Japanese Spies Past, Present, and Future Move over Bond and Bourne

    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.

    Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice

    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.

    big brother is watching you poster

    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.

    group of Japanese salarymen from behind
    More salaryman than saboteur
    Source: luke chan

    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.