An up-close look at global intelligence


Jun Isomura is delighted to meet twice. The first time I am in the front of a car, taking notes, he in the back, out of sight, answering questions in impeccably accented British English. It is only when we disembark that we finally meet face to face.

We meet again at Hachiko in Shibuya, where I find him as happy as a puppy. “Well that was interesting,” he says. “All those people waiting for other people, and people like me watching who’s meeting who.”

Isomura, a pioneer in Japan’s cyber security field, is a professional people person, a watcher and listener on the sidelines who spends much of his time keeping the wheels of politics oiled.

Currently, he is trapped in Tokyo, waiting for his visa to be renewed so that he can return to his assignment as senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., from where he directs the U.S.-Japan Strategic Summit Program.

“What is a fellow? Good question. Basically it means I’m a high-level researcher with a nice office.”

What does he research?

“Well, we’re a think-tank, collecting and disseminating information. By in formation, I mean intelligence. Well yes, I suppose it is true to say that’s what I am: an intelligence collector.”

The Hudson Institute is one of several such agencies in the U.S. capital. Founded in 1961 by the futurist Herman Kahn, it claims to be a nonpartisan policy research organization dedicated to research and analysis that promotes global security, prosperity, and freedom.

“I’d say Hudson’s perspective is essentially optimistic and future-orientated,” Isomura explains, relaxed and open. “I’m among 50 fellows from all around the world who, through publications, conferences and policy recommendations, guide leaders worldwide in government and business.”

It’s all a long way from Kamakura, where he was born and grew up loving all things mechanical: “I’d break clocks, just so I could mend them!”

Wanting to emulate his grandfather’s interest in all things Teutonic, Isomura studied German at the Goethe Institute in Tokyo. He completed one graduate degree in applied mathematics at Kyoto Sangyo University, and a second in mechanical engineering at Munich Technical University, while all the time “tinkering with cars in my spare time.”

When a friend visited and remarked that Isomura had become “too German,” he decided that the London School of Economics might provide some balance.

“It was the 1970s, with the IRA (Irish Republican Army) very active . . . lots of bombings. My professor in Kyoto effected an introduction to the former London School of Economics and Political Science historian Arthur J. Toynbee, a strong and very positive influence.”

Toynbee’s writings were prophetic: deeply influenced by time spent in India, he believed that since communism had failed and capitalism was proving unsustainable, humanity’s future lay elsewhere, in a system maybe somewhere in-between. He also foresaw conflict between the West and the Muslim world.

Another strong influence was Carl von Weizsaecker, whose brother, Richard, was president of Germany from 1984-94. “When I first met him at his house in the early ’70s, I was amazed at his brilliance. In 1986, he helped his brother write a speech saying that the reunification of East and West was possible. I think Japan could learn a lot from that speech.”

After LSE, Isomura returned to Japan to put this interest in diplomacy and politics to good use: He became a secretary to Taro Aso in Nagatacho.

“Over the years I visited the Kremlin more than 10 times, the last for a private two-hour meeting with Vice President Gennady Yanayev just three days before the failed Russian coup of August 1991. As for Japan-U.S. relations, I was traveling between Washington and Tokyo every month to give correct information on Asia.”

In fact, Isomura was giving more than 10 bodies in Moscow this same information, including the KGB. He worked in considerable secrecy, he admits, arranging the breakthrough meeting between Japan and the Soviet Union in 1990, for example.

“I was constantly gathering information and evaluating the situation. An amazing time indeed, and yes one day I will write a book. Maybe.”

Three years ago, Isomura was appointed to the Hudson Institute where, he says, he is next door to veteran journalist John O’Sullivan, who used to write speeches for Britain’s Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister.

His pet project is keeping track of what he describes as “mega-impact incidents likely to cause the collapse of regimes.” He says that analyzing Russia of late had been as tough-going as keeping track of global approaches to energy.

“I’m constantly on the move, basically dividing my time between Japan and Washington: two weeks here, two weeks there. I learn more meeting individuals face to face than by e-mail or teleconferencing. Flying is my job!”

When here, home is in Setagaya, with his wife and “two black Labradors, mother and daughter. His son — the only child of a previous marriage, whom he brought up alone — is at Nottingham University in the U.K., studying international security and terrorism.

While Isomura describes Tokyo as apathetic to the point of being moribund — in political terms at least — Washington’s in a state of turmoil. “Based on the Bush administration, I’d say the U.S. is totally unprepared for the next 20 years. And this is my observation no matter who wins in November.”

Will Obama get into the White House? If he does, Isomura believes Washington will be awash with amateur politicians who know nothing about domestic or global politics, don’t know how to listen and are unable to read between the lines. Will it better or worse than having 60 percent of White House interns Christian fundamentalists? Only time will tell.

Reagan-ites, he recalls, were one-sided, “but at least they understood how politics worked professionally. MaCain is a professional, so from that point of view he has to be the better bet.”

When it is pointed out that many Americans are so sick of the old self-serving style of politics that they are ready to stand behind an idealist who promises change to the point of revolution, Isomura spreads his hands as if to say, So-be-it, but. . . (don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Whatever happens, he promises to be ready to help, “because my mission has nothing to do with whether I like elected officials as individuals or even as politicians. I simply want the next president, whoever it is, to make correct decisions.”

Isomura says he has neither any ability nor any interest in making money. Rather, he was given the talent to do the job he does: help the world move forward in peace and with optimism. Having said this, he is increasingly disappointed with Japan each time he returns.

“It is clear to me that Japan is closing again mentally. Before Aum Shinrikyo went off the rails, there was a warming.”

Now religious groups are isolated.

Young people are so afraid of isolation that they choose digital friends ahead of the warm-blooded variety; there is less and less dialogue inside families.

As for officials, they follow the rule of law and have no interest in challenge or ambition.

Above all, there is no forward planning. The world economy is in large part dependent on Tokyo. If disaster struck the capital, imagine the global repercussions.

If he could do one thing to change Japan for the better?

“Change the education system. Our young people need to feel hopeful and challenged. Do you know who really supports the Japanese economy? Thousands upon thousands of small industries working out of sight, out of mind. But who will take them over, be visionary enough to start up new firms?”

Buying up an existing company puts money in the bank but people out of work. What about the future?

“We need to be creative, bring back apprenticeship and guild systems, make things again. They worked before, they can work again,” he advises.