Japan: Minor-League Spies; Asia's Biggest Economic Power Seems Ready to Take the Game of Espionage More Seriously

Newsweek International, June 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

Japan: Minor-League Spies; Asia's Biggest Economic Power Seems Ready to Take the Game of Espionage More Seriously


Byline: Christian Caryl and Akiko Kashiwagi

The Japanese public has been on tenterhooks for two weeks--ever since media reports revealed that North Korea may be preparing to test-launch a ballistic missile similar to the one that flew over the country in 1998, shocking Tokyo. The problem is, the Japanese don't seem to know when the missile will be launched, or in which direction. And what is the North Korean leadership trying to prove? Those are the sorts of questions that can be answered only by human spies on the ground, and Japan apparently doesn't have many at its disposal.

And that points up a disturbing fact. Japan is an economic heavyweight, but experts say it's a lightweight in the field of global espionage. Saber-rattling by a possibly nuclear-armed North Korea is only the start. Add a rising military challenge from China, as well as a growing sense of national self-assertiveness at home, and the result is a flourishing new debate about a once taboo idea--the need for a full-fledged central intelligence service, something that postwar Japan has so far done without.

It's not as if Japan doesn't have any spies to call its own. Several government bodies conduct intelligence work, including the national police force, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the military. In some purely technical areas, like electronic surveillance, the Japanese can hold their own. But, says Alan Dupont, an Australian expert on Japanese security policy, "Japan is definitely a player in the minor leagues" when measured against other countries of its economic and political class, like France or Britain.

Right now, the closest thing Japan has to a central spy agency is the Cabinet Intelligence Research Office, which is charged with providing daily intelligence briefings to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But its staff numbers only about 100--compared with roughly 20,000 at the CIA. …

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