Creating a System of National Intelligence Officers

December 1st, 2001

Though the trend has not been highly visible to the ordinary public, there are definite signs that experts in Japan have come to recognize the importance of national intelligence capabilities. The Institute for International Policy Studies in April 2001 released a proposed outline of a comprehensive national strategy for Japan. Essentially representing the ideas of former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, it calls for the creation of a Cabinet Research Bureau, which would be a part of the Cabinet Secretariat. The purpose of the new organ would be to coordinate the collection of information, both domestic and foreign, by all of the government ministries and agencies and to formulate national strategy for domestic and foreign policy based on this information. The head of the bureau would rank with the head of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau.

This year brought revelations of embezzlement from secret diplomatic funds at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on an unprecedented scale. The question now is how to redirect these secret diplomatic funds toward their proper purpose of collecting intelligence. In this context I have decided that it is time for me to publish my own thoughts on this matter.

My career as a public servant after joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quite unusual. Most career diplomats are shunted from one post to the next, never becoming experts in any particular field. But virtually all the posts to which I was assigned had some connection with intelligence. I served as director of the ministry’s Analysis Division and of the Research Division. I subsequently served for a short period as counselor for the Middle Eastern and African Affairs Bureau. But by contrast with the bureaus that dealt with Asia and the United States, the Middle Eastern and African Affairs Bureau was more concerned with obtaining information for Japan than with formulating policy.

I then went to the Defense Agency, where I became the first person on loan from the Foreign Ministry to be put in charge of the First and Second Defense Intelligence Divisions. This was at the height of the Cold War, and I mainly engaged in analysis of the Soviet Union’s military power. After my stint at the Defense Agency, I spent some time at universities and think tanks in the United States before returning to the Foreign Ministry, where I served as the director general of the Planning and Analysis Department and, following an internal reorganization, as the first director general of the Intelligence and Analysis Bureau.

I was named the first director of the Analysis Division (then called the Data Division) in the summer of 1966, when I was 36 years old. This was right at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China. At this point Japanユs Foreign Ministry already had a history of nearly a century, but what I witnessed was a series of dismal failures in judgment by the ministryユs China experts. They continued to cling to their view that the Chinese Communist Party was different from the party in the Soviet Union, that it was a gathering of comrades burning with revolutionary fervor. They could not believe that there would be a Soviet-style power struggle in China. In the end they fell silent. I remember the director general of the China Section dejectedly remarking, “Mao Zedong is no longer the great man that we respected.” This was a time of trial for China hands, but it was a lucky time for a young division director like me to jump into the pool of experts, because everybody, regardless of experience level, at that point had to set out from a new starting line.


Through the years when I served as a division director, Japanユs main focus of attention regarding intelligence was the communist bloc: the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, North Vietnam, and the activities of the international communist movement. The work involved careful reading of long, difficult documents released by communist parties. We deciphered what we read and then carefully compared the contents with information that had been leaked from within the parties. When I first took on this position, I had to quickly read the complete works of Lenin, a selection of Maoユs writings, and works concerning the Sino-Soviet rift. During the Tet Offensive in 1968, we focused on the strategy and tactics of the communists in Vietnam, which we tried to glean from the official documents released by the Vietnamese Workersユ Party, and on Chinese and Soviet policies toward Vietnam. Looking back, however, I can see that we had no hope of grasping the course of the war in this way.

At the time of the so-called Nixon shock in 1971, when Japan was surprised to learn that the United States had been making overtures to China, Ushiba Nobuhiko, ambassador to the United States, said, “Experts on the communist bloc talk big, but whatユs really difficult is understanding American politics.” While it seems to be common sense nowadays, this was a blind spot in twentieth-century international politics. If you think about it, keeping on top of developments in the United States, the most powerful country in the world, is the way to keep on top of developments around the world.

The reason I was able to predict a year in advance the revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe in 1989 was that I had been exchanging opinions with people like Henry Kissinger and Seweryn Bialer. The nations of Eastern Europe all had a sense of crisis and problems that they could not readily discuss with other countries. Nations that were aware of these problems, such as France and the Soviet Union, were worried about the potential threat from Germany’s reunification and what conditions could be applied to contain it. And ultimately the United States was the only country that they could consult. In the process of consulting with someone, you inevitably share information that you would not otherwise reveal. This is how the United States gets the complete picture.

In the case of the Vietnam War, I think that if Japan had looked at the way things were transpiring in the United States rather than studying the movements of North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union, it could have avoided the intelligence failures of March 1968, when it was surprised by President Lyndon Johnson’s announcements that the United States would stop bombing North Vietnam and that he would not seek reelection. Japan was not alone; in fact the entire Old World tended to overlook this point throughout the twentieth century. Charles de Gaulle once dismissed America as “a country that brings childish sentiments [idealism] and complicated domestic circumstances [such as congressional pressures]” to the stage of serious international affairs. This was, more or less, the attitude of leaders throughout the Old World concerning the United States; they did not set out to study the United States directly. Everyone had impressions of America, but no one tried to analyze it more deeply. Of course the United States itself was partly to blame for this. After World War I, America destroyed the established international order by pushing its Wilsonian agenda, but then, rather than take responsibility for building a new order, it retreated into an isolationist shell. For this reason, many people in other countries gave up trying to understand America and instead looked on it with disdain, oblivious to its tremendous latent power.

One deeply regrettable fact concerning the outbreak of the war between Japan and the United States in 1941 is that the Japanese government made no analysis of Americaユs domestic situation, or if it did, the results had no influence on Japanユs leaders. At the time, President Franklin Roosevelt was doing everything he could to try to lead American public opinion into supporting participation in the war against the Axis powers, but Congress was overwhelmingly isolationist and opposed to the idea. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, though, even leading isolationists like Hamilton Fish rushed to support President Roosevelt in the war effort. When Fish later learned of the Hull Note, he called it a “shameful ultimatum” and regretted that he did not know about it at the time.

When the United States goes to war, its government must contend not just with foreign foes but also with opposition from sections of domestic public opinion, as seen in the case of World War I and again in Vietnam. Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was an idiotic move that caused domestic American opinion to unite in favor of the war, leaving the government in Washington only one front to contend with. It is unfortunate that there were no people working in the Japanese government at the time with a balanced, objective view who could have proposed a different course of action to their superiors, such as going to war by making the Hull Note public and delivering an ultimatum to the United States demanding that it end its oil embargo on Japan by a certain date. If the war had started in this fashion, it is not hard to imagine that the United States might have agreed to a cease-fire after suffering the tremendous casualties of the assault on Ijima (Iwo Jima) instead of pressing on with the war until the home islands of Japan lay in ruins. In a nutshell, Japan grievously failed in the task of analyzing the United States, the most powerful nation in the world.


Based on the lessons of such past failures, I have come up with a general image of the sort of intelligence setup Japan should have for the future. My proposed setup is not one aimed at strengthening intelligence-gathering capabilities. I do not belittle the importance of such operations, but they are already being carried out by the Foreign Ministry, Defense Agency, Public Security Investigation Agency, and Cabinet Intelligence Research Office, in addition to which Japan will soon have its own spy satellites. While I am ready to admit that strengthening these functions is necessary, the only way this can be accomplished is by increasing the budget and developing the intelligence machinery year after year. The new setup that I think is needed is one that will centralize the intelligence that is already being collected by existing government organs. It should be headed by a senior intelligence officer who is trusted and respected, someone who can constantly receive information from all of the relevant government agencies.

Whenever intelligence is mentioned, thought immediately turns to the idea of strengthening information-gathering capabilities, so I have some misgivings concerning the direction the debate has taken up to now. The first problem is the perception that it is somehow shameful if information is late in arriving at the prime ministerユs residence or if the Foreign Ministry first hears of an event on television. But the source of information is irrelevant; there is nothing inherently wrong with getting it from TV and radio reports. What really matters is the judgments that are made and the measures that are taken afterwards. And so what if the information is half a day late or three days late? Making an accurate evaluation of what has been learned is clearly far more important than mere timeliness.

In the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), Defense Intelligence Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation make use of a closed-circuit television system that allows new information to be shared simultaneously. Under this system, information is passed on immediately, and the competition that takes place between agencies is in the area of analysis and judgment. This approach has been developed through years of experience.

Based on my own experience, I would say that the best way for Japan to obtain intelligence is by strengthening its ties of friendship and trust with the United States. The amount of intelligence that the United States holds on the world is dozens of times greater than what Japan has. Even a fraction of this is greater than what Japan is capable of gathering on its own. One only has to think of the drop in quality of Japanese intelligence following the termination of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1923 to understand this point.

The United States will likely keep a portion of its information secret. It may need to keep from revealing some of its sources, and in exceptional cases it may decide that it is better not to inform Japan. But the general conclusions that the Americans draw from their wealth of information reveal an accurate picture. To put it another way, an experienced Japanese intelligence officer should be able to look at the conclusions and infer the existence of hidden information behind them. All of this is part of learning to deal with Anglo-Saxon thinking.

It is true that Japan needs to have its own information to offer in return for the intelligence it gets from the United States. A large portion of the work being done by Japan’s various intelligence agencies is already devoted to the cause of intelligence exchanges with the United States. But America has long known that Japanユs ability to provide information is limited. What is most important for Japan is to develop the right sort of people to conduct the exchanges, people whom those on the U.S. side will find intelligent, trustworthy, and useful as contacts. The fact that Japan has no laws against spying makes human trust that much more important.


Another fundamental concept is that those at the core of the new setup I propose should be chosen not on the basis of bureaucratic standards but on their individual merits. Unfortunately the intelligence service has long been a locus of bureaucratic turf wars. For example, the arrangement whereby the Cabinet Intelligence Research Office was always headed by someone from the National Police Agency and the second in command was someone from the Foreign Ministry was a product of a compromise in a battle over control. These battles over personnel matters were part of a general rivalry among different organs regarding intelligence. To give another example, in my day the Foreign Ministry and the police were competing with each other over information about the international communist movement. But things may be different now.

The administrative headquarters for the new setup could be in the Cabinet Intelligence Research Office, the Intelligence and Analysis Bureau of the Foreign Ministry, or even the Japan Institute of International Affairs. The location of this secretariat is relatively inconsequential. The important point is to change the existing system whereby people assigned to senior intelligence-related posts are rotated after a mere two years, which makes it virtually impossible for them to grasp the international situation and provide the cabinet with information useful for the formation of national policy.

Based on my experience, I would hope that the responsible officers would serve for an uninterrupted term of 10 years. During that time, they should closely follow current events on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis; at the same time they should develop a thorough knowledge of the background to these events extending over the past 10, 20, to 100 years. In addition, they should steep themselves in world history. Through this process they should achieve the ability to see the big picture and understand how the present situation fits into it. As peopleユs overall judgment improves with age and experience, these officers should be at least 60 years old. I myself can see things far more clearly now than when I was serving in the bureaucracy. People are living longer lives these days, and while physical strength declines with age, a personユs judgment continues to improve until the onset of senility.

America’s system of national intelligence officers could serve as a model for the new setup. Things may have changed since, but when I was involved in intelligence, the president of the United States had a small group of NIOs on whom he could call for advice, including some who specialized in a particular region of the world, such as East Asia, the Middle East, or the Soviet bloc, and others specializing in a particular field, such as military affairs or economic matters. I would like to propose the creation of a Japanese version of this NIO system.

Japan’s circumstances, however, are different from those of the United States. Along with their expert knowledge of a particular region or field, be it Russia, China, military affairs, or economic matters, all the Japanese NIOs must have extensive knowledge about the United States. If they do not, Japan is bound to repeat mistakes like the one we made when we considered the outlook for the Vietnam War just by analyzing information from the communist bloc and comparing relative military strengths.

NIOs will naturally have different specialties depending on their individual backgrounds, but I do not think that specific slots should be created in advance for them to fill. Setting up such slots would amount to the creation of a superstructure on top of the existing Foreign Ministry bureaus and other responsible organs. In fields like military and economic affairs, in my experience, there will be no more than about two or three cases a year when it is necessary to consider the situation with an eye on the broad flow of world events. The NIOs should be called on only in such cases; they cannot be expected to handle the more routine matters, which should be left up to the existing apparatus of government ministries and agencies, research institutes, and the private sector.

In practical terms, it should be arranged for the NIOs to have dinner and exchange opinions with the top specialists in military and economic affairs once a month, making an effort to grasp only broad, important trends. I would also like them to be capable of dealing with their counterparts in the United States on a regular basis. While it would be acceptable for them to develop this ability in the first 2 or 3 years of their 10 years of service, it would probably be more effective for those selected to come to the job equipped with the experience of having participated in various types of international conferences and symposiums.

While it is a bit rude to put forward the names of people without their authorization, I would like to mention a couple of candidates in order to make clear the type of person needed.

Tanaka Akihiko, a professor at the University of Tokyo, has years of ongoing experience writing magazine articles introducing commentary from the foreign press to Japanese readers. This is quite a store of experience. He is obviously well versed in current affairs, and he has a wealth of knowledge concerning recent history, so he would be an immediate help if he were to take on such a job following his retirement from academia. He is just one of the possible candidates who come to mind from the private sector.

Among the bureaucrats of the Foreign Ministry, Kawashima Yutaka is certainly a candidate. He served as a minister at the Japanese embassy in South Korea, director general of the Asian Affairs Bureau, director general of the Foreign Policy Bureau, ambassador to Israel, and vice- minister. Given his combination of analytic power, general cultivation, and deep knowledge of the United States acquired over the course of his career, Kawashima is another person who would be of immediate help.

It is a shame that I can think of no one in our current generation comparable to the late Yasuoka Masahiro in his familiarity with the rise and fall of states and dynasties in the classical Chinese world. But an intelligent person could probably learn enough about this by carefully reading the great works of Chinese history while serving as an NIO.

I do not believe that protecting secrets would be a particularly serious problem under this setup. It should be sufficient for the NIOs to be required to maintain the secrecy of those occasional pieces of sensitive information that are provided to them for their reference. The job of NIOs would be to offer judgments of the big picture based on their understanding of all the information available. This means, among other things, that even if some of the information were confidential, their judgments would not need to be kept secret. In fact, it would be better to make these judgments public. Printing them as signed articles in newspapers and magazines would allow other people in various quarters to comment on them, and this feedback could be used to refine the judgments further. Also, publishing the NIOs’ well-formed judgments would help members of the general public improve their own ability to judge situations correctly.

To start this setup, first three or four people should be appointed to 10-year terms as NIOs. Five years later, another group should be appointed to 10-year terms; they would assist the previous appointees for five years and then succeed them. Upon retirement, these officials could serve as consultants for as long as they retained their mental faculties. The per-person budget, including overhead (a secretary, an office, travel expenses, and expense accounts), would be something along the order of 30 million a year. So at the onset of the program, the total annual budget would be 120 million, and five years later it would rise to 240 million. Including consulting fees, the total would be about 300 million. It should be quite possible to secure this level of funding by cutting unnecessary items from the Foreign Ministry’s secret appropriations. Just by doing this, Japan could create an intelligence organ that would correspond to the apex of the pyramid at organizations like the CIA.


Judging from my own experience, I believe that travel expenses would not amount to much. To a large extent the costs of the NIOsユ attendance at various conferences would be covered by the conference organizers. So it should be sufficient to provide for two overseas trips per year to be paid for out of each NIO’s budget.

Far more important than travel expenses is the provision of funding for periodic dinners. Money must be made available for the NIOs to get together with outside experts once or twice a month to hold study meetings on topics like Chinese issues or Russian issues. The idea would be to engage in freewheeling discussions over dinner and drinks. This is not just an East Asian notion; in fact, the word symposium is from the ancient Greek for “banquet.” There is no need for the affairs to be lavish; on a budget of just 10,000 per participant the group could sit around a table at a Chinese restaurant and talk late into the night, having a lively discussion to their heartsユ content. This is an extremely cost-effective method. If two groups of 10 people each met 10 times a year, the cost would be a mere 2 million.

The idea is to create a system that would free the intelligence officers from everyday duties, allowing them to devote their time to poring over documents and thinking about them for themselves instead of having to delegate such work to subordinates. They should be able to transcend the shifting currents of the times and not have to go along with whatever happens to be in vogue, and they should be able to stick to their own course of objective judgment and analysis without needing to tailor their ideas to the policy agenda of the moment. The NIO organization would need to be respected both at home and abroad, and its officers must be capable of dealing at the highest level with counterparts in the top intelligence agencies around the world. It is a type of organization, I might add, for which there is no direct historical precedent.

The United States learned the value of information during World War II and improved its intelligence system in a revolutionary way to become an information giant. Japan, which lost the intelligence battle and was then destroyed, also needed to rebuild its intelligence system following the war. But the country had its hands full with economic reconstruction in the postwar period; defense and intelligence are the two areas that it has delayed the most in rebuilding. There is a huge gap between what Japanese intelligence agencies receive in funding and the budgets of their U.S. counterparts. The CIA and NSA probably receive more than 100 times what the Japanese agencies get.

As we start the twenty-first century, Japan must now–tardy though it may be–construct a proper intelligence system to ensure its own survival and prosperity. It will not be possible to quickly close the gap between our country and one that spends 100 times as much on intelligence. But it is possible to learn from the United States, the world leader in intelligence, and improve just the top of an intelligence structure that has not undergone fundamental reform since before the war. By considering conditions unique to Japan and also adding some ideas taken from Asia’s ancient past, a new system could be introduced that goes beyond what Britain and the United States have imagined. With a modest budget of several hundred million yen a year, much of the gap could be closed.