This year has been a good year for spy movies; both the American The Bourne Legacy and the British Skyfall were released in 2012 to generally good reviews and earned oodles and oodles of cash.

But these movies got me thinking: why hasn’t there been any Japanese spy films? It seems like while some of the action in spy movies takes place in Japan (like Gunkanjima in Skyfall or the Sean Connery classic You Only Live Twice), there’s never any Japanese spy running around the world foiling terrorist plots while sipping on martinis and looking stylish.

Turns out that while the US has the CIA and the British have MI6, Japan doesn’t really have much of a spy agency to speak of at the moment. But that hasn’t always been the case. In the past, Japan has had some of the coolest, most iconic spies, and it looks like Japan might get right back into the spy game sometime in the near future. Let’s check out the past, present, and future of intelligence agencies in Japan.


Of course, you can’t talk about Japanese spies without talking about ninja. Before the 20the century, espionage in Japan was all about ninja. Sure, a lot of ninja history has been exaggerated in folklore and in the media, but the parts that were real are still really cool.

Ninja filled lots of different roles for centuries before they were all but eliminated from Japan. For a detailed rundown, check out our earlier post about the history of ninja.

The Thought Police

Of course, all that ninja stuff is pre-Taisho era Japan. Japanese intelligence agencies and secret police in the early 20th century were pretty awful abroad as well as domestically.

The Kempeitai, or secret police, spied on Japanese citizens, maintained a broad network of informants, arrested people on ideological grounds. George Orwell actually got the term “thought police” from the Kempeitai and used it in his dystopian novel 1984. Abroad, the Kempeitai did horrific things in territory occupied by Japan like Manchuria and Korea.

Fortunately, all of the secret police were disbanded at the end of WWII, putting a stop to the terror they caused at home and abroad. Since then, Japanese intelligence agencies have reformed and become much less malicious. What have they looked like since?

Japan’s CIA

Since the end of WWII, Japan’s military and intelligence agencies have been pretty modestly sized. Besides not having a “real” standing army (unless you count the Japan Self-Defense Forces), Japan hasn’t had a substantial intelligence agency for nearly sixty years at this point.

There is Naicho, which is short for Naikaku Jouhou Chousashitsu (内閣情報調査室), or Cabinet Intelligence and Investigation Office, but it’s downright pitiful compared to the intelligence agencies of other developed nations.

Photo by luke chan

More salaryman than saboteur

It has a meager 200 or so employees, compared to the estimated 20,000 of the CIA. And instead of sending out savvy operatives into the field, Naicho is more of a translation agency than anything else, gathering most of its intelligence from friendly, foreign agencies. Naicho has been known to participate in some espionage, but nothing too high-profile.

But last year Wikileaks unveiled secret plans for Japan to expand its spying powers. In a leaked diplomatic cable with the US, Japan outlined plans to send spies from Naicho to China and North Korea in an attempt to prevent terrorist attacks.

Whether or not this expansion of power has actually happened yet is unclear; so much of Naicho’s dealings happen behind closed doors. But one thing’s for certain: Japan’s centuries-old legacy of spying and espionage won’t stop anytime soon.


    “Japan doesn’t really have much of a spy agency to speak of at the moment”…Exactly!!!

  • Helio Perroni Filho

    “But one thing’s for certain: Japan’s centuries-old legacy of spying and espionage won’t stop anytime soon.”

    How exactly can it not “stop anytime soon” when it was all but abandoned a good 60 years ago?

  • Heather Stewart

    that’s just what they want you to think

  • Obliviate

    when reading this, the “mission impossible” theme song starts playing in my head.

  • Nelem Naru

    Maybe their intelligence agencies are so good and secretive that everyone thinks Japan doesn’t have much of a spy system. Naicho could just be a front for a modern ninja base.

  • ジョサイア

    Same here…

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    If this post disappears, we’ll know it’s true. If it stays, we’ll know it’s true, and that they also read my post.

  • Mescale

    And how would you know that? INFORMER!!! CALL THE FUZUKASHIMASEN

  • rapchee

    how about ghost in the shell? well, at least the stand alone complex has some foreign sneaky action and domestic anti-spying

  • さなこ-ちゃん

    i had super junior’s song ”spy” in my head…* typical kpop lover*

  • ワイルド諜報員

    I am currently writing a paper on Japanese Intelligence and Security post Occupation and apart from Naicho there are at least 19 other major agencies who do a better job at working together than their equivalent US counterparts (who often act as rivals in information gathering). Also the fact that there are only 200 (more like 180) is because these are only the publicly available names. Although the total staff does not actually surpass 400.

    Specifically focussing on the anti-terrorism activities that would assumably come under intelligence agencies in most countries, due to the Japanese constitution, all members of the current intelligence services are to be from the police force (which the Japanese Self defence force and coast guard are counted as).


    wtf is that in the right pic lol!

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I dunno. All I know is that the wrong pic contains a man-eating tiger. As always.

  • Helio Perroni Filho

    Er… From the article itself, perhaps?

  • Emi

    (´・_・`) Could you describe the pic?

  • Jonadab

    The real Japanese intelligence community, of course, is centered in the private sector. Currently it is headed by Satoshi Tajiri, who rose rapidly through the ranks after the rousing success of his program to influence and recruit Western children by infiltrating the American cartoon market.

  • Jonadab

    Naicho is mainly just what the article says it is, a way of importing existing intelligence information from allies. Since this is a fairly innocuous activity, the government is able to openly admit to it. Naicho doesn’t have much to do with the real spying. That’s the purview of a separate, much more secretive agency, which has successfully kept its existence, much less its connection with the Japanese government, pretty much entirely under wraps.

  • eszter

    Okay, Golgo 13 is an assassin for hire, not a spy, but he has the same seducy-drinky poses and he’s much more badass than James Bond.

  • belgand

    Section 9?

  • Dick H

    NOBODY fucks with Golgo 13. Not even Aces & Eights!