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Japan In and Out of the Shadows

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In the past several years, the media has focused on how quickly and effectively Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been able to curry favor with the famously narcissistic Donald Trump—something other democratic leaders have also attempted without much sustained success. (cf. Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, Theresa May).

Japan in the international stage

Meanwhile, something else has been going on—two things, in fact. Seemingly unfazed by Trump’s uneven diplomacy, Japan has stepped up onto the international stage in a way that few longtime Japan watchers could have anticipated—as a champion of free trade. After Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, Abe proceeded to knit together what remained of the agreement, deepened the existing arrangement with the European Union, and forged a new one for trade with a post-Brexit UK. He also signed an impressive economic agreement with Xi Jing Ping.

Defense policies

Second, while most Japan watchers focused on whether or not Abe could deliver on his promise to revise the U.S. imposed constitution, his government has sliced away nearly all of the cautious defense policies that had been tethered to Article 9, the pacifist security clause. Those familiar with my earlier work from Cornell University Press know that I have been keeping track of how the Japanese government has been steadily unwinding a long list of self-posed constraints on its conduct of postwar security policy. For example, Japan had no defense ministry until 2007. It ruled out the military use of space until it acknowledged it did not. Its prime minister—Abe’s uncle Eisaku Sato—won the Nobel Peace Prize for ruling out nuclear weapons that today are openly discussed as a “latent” deterrent. The government banned the export of weapons, until it ended the ban in 2014. Article 9 was interpreted as proscribing offensive weapons, but the latest defense plan allows for aircraft carriers and stand-off missiles. Japan famously limited defense spending to 1% of GDP, until 2019 when it announced it would adopt a new accounting procedure that acknowledges defense spending is squarely above that limit.

Japan’s intelligence community

By 2015 or so, there remained only one important aspect of national security policy that had not been reengineered— Japan’s intelligence community, the subject of my new book from Cornell University Press. Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, the first comprehensive history of the Japanese intelligence community, explores its imperial expansion, postwar collapse and subordination to the United States, and its slow but steady reinvention after the Cold War. It examines how shifts in Japan’s security environment, technological change and intelligence failures stimulated (often ineffective) intelligence reforms across each of its functional elements: collection, analysis, communication, counterintelligence, covert action, and oversight.  

Special Duty

Special Duty teaches that much—but hardly all—of Japan’s historical experience with intelligence is similar to that of other nations. It ends with the wisdom of Herodotus, the classical historian who taught that “the worst pain one can suffer is to have insight into much and power over nothing.” I want readers to appreciate how the past century of Japanese intelligence teaches that the reverse—having power over much but insight into nothing—can generate equal pain. During its imperial expansion Japan had great power, but limited insight. And during the American century it had greater insight, but its power was much more limited. Readers will, I hope also appreciate that this is not unique. Not having struck an effective balance between power and insight has generated great costs to Japan and to its neighbors no less than it has to its ally, the United States, during its own imperial moment.


Richard J. Samuels, a prize winning author, is Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2005 he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2011 he received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, an Imperial decoration awarded by the Emperor of Japan and the Japanese Prime Minister.


Featured photo by Finan Akbar on Unsplash

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