nakano School graduates’ footprints were also found in Asia and the Soviet Union. For example, in 1942, when British troops surrendered to the I.J.A. in Singapore, the British were requested to hand over about 45,000 personnel of the Indian National Army to the “Fujiwara Kikan” led by Major Fujiwara Iwaichi (藤原岩市; 1908-1985).[60] The incident suggests that the I.J.A. had already infiltrated and subverted many members of the Indian National Army, which undermined British colonial rule in the British India.[61]

Based on the above historical snapshots, it is reasonable to suggest that the pre-WWII Japanese intelligence cultural practice is a kind of free agent model. After receiving rigorous training and upon graduation, an I.J.A. intelligence officer was re-made into a new person who possessed exceptional determination and multiple skills. Their purpose of life and death was only to serve the Empire. The I.J.A. invested resources and assigned them to establish each individual’s own Tokumu Kikan (S.D.U.s) as the espionage-cum-subversion network. These S.D.U.s, using Japanese companies based abroad and expatriates as cover/bases and as basic manpower resources, further infiltrated into foreign organizations, groups, and individuals for intelligence and subversion work.[62]

Tokumu Kikan’s subversion work did not only intend to subvert the foreign nationals into spies and proxies to serve the interests of the Japanese Empire, but also to pragmatically converge their ideologies with Japan’s political goals and enable them to collaborate with Japan in joint actions. Because an S.D.U. agent enjoyed a relatively high degree of freedom and was able to make direct request to Tokyo, they became free agents of their own destinies who solely worked for the Empire and the I.J.A.[63]

4. Empirical Issue II
Phases of Post-WWII Japanese Intelligence System Development

4.1 Phase I (1945-1950): Anti-America Consciousness Persists

After Japan surrendered in WWII, based on intelligence gathered on the I.J.A., the military intelligence department “G2” of the U.S.-led Supreme Command for Allied Power concluded that there was a “very clever turncoat” within the I.J.A.’s intelligence organization—Arisue Seizo (有末精三; 1895-1992). Arisue Seizo was instructed by the I.J.A. intelligence leader, Kawabe Torashiro (河辺虎四郎; 1890-1960), to develop intelligence relationship with General Charles Willoughby, who was assigned by the Supreme Command for Allied Power to take over and disintegrate the I.J.A. intelligence system.[64] It is imaginable that the collaboration between Willoughby and Arisue was not smooth.

Although Japan and the United States appeared to cooperate after WWII, in actuality it was the latter who acted in the role of a ‘supervisor’ to control, manage, and restrict Japanese intelligence organizations and I.J.A. officers. On the one hand, the United States wished to transition them to become instruments of America’s Japan policy; to turn Japan to become her geopolitical pivot to contain China and Soviet Union. On the other hand, the United States wished to make use of the I.J.A. intelligence organizations’ rich experience in the Korean peninsula to assist the South Korean regime to resist the North Korean communist force. However, because the post-war Japanese intelligence community knew about the American intent, and although the Empire of Japan had surrendered, Japanese hearts and minds did not.[65]

For instance, a declassified 1949 intelligence report of the C.I.A. made the accusation that the Arisue Kikan led by Arisue Seizo was allegedly involved in giving instructions to the “National Restoration Society” (民族復興會; Minzuku Fukkokai), which was listed by the United States as a terrorist organization. The C.I.A. also accused Arisue Seizo and his Arisue Kikan of making use of the G-2’s request in designing and establishing the National Police Reserve (警察預備隊) to re-militarize Japan. The C.I.A. further accused the Arisue Kikan of proactively gathering intelligence against the United States and the Soviet Union.[66]

Furthermore, despite U.S. financial support for Japanese intelligence activities, the United States found out that Japanese intelligence agents regularly deceived the U.S. authorities. U.S. officials accused Arisue Seizo and Kawabe Torashiro of allegedly leaking senior-level classified information to China and Japanese underground organizations, which they gathered through their working relationships with their U.S. counterparts.[67] In 1950, the Korean War suddenly broke out without any prior intelligence and preparation, which caught the United States by surprise. Because Japanese intelligence was unable to assist America to better understand the circumstances and dynamics of the Korean peninsula in advance, Willoughby decided not to work with Arisue Seizo anymore. Another I.J.A. officer, Sugita Ichiji (杉田一次; 1904-1993), was selected to represent the Japanese intelligence community.[68] Nonetheless, the anti-America consciousness within the Japanese intelligence community persisted.

4.2 Phase II (1950-2001): America Continues to Intervene, Pressurize and Restrict

After Arisue Seizo was dismissed in 1950, Willoughby requested Arisue’s former deputy, Hattori Takushiro (服部卓四郎; 1901-1960), to design the “National Police Reserve,” in preparation for establishing the Japanese police force. But Hattori instead set up a new army. Under the pressure of the Korean War, Willoughby appointed eleven former I.J.A. officers to serve as senior police officers of the National Police Reserve. These incidents show Willoughby’s real intent was two-fold. First was to completely dissolve and re-structure the I.J.A. through forming the police force.[69] Second was to re-focus the attention of Japanese intelligence to the domestic communist forces, including the Japanese Communist Party, Chinese Communist Party members in Japan, and the Communist Party of Korea.[70]

In 1952, America eventually made Japanese leaders agree to restrict the restoration of right-wing militarism. The Japanese elite also agreed to establish Japan’s “National Police Agency” (警察庁, Keisatsu-Chō) as the state bureaucratic unit to lead the post-war Japanese intelligence development. Against this background of institutional reform, the National Police Agency led and established the “Cabinet Research Chamber,” which aimed to coordinate and collect the gathered and analyzed intelligence from different Japanese governmental intelligence units. However, at that time, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida (吉田茂; 1948-1954) and Chief Cabinet Secretary Ogata Taketora (緒方竹虎) wished to co-establish a prime minister-directed Japanese foreign intelligence agency. But the C.I.A. only agreed to provide financial resources to establish the “Security Section” within the National Police Agency. The Security Section was then authorized to conduct SIGINT, OSINT, and HUMINT operations, which absorbed more than three hundred I.J.A. intelligence officers. Thirty of them were solely responsible for intelligence operations against China and the Soviet Union.[71]

However, the leadership status and foreign intelligence projects of the Cabinet Research Chamber were opposed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which eventually rendered the Cabinet Research Chamber only responsible for handling domestic intelligence work. As a result, Ogata Taketora was forced to cut down 90 percent of the Cabinet Research Chamber’s budget, which cost Japan the absence of a centrally coordinated national intelligence system. This situation continued until 1986 when the Cabinet Research Chamber was reformed to become the “Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office,” which was authorized the power and resources to relocate intelligence officers from other intelligence units to work for the Cabinet Chief Secretary.[72] Nonetheless, under America’s various forms of intervention, degradation, criticism, and pressure, the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office became an international joke as “the world’s worst intelligence unit.”[73] Despite the U.S. leaders allowing Japan to establish other intelligence units (e.g. Public Security Intelligence Agency of Ministry of Justice), the United States only allowed them to conduct counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations against the communists, North Korea, and trade unionists.[74]

On another front, in 1960, American and Japanese governments agreed to conduct joint military intelligence operations. Before that, the logistics unit of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force established a secretive intelligence organization called “Musashi Kikan” (宮本機關). Musashi Kikan was code-named in honor of the double-bladed swordsman and strategist, Miyamoto Musashi (宮本武藏; 1584-1645), who was renowned as a “sword-saint” (kensei) of Japan. Because U.S. officials knew about the presence of Musashi Kikan, they proposed a joint military intelligence project with Japan. The real intent of U.S. officials was to make use of the agreement to enable the Musashi Kikan agents to collaborate with American intelligence agents in order to serve the U.S. Cold War agenda by carrying out intelligence operations against China, Soviet Union, North Korea, and North Vietnam.[75]

In 1963, Japan was expected to shoulder half of the expenses of the Japan-U.S. joint military intelligence project. Musashi Kikan was responsible for collecting IMINT and other kinds of intelligence from a total of twelve photo studios in Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo, and Fukuoka. Musashi Kikan was also responsible for interviewing Japanese enterprises’ employees in North Vietnam to gather intelligence about the Viet Cong’s hostile operations against Japanese and American citizens. In 1972, following the normalization of Japan-China relations, Musashi Kikan agents collaborated with the Japanese Ministry of Defense and Taiwan’s Guomindang government to gather intelligence directly from China,[76] after which they collected signal intelligence sent from Taiwan to such Chinese cities as Guangzhou, Guilin, and the island of Hainan.[77]

However, American officials’ criticism, degradation, pressure and intervention against the Japanese intelligence community did not stop. For example, in 1976, a Soviet MiG-25 aircraft fighter used low-altitude flight technique to successfully evade Japanese air-defense and radar systems. It then surprisingly landed at a civilian airport in Hokkaido safely. Whilst the Soviet pilot immediately sought political asylum from the U.S. authorities, Japan decided to quickly dismantle the aircraft fighter for researching Soviet aeronautic technology. The United States issued three public criticisms against Japan:[78] (1) Japanese ground-to-air radar system failed to detect the low-flying Soviet fighter-jet which illegally entered Japanese airspace; (2) Japanese aircraft failed to detect the low-flying Soviet fighter-jet; and (3) without knowing the Soviet fighter-jet’s intention and objective, Japan still allowed it to land at her own airport safely and in one piece.

In May 1993, when the U.S. shared with Japan that a North Korean missile landed at the Sea of Japan some 250 km away from the Japanese coast, it also criticized Japan for failure to detect the missile on her own and verify the reliability of the intelligence.[79] In March 1995, the Japanese extremist cult Aum Shinrikyo launched a sarin attack in the Tokyo subway, which killed thirteen passengers and caused permanent health damage to six thousand civilians. As the Aum Shinrikyo had already committed a number of related incidents from 1989 to 1995, the Public Security Intelligence Agency of the Ministry of Justice was therefore publicly criticized for intelligence failure and evading responsibility.[80]

In a nutshell, the U.S. used such pressure tactics as public criticisms and denunciation to render the post-WWII Japanese security environment to be dependent on U.S. provisions, restricting and obstructing Japan from developing her own state intelligence system. This was mainly because the United States determined that the pre-WWII Japanese intelligence culture and praxis of the S.D.U.s or Tokumu Kikan was the greatest security threat to U.S. national security.[81]

4.3 Phase III (2001-2013): Seeking Reform to Liberate from American Restriction

After America suffered from the September 11 attack in 2001, Japan’s external security environment experienced deep changes. China’s economy and defense expenses surpassed Japan’s. North Korea successfully developed weapons of significant destruction. Cybersecurity became a security priority of different nations. However, amid these changes, America’s integrative capability was in decline. The Japanese ruling elite therefore realized the urgent need to re-develop the foreign intelligence apparatus in the increasingly centralized Japanese state intelligence system.[82]

In 2001, the Japanese government used the pre-WWII “Nakano School” as the blueprint to establish the “Kodaira School” (小平學校) in Tokyo, which included foreign covert human intelligence training.[83] But American officials opposed and obstructed.[84] Apart from criticizing Japan for being unable to protect intelligence secrecy and causing security risks to the United States, the U.S. officials also set restrictions so that Japanese defense enterprises were unable to transact with American defense contractors.[85] The United States also publicly criticized the alleged sub-standard nature of Japanese intelligence, using it as an excuse to prevent Japan from joining the Five Eyes.[86]

Nonetheless, Japanese pressure and urgency to obtain quality foreign intelligence continued to increase. In the Middle East, the rise of such extremist organizations as the Islamic State revealed the weaknesses of the Japanese foreign intelligence service. In October 2004, a 24-year Japanese tourist was first taken hostage, then killed by the Islamic State. In October 2007, a Japanese university student was taken hostage, then released in Iran.[87]

In view of these developments, as a result, the Minister of Foreign Affairs (2004-2005) and Chief Cabinet Secretary (2007-2008), Machimura Nobutaka (町村信孝), of the Liberal Democratic government pushed the agenda to establish a new Japanese foreign intelligence system based on the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) model. Machimura’s proposal was opposed by bureaucrats of Ministry of Foreign Affairs.[88]

In 2005, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomat stationed in Shanghai committed suicide after falling into a honey trap set up by the Chinese. The scandal severely hit the reputation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2006, Machimura Nobutaka took advantage of the situation to push the parliament to establish an intelligence monitoring committee with the dual purposes to push intelligence institutional reform and allow the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office to centralize more intelligence powers back to the central authority. However, his reform was criticized as too radical by other intelligence departments, causing Machimura’s reform to end in failure.[89]

In January 2013, ten Japanese workers in a Japanese-owned natural gas plant in Algeria were taken hostage and killed.[90] The United States immediately sent aircraft to Algeria to ferry the hostages to German hospitals for treatment. The U.K. also immediately sent MI6 agents to Algeria to help in the rescue. But the Japanese government waited for four days until she took action because she relied upon the intelligence provided by foreign countries as she did not have a foreign intelligence apparatus. Analysts suggested that Japan was too dependent on the hostage intelligence provided by the United States and France, resulting in heavy casualties to the Japanese hostages.[91]

Japan was increasingly unhappy with America because the latter did not share critical intelligence with Japan and also restricted her allies to sign intelligence sharing agreements with Japan.[92] All the above incidents and events only accelerated the determination of the Japanese state and society to re-establish a centralized intelligence system. It was, therefore, not coincidental that in 2013, the Abe government set up the National Security Council to coordinate all intelligence-related work. These intelligence reform programs were intended to liberate Japanese intelligence from American control.[93] 

4.4: Pattern of Post-WWII Japanese Intelligence Development

Perhaps the phrase “there is an elephant in the room” is most appropriate to characterize Japan’s post-WWII intelligence development. Because of the United States being the elephant in the room, Japan’s intelligence system development had been constrained, and her foreign intelligence apparatus was restricted. However, global affairs moved in Japan’s favor as America’s power started to decline more than two decades ago, and more recently Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory and the COVID-19 pandemic even increased the steepness of America’s declining slope. These factors may indirectly be advantageous to Japan’s long-term struggle to reduce her intelligence dependency on America, and to liberate herself from American restrictions. Against these complex considerations, it was reasonable for the Five Eyes strategists to let Japan join the intelligence alliance in order to geopolitically contain a rising China and a resurgent Russia on behalf of a weakening America.[94]

However, with China being Japan’s largest trading partner, it is reasonable that Japan wishes to take advantage of China’s economic growth and development. The present-day China is not the same as the pre-WWII China where the Tokumu Kikan saw its heyday in East Asia. It would be difficult for Japan to re-enact such espionage-cum-subversive network against China in the twenty-first century.[95]

Moreover, in June 2020, the Japanese telecommunication company NTT confirmed that in December 2019, her network was breached by allegedly U.S.-based hackers. The incident raised the concern that the military communications of the Japan Self-Defense Forces was compromised. But NTT was only able to discover the hacking in May 2020.[96] One cannot easily dismiss the fact that Japan-U.S. intelligence mistrust is still present.[97] Against the above historical development pattern of the Japan-U.S. intelligence confrontation, it would be conceivable that allowing Japan to join the Five Eyes would likely generate more U.S.-Japan frictions.

5. Subversive Ontology: Outline of a Non-Western Intelligence Practice

Given Japan’s deep historical-cultural connections with China and India, it would not be far-fetched to hypothesize that Japan’s subversive ontology in Tokumu Kikan is an advanced integration of the discourses on subversion found in ancient Chinese and Indian strategic thought. Through a dialogue with the seminal works of the ancient Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, and the ancient Indian strategist, Kautilya (circa 375-283 BCE), as well as modern psychology, this section will outline what subversive ontology might mean for the contemporary intelligence services.[98]

In Chapter 13, “The Use of Spies” in The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: [99]


I am offering my transliteration from Chinese here. According to Sun Tzu, there are actually five types of spy: local agent, insider agent, subverted agent, doomed agent, and surviving agent. If one can master and make full use of all these five types concomitantly without a pattern detected, thus being unknown by anyone, s/he has achieved the status of divine manipulation of threads which is greatly desired by all the sovereign lords. Local agents are the ordinary people recruited to spy in the localities. Insider agents are the officials inside the enemy’s courts. Subverted agents are the enemy’s spies who work for us. Doomed agents bring flawed intelligence into the enemy’s camp for the purpose of deception, however if the plot is known by the enemy, they will be executed. Surviving agents are those sent to the enemy’s territory for detection and manage to return alive with intelligence.[100]

Sun Tzu, however, considered that the most important type among the five spies is actually the subverted agent. He wrote: 「五間之事,主必知之,知之必在於反間,故反間不可不厚也。」[101] In other words, among the five types of spies, the one who possesses the most knowledge about the enemy’s situation must be the subverted agent. Therefore, subverted agents must be awarded the largest amount of money and treated most favorably. The method is to investigate and find out who are the enemy’s spies among us and in our territory. Then, we should take the initiative to offer them, to buy them, to treat them with great respect and invaluable gifts, and to counsel and tempt them to work for us. Afterwards, they should be released and freed. Once they return to the enemy’s camp, these subverted agents could then be used by us. Knowing the enemy’s circumstances through the subverted agents, we can make great use of the local agents and the insider agents concomitantly. Knowing the enemy’s circumstances through the subverted agents, we can also make great use of the doomed agents to release flawed intelligence to the enemy. Knowing the enemy’s circumstances through the subverted agents, we can make great use of the surviving agents to gather intelligence in accordance with the plan and time schedule.[102]

Therefore, how to subvert the enemy’s spies to work for our national security is a very significant yet delicate topic in all nations’ security studies. In fact, the answers were already provided by Kautilya in his seminal work, The Arthashastra. Kautilya wrote, “Miraculous results can be achieved by practicing the methods of subversion.”[103] As far as the targeted individuals in the enemy’s side are identified and contacted, one’s national security could be achieved with lesser efforts and costs. Kautilya considered that there are at least four types of individuals who could be subverted with a good chance of success: [104]

  • The angry: they include those who suffered from setbacks, who are humiliated by their rulers, who lost favors from their superiors, who are deceived by their bosses, who are obstructed, who are oppressed, who are punished, and those whose property and wealth was confiscated.
  • The greedy: they consist of the poor, the impoverished, those who lost their wealth and property, those who are frugal, who experience adversity, and those who are involved in transactions of high risks in the enemy’s side.
  • The frightened: those who offended the powerful people among the enemies, who were found out to have committed crimes, who grabbed other’s land, who supported the coup plotters, and the rebels who were violently oppressed.
  • The haughty: those who are conceited and rash, who are fond of honors but resentful of honors given to their rivals, and who are unhappy because they think they are placed in too low a position or rewarded too little.

Kautilya suggested that one should send spies under cover of religion to contact and develop relationships with these individuals. Then, they can make use of the following three methods to subvert each type:

  • By encouraging ambition: send spies to establish personal relationships with the major figures in the enemy’s camp, and to make them believe that they are the real master or ruler. And to provide them money, resources and arms to plot and launch subversive activities and coups. However, once they succeed in toppling the enemy’s regime, they should be eliminated.[105]
  • By exploiting lust: brothel keepers, acrobats, actors/actresses, dancers and conjurors will introduce and connect the targets with young women of great beauty as luring-agents. When a target fell in love with the luring-agent, the spy could make use of the luring-agent to conduct subversion by either tempting or threatening the targets to work for us.[106]
  • Sowing dissension: in order to prevent multiple enemy states in forming an alliance to struggle against us, the subvertor must make use of the clandestine spies who use such techniques of deception and intrigue to sow dissent and empower dissenters, with the objective to divide the enemy’s population and to enhance the chance of civil conflict.[107]

Kautilya considered that the targets to be subverted could be very wide-ranging. Apart from the senior ranking officials in the government and military, they could also be any individuals, social groups, and organizations who are considered useful and usable.[108]

What is the practical gist of subversion for the contemporary times? In modern psychology, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s (1908-1970) theory of hierarchy of needs would be a suitable lens to unpack the notion of subversion of Sun Tzu and Kautilya (Figure 3). Because human wants are unlimited, as far as the subvertor can detect and identify the target’s psychological needs and desires at different levels, these individual needs and desires can be exploited and satisfied in conditions and with the agenda to align with one’s national security needs. This is the gist of the intelligence practice of subversive ontology. Intelligence practitioners should therefore receive training in psychology and counseling in order to accurately assess and identify the target’s psychological needs and to devise the responding subversive strategy.[109]

To sum up, subversion entails two key steps: (1) to assess, and (2) to subvert. After assessing and identifying the targeted individual’s psychological needs, through devising a carefully planned and thought-out strategy, it is intended to exploit and make use of a person’s different psychological needs to induce him/her to rebel against the enemy’s national security, and to work for our own national security. Nonetheless, subversion not only exists in intelligence circles, but is also practiced in modern management settings such as commercial companies and academic institutions wherein such management measures as key performance indicators and supervisions are adopted and used to shape, steer, and exploit the employees’ psychological needs in order to serve the goals of the organizations.[110]

Figure 3: Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[111]           

6. Conclusion

By engaging with the public policy discussion for Japan to join the Five Eyes and the recent literature on Western intelligence culture, the foregoing pages have developed and established a new approach to study non-Western intelligence cultures by emphasizing their epistemological and ontological uniqueness. By historically illustrating the emergence, development, and resilience of Japan’s “Special Duty Unit” (Tokumu Kikan; 特務機関), I have argued that contemporary Japanese intelligence culture could best be conceptualized as an intelligence ontology of subversion, or more specifically, subversive ontology, in which the United States has been “the elephant in the room” to contain Japan’s full-fledged development and foreign reach since WWII. Through a dialogue with the ancient Asian strategic thoughts of Sun Tzu and Kautilya, this article has also outlined a perspective for us to better understand the Japanese practice in light of Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs.

Note on the Author

Pak Nung Wong is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Politics and International Relations in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at University of Bath, United Kingdom. He has a D.Phil in social and cultural anthropology from St. Antony’s College, Oxford. His books include Techno-Geopolitics: US-China Tech War and the Practice of Digital Statecraft (Routledge, 2022); Logic of the Powers: Towards an Impact-driven Practice of Futurist Statecraft (Routledge, 2022); Destined Statecraft: Eurasian Small Power Politics and Strategic Cultures in Geopolitical Shifts (Springer Nature, 2018); Discerning the Powers in Post-Colonial Africa and Asia: A Treatise of Christian Statecraft (Springer Nature, 2016); and Post-Colonial Statecraft in South East Asia: Sovereignty, State-Building and the Chinese in the Philippines (I. B. Tauris, 2013). He is the editor-in-chief of Bandung: Journal of the Global South.


The author would like to thank the journal’s Editor-in-Chief Dr. Harish Mehta, the Consulting Editor Ambassador Gurjit Singh and Dr. Julie Mehta for their patience, encouragement and guidance. The research for this article is neither funded, nor does the author receive any funding for writing this article. The usual disclaimers apply.


[1] Philip Citowicki, “Integrating Japan Into an Expanded ‘Five Eyes’ Alliance,” The Diplomat, April 22, 2021.

[2] Simon Willmetts, “The Cultural Turn in Intelligence Studies,” Intelligence and National Security 34. 6 (2019): 800-817.

[3] (1) Hamilton Bean, “United States Intelligence Cultures,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedias of International Studies, ed. Renée Marlin-Bennett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); (2) Philip H. J. Davies, “Intelligence Culture and Intelligence Failure in Britain and the United States,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 19.3 (2004): 495-520; (3) Rob Johnston, “Analytic Culture in the U.S. Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study” (Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 2005); (4) Troy Michael Mouton, “Organizational Culture’s Contributions to Security Failures within the United States Intelligence Community” (Master of Arts Thesis, Interdependent Program in Liberal Arts, Graduate Faculty, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 2002); (5) Simon Willets, “The Cultural Turn in Intelligence Studies,” Intelligence and National Security 34.6 (2019): 800-817.

[4] Pak Nung Wong, “比較東西「情報文化」的差異 [Comparing Eastern and Western Intelligence Cultures’ Differences],” 信報財經新聞 (Hong Kong Economic Journal 11 (June 2021), p. A17. https://www1.hkej.com/dailynews/commentary/article/2824217/.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Davies, “Intelligence Culture and Intelligence Failure in Britain and the United States,” 500.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 501.

[10] Ibid, 501.

[11] Ibid, 502.

[12] Ibid, 503-504.

[13] Johnston, “Analytic Culture in the U.S. Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study.”

[14] Ibid, 46.

[15] Ibid, 49.

[16] Ibid, 32.

[17] Ibid, 35.

[18] Pak Nung Wong,  (Forthcoming in 2022) “Techno-Geopolitics: U.S.-China Tech War and the Practice of Digital Statecraft,” in International Politics in the Age of Disruption, ed. Harsh V. Pant, Frank O’Donnell, and Avinash Paliwal (London & New Delhi: Routledge, 2022), Chapter 4.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] In this article, Japanese family names are placed before the first name. For instance, Motegi is the family name whereas Toshimitsu is the first name.

[22] “Britain and Japan ‘Stand Side by Side’ on Hong Kong—Raab,” Reuters, August 5, 2020.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Patrick Wintour, “Five Eyes Alliance Could Expand in Scope to Counteract China,” The Guardian, July 29, 2020.

[25] Pak Nung Wong (2020), “「五眼」邀日本加盟的戰略考慮 [Five Eyes’ Strategic Considerations in Inviting Japan to Join],” 香港01 (HK01), September 14, 2020. Volume 231, pp. A18-A19. https://www.hk01.com/%E5%91%A8%E5%A0%B1/524832/.

[26] Ibid, A19-A19; also see, “Five Eyes Intel Group Ties Up with Japan, Germany, France to Counter China in Cyberspace,” The Mainichi, February 4, 2019.

[27] Richard J. Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), 22.

[28] Ibid, 22-23.

[29] Pak Nung Wong, “美國從中作梗; 二戰後日本情報的發展和限制 [U.S. Being the Elephant in the Room; Post-war Japanese Intelligence Development and Constraints],” 香港01 (HK01), November 16, 2020, Volume 240, pp. B12-B13. https://www.hk01.com/%E5%91%A8%E5%A0%B1/551049/.

[30] Richard L. Armitage and Joseph S. Nye Jr., “More Important Than Ever: The U.S.–Japan Alliance for the 21st Century,” Washington D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2018.

[31] Ibid, 9.

[32] Nicholas Fishlock, “Policies to Please Political Partners: The Development of Japan’s Intelligence Policy in the 21st Century,” Focus Asia: Perspective & Analysis, (June 2019), Stockholm: Institute for Security and Development Policy.

[33] Ibid, 1-2.

[34] Linda Seig and Nobuhiro Kubo, “Japan Wants to Create an Overseas Spy Agency,” Business Insider, March 6, 2015.

[35] Fishlock, “Policies to Please Political Partners: The Development of Japan’s Intelligence Policy in the 21st Century,” 1-2.

[36] Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, xvi.

[37] The term “Japanese national psyche” originated from the British historian, Peter Elphick, who is quoted by Samuels in Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, xiii.

[38] Quote from Chiang Kai-shek by Samuels Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, xiii: “Everyone Japanese, both male and female, is a born spy.”

[39] Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, xviii-xix.

[40] Fishlock, “Policies to Please Political Partners: The Development of Japan’s Intelligence Policy in the 21st Century,” 4.

[41] Wong, “「五眼」邀日本加盟的戰略考慮 [Five Eyes’ Strategic Considerations in Inviting Japan to Join],” A18-A19.

[42] Fishlock, “Policies to Please Political Partners: The Development of Japan’s Intelligence Policy in the 21st Century,” 5.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Editorial: “Japan’s Secrets Law Still a Troubling Black Box 5 Years after Implementation,” The Mainichi, December 17, 2019.

[46] Fishlock, “Policies to Please Political Partners: The Development of Japan’s Intelligence Policy in the 21st Century,” 6.

[47] Ibid, 7; Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, xviii-xix; Daishi Abe and Reiko Miki, Reiko, Interview: “Japan Wants De Facto ‘Six Eyes’ Intelligence Status: Defense Chief,” Nikkei Asian Review, August 14, 2020.

[48] Wong, “「五眼」邀日本加盟的戰略考慮 [Five Eyes’ Strategic Considerations in Inviting Japan to Join],” A18-A19.

[49] Pak Nung Wong, “美國從中作梗; 二戰後日本情報的發展和限制 [U.S. Being the Elephant in the Room; Post-war Japanese Intelligence Development and Constraints],” 香港01 (HK01), November 16, 2020, Volume 240, pp. B12-B13. URL: https://www.hk01.com/%E5%91%A8%E5%A0%B1/551049/.

[50] Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, 35-36.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid, 37.

[53] Ibid, 39-40.

[54] Ibid, 46.

[55] Ibid, 47.

[56] Ibid, 47.

[57] Ibid, 48.

[58] Ibid, 58.

[59] Ibid, 58.

[60] Ibid, 61; and Ananth Karthikeyan, “The Nakano School & the INA,” DNA, July 7, 2019.

[61] Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, 62.

[62] Pak Nung Wong, “日本對外情報文化原形  [Japan’s Foreign Intelligence Cultural Repertoire],” 信報財經新聞 (Hong Kong Economic Journal), September 26, 2020, page A17. https://www1.hkej.com/dailynews/commentary/article/2592945/.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, 83-84.

[65] Wong, “美國從中作梗; 二戰後日本情報的發展和限制 [U.S. Being the Elephant in the Room; Post-war Japanese Intelligence Development and Constraints],” B12-B13.

[66] Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, 87.

[67] Ibid, 88.

[68] Ibid, 89.

[69] Ibid, 90.

[70] Ibid, 91.

[71] Ibid, 92.

[72] Ibid, 93.

[73] Ibid, 94.

[74] Ibid, 96.

[75] Ibid, 105-106.

[76] Ibid, 107.

[77] Ibid, 108.

[78] Ibid, 111.

[79] Ibid, 142.

[80] Ibid, 144.

[81] Ibid, 121-123.

[82] Wong, “美國從中作梗; 二戰後日本情報的發展和限制 [U.S. Being the Elephant in the Room; Post-war Japanese Intelligence Development and Constraints],” pp. B12-B13.

[83] Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, 181.

[84] Ibid, 183.

[85] Ibid, 196.

[86] Ibid, 199.

[87] Ibid, 163.

[88] Wong, “美國從中作梗; 二戰後日本情報的發展和限制 [U.S. Being the Elephant in the Room; Post-war Japanese Intelligence Development and Constraints],” pp. B12-B13. 

[89] Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, 169-170.

[90] Ibid, 163.

[91] Ibid, 164.

[92] Ibid, 200.

[93] Wong, “美國從中作梗; 二戰後日本情報的發展和限制 [U.S. Being the Elephant in the Room; Post-war Japanese Intelligence Development and Constraints],” pp. B12-B13.

[94] Ibid, B12-B13.

[95] Ibid, B12-B13.

[96] RTHK「日本NTT網絡去年曾遭黑客入侵」, RTHK News, June 2, 2020.

[97] Wong, “美國從中作梗; 二戰後日本情報的發展和限制 [U.S. Being the Elephant in the Room; Post-war Japanese Intelligence Development and Constraints],” pp. B12-B13.

[98] Pak Nung Wong, “「蔡展鵬事件惹反思:維護國家安全的現實主義挑戰」,” [Frederic Choi’s Case Is Worth Reflection: Realist Challenge in Defending National Security]. 《香港01》(HK01), June 28, 2021, Volume 271, pp. B06-B07.

[99] Ibid, B06-B07.

[100] Ibid, B06-B07.

[101] Ibid, B06-B07.

[102] Ibid, B06-B07.

[103] Kautilya, The Arthashastra, edited, rearranged, translated and introduced by L.N. Rangarajan (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 483.

[104] Ibid, 483-484.

[105] Ibid, 486.

[106] Ibid, 486-487.

[107] Ibid, 488-489.

[108] Ibid, 490-492.

[109] Wong,「蔡展鵬事件惹反思:維護國家安全的現實主義挑戰」 [Frederic Choi’s Case Is Worth Reflection: Realist Challenge in Defending National Security], pp. B06-B07.

[110] Ibid, B06-B07.

[111] Ibid, B06-B07.