Espionage for prosperity

Imperial Japan's secret service

By William Wetherall

A review of
Richard Deacon
Kempei Tai
(A History of the Japanese Secret Service)
New York: Berkley Books, New York, 1985 (1983)
301 pages, paperback

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 130(42), 24 October 1985, page 58

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.

This non-fiction book is about both the agents and the organizations that have made the history of Japanese espionage as colorful as a Le Carre novel. First published in 1983, it has little to do with the Kenpeitai (which gets skimpy treatment in only a few pages), and is ultimately an appeal to consider Japanese intelligence practices as models for emulation by the world.

Deacon brings a wealth of experience to his subject through previously published studies of the British, Russian, Chinese, and Israeli secret services. In his view "Japan is unique in that she has a far broader, more imaginative conception of Intelligence than any other power." The raison d'etre of Japan's secret service is linked to two "national character" factors: the "spirit of independence and individualism" that caused Japan to isolate itself from the outside world for so many centuries; and the "desire for all kinds of knowledge" which compensated for the isolationist tendencies that persisted into the 19th century when Japan was forced to open its doors to -- and catch up with -- the powers that had threatened to blow them off their medieval hinges.

Such cliches of Japanese history are the pillars of Deacon's view that, given a politically stable world, "Japan, with its passionate emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge, may pave the way to a more peaceful and eminently sensible concept of secret service in the future" -- one which can produce more prosperity, overcome food shortages, and harness both science and people to higher standards of living."

Deacon has a written an "objective" (never hostile, though possibly too consciously sympathetic) account of Japan's spies and secret societies, beginning with the 16th century but focusing on the first half of the 20th. Most of the drama unfolds in Manchuria and China, where exceptionally well-trained, talented, and dedicated members of such infamous groups as the Black Dragon Society seem to upstage all other espionage operations in the world.

Deacon does not excuse the violence that Japan committed or underwrote in Korea, Manchuria, and China. He simply admires the pragmatism with which Japanese leaders accepted their felt need to depend on intelligence collected through "an all-embracing espionage system" unmatched for its thoroughness anywhere in the world.

Domestically, the Thought Section of the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Justice, which "turned" communists and socialists into proper nationalists in the manner of a religious "conversion" experience, "was essentially a Japanese approach to the problem [of thought control] and not to be compared with the Nazis' savage attacks on all things they considered unAryan," Deacon argues. "Nor could it be likened to the crudities and repressive measures of the secret police of the Soviet Union."

Through eye-witness accounts (mainly of elite resident foreigners and their servants), Deacon shows that Japan's Orwellian Thought Police could be kind as well brutal. Without trying to vindicate how Japanese spied on each other, Deacon maintains that even the abuses of the notorious Kenpeitai, a semi-autonomous police organization that existed within the Japanese Army but was directly responsible to the War Minister, "were not as extensive as might be expected" considering its power and freedom to abuse it.

Whatever the past character of Japan's espionage, "possibly even ninety per cent" of its intelligence-gathering today is what Deacon calls "espionage for prosperity" in his two concluding chapters. It is difficult to refute his contention that Japan's penchant for collecting information on everything under the sun has enabled the country to be perhaps the most futuristic in the world.

But unless Japan becomes more generous in sharing its hordes of information with others, Deacon's view that Japan's intelligence can contribute to the future prosperity of the world may be too optimistic.