After its defeat in World War II, many of the political legacies nurtured during Japan’s militaristic era became politically taboo.
They include its intelligence-gathering units, such as those under the Imperial Japanese Army and the military police, as well as strict confidentiality laws to punish public servants who leak sensitive government information to outsiders.
But as tension with China increases over the Japan-held Senkaku islets and with North Korea repeatedly threatening to launch ballistic missiles that could easily reach Japanese territory, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is ready to shatter this self-imposed prohibition.
Eyeing submission to the current Diet session, Abe’s Cabinet is drawing up a bill that would create an entity modeled after the U.S. National Security Council. The government also is preparing separate legislation, possibly to be sent for Diet deliberation in the fall, to impose heavier punishments on government workers found to have disclosed classified data.
Government sources said Japan’s present intelligence-gathering entities — which include the Foreign and Defense ministries, the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office under the Cabinet Secretariat, and the police — are deeply cliquey and rarely share either intelligence or analyses with one another, posing huge problems to government leaders trying to make critical judgments.
“It’s extremely important to centralize information management,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference last month.
Japan’s version of the NSC would have dozens of defense and diplomatic experts to support key Cabinet members, officials said.
Information on crucial security issues that require decisions by the government’s upper echelons would be first siphoned off by the new entity from other ministries and then reported with its analysis to the country’s most senior leaders.
The Algerian hostage crisis in January that resulted in the deaths of 10 Japanese nationals only reinforced the Abe administration’s determination to establish such an intelligence-gathering body.
“I keenly felt the necessity to have a professional organization like (the U.S.) National Security Council,” Suga said, adding that he was badly hamstrung by the clannishness of the various intelligence entities during the dramatic incident.
Suga and other leading government officials were frantically seeking information on the numbers and fate of the Japanese taken hostage by Islamic militants, who had stormed the remote gas facility. However, the Foreign, Defense and trade ministries all provided information and analysis separately on the unfolding crisis to Suga, aggravating confusion inside the government.
“I had to listen to each of those ministries separately to get details,” Suga said.
Other key officials also have lamented the profoundly entrenched sectionalism of government bodies that hinders comprehensive assessment of critical information.
“While serving at this post over four years, the Foreign Ministry never allowed me to read any of its diplomatic cables. I never received important information from police, either,” wrote Yoshio Omori, former head of the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, in a book he published in 2005.
In a 2007 interview, former Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka noted: “Because of this parochialism, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Japan has no system to analyze intelligence as the whole government. There is no other developed countries like this.”
In gathering intelligence, a fast supply of data from other government entities is considered paramount, but none of Japan’s is willing to release classified information to the new envisioned entity without a law to severely punish government officials for leaking classified intelligence to outsiders, a senior official in the Abe administration said recently, on condition of anonymity.
“Without (a confidentiality law), we cannot share really sensitive information with outside organizations,” the official said.
On April 16, Abe additionally pointed out that Japan often receives classified information from the United States under the security alliance.
“(But) some countries are concerned about the fact that Japan doesn’t have a system to protect secret information,” Abe told a budget committee session. “We are now discussing various related issues, giving much consideration to the right to know and freedom of the press.”
At present, government workers face up to a year in prison if they disclose confidential information they come across in the course of their duties. But the new bill under consideration would impose far harsher punishments, raising concerns that it could limit disclosure of key government information to the public, other officials in the administration said.
The senior official said that in the past, he repeatedly asked Masaharu Gotoda, a former top police officer who went on to serve as chief Cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, to submit a government-sponsored bill to the Diet and create a law to protect confidential state information.
But Gotoda, who was born in 1914 and experienced Japan’s militarism of the 1930s and ’40s, rejected the idea every time, saying such a law could eventually be used to oppress the people, as was the case in the 1940s.
“I really understand the necessity of such a law. But once it is created, it would be used for other purposes. That’s exactly what we experienced” before the war, the official quoted Gotoda as saying.
The U.S.-led Occupation dismantled all of Japan’s intelligence-gathering units. Ever since, successive administrations have struggled with weak surveillance entities that are supposed to provide cohesive intelligence analysis to the country’s top leaders.
But the vast majority of Diet members were born after the war, and they appear less reluctant to introduce an information-protection law.
In the postwar era, left-leaning lawmakers strongly opposed the enactment of such a law because the militaristic government before Japan’s surrender had cracked down particularly hard on socialists and communists.
Following its victory in the 2009 general election, the center-left Democratic Party of Japan was the first administration to establish an advisory panel of experts to examine relevant issues in introducing such a bill. The panel was set up in 2011.
Masafumi Kaneko, a senior research fellow at PHP Institute Inc. who sits on a panel of experts advising Abe’s administration about the planned entity, pointed out that Japan recently started to face the very real possibility of crises that would force the government to carry out cross-ministry operations, including the Self-Defense Forces, for the first time in the postwar period.
“Japan largely depended on the United States for its national security, and it didn’t face a situation like the dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the past,” Kaneko said.
To cope with the Senkaku territorial clash with China and North Korea’s ballistic missile threats, Japan now needs an organization such as the NSC to integrate the capabilities and communications of the SDF, the coast guard and the Defense and Foreign ministries, he said.