Much has been written about the wartime intelligence exploits of the Allies against Japan. Such exploits range from the United States’ success in breaking the Japanese JN-25 naval code, to the extensive operations of the Soviet Union’s military intelligence networks in Tokyo. In contrast, very little is known about Japan’s intelligence performance against the Allies in the interwar years, as well as after 1941. Now a new paper by an international team or researchers sheds light on this little-studied aspect of intelligence history.
The researchers… published their work on September 22 in the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence and National Security. Their well-written article is entitled “Agents, Attachés, and Intelligence Failures: The Imperial Japanese Navy’s Efforts to Establish Espionage Networks in the United States Before Pearl Harbor”.
The authors acknowledge that the history of the intelligence efforts of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) has received very little attention by scholars. Consequently, it remains unexplored even in Japan, let along in the international scholarship on intelligence. There are two main reasons for that. To begin with, the IJN systematically destroyed its intelligence files in the months leading to Japan’s official surrender in 1945. Then, following the war, fearing being implicated in war crimes trials, few of its undercover operatives voluntarily revealed their prior involvement in intelligence work.
Luckily, however, the past decade has seen the declassification of a number of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) counterintelligence files relating to Japanese intelligence operations targeting the United States. Most of these files date from the 1930s and early 1940s. Additionally, a number of related documents have been declassified by the government of Mexico, which is important, given that Mexico was a major base for Japanese intelligence operations targeting the United States. What do these files show? According to Drabkin, Kusunoki and Hart, the IJN’s spies were able to obtain secrets relating to the military capabilities of the United States during the interwar years. These included “significant amounts of information” on American weapons systems and military tactics. However, such successes were rare. On balance, the authors state that IJN intelligence activities in the United States were “fraught with problems”. These were partly rooted in the deep skepticism about the value of espionage among the leadership of the IJN. The latter generally regarded human intelligence (HUMINT) as ungentlemanly and “nearly heretical”. Put simply, the upper echelons of the IJN “had little interest in intelligence”.