James Bond goes Japanese? Tokyo eyes MI6-style spy agency

by Tsukasa Arita

The idea of a Japanese James Bond may sound hilarious, but serious discussions are under way in Japan on whether to create a secret intelligence service along the lines of Britain’s MI6 to conduct overseas espionage.

The deliberations were triggered by a proposal from a panel of experts under Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura that was tasked with coming up with ways of strengthening the country’s international information-gathering systems.

The five-member committee is headed by Yoshio Omori, a former chief of the Cabinet Information Research Office, and includes military critic Kensuke Ebata.

The group came up with the proposal last month after reaffirming that Japan’s current system information-gathering capabilities are not commensurate with its international standing.

The Foreign Ministry, the Cabinet Information Research Office, the Defense Agency, the National Police Agency and the Public Security Investigation Agency each collect and analyze information from overseas, but “Japan is the only major country that does not have an overseas information-gathering organization,” a government source said.

The issue of creating an international spy organization has never gotten broad support in Japan, largely due to the fact that Tokyo gets its intelligence information from the United States under the bilateral security agreement.

In addition, the Japanese have a deep-rooted sense of wariness of intelligence agencies that stems from the country’s bitter experience with its “special political police force” before World War II and an overall negative image of espionage, many observers have said.

The end of the Cold War, North Korea’s nuclear program and the global spread of terrorism in recent years have demanded the government collect and examine more information from abroad, but it cannot do those jobs properly.

In 1996, when the Japanese ambassador’s official residence in Peru was attacked by armed guerrillas, Omori was head of the Cabinet Information Research Office.

It is a “shameful story,” Omori said. ‘Nobody (in the Japanese government) knew about the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement guerrillas, and we had to ask the United States” for information about them, he said.

Britain’s MI6, which the panel cited as an agency Japan could model its own intelligence agency after, is under the jurisdiction of the foreign minister.

Contrary to the flashy images conveyed by the James Bond movies, MI6 has no legal authority to conduct investigations and is said to only handle information.

While the CIA may come to the minds of many Japanese as a prominent intelligence organization, Omori described both the activities and scale of the U.S. intelligence service’s operations as beyond comparison to any other agency.

During a visit to London in July, Machimura secretly met MI6 executives to exchange ideas on how intelligence agencies should operate, government sources said.

But one government official in charge of overseas information analyses warned about pushing ahead too quickly with the matter.

“People’s suspicion that intelligence agencies can become dangerous organizations at the drop of a hat runs deep,” the official said. “That warning needs to be taken seriously.”

Machimura has acknowledged the public’s concerns and has indicated that people’s understanding is necessary to bring the plan to fruition.

“It is a matter that will require time,” he said. “But we want to take it steadily forward, step by step.”