Review of Ken Kotani,
Japanese Intelligence in World War II. Trans. Chirharu
Kotani. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2009. Pp. x, 224. ISBN
This is the story of Japanese
intelligence operations before and during World War II, and the ways
policy makers and war planners used and misused the information that
was collected. In his forward, Williamson Murray (Ohio State) describes
the work as "a detailed examination of the bureaucratic,
organizational, and cultural aspects" that rendered the "Japanese
military ... in most respects dysfunctional in the field of
Ken Kotani is a fellow of Japan's
National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), specializing in the
intelligence history of Japan and the United Kingdom, with emphasis on
World War II. To write this history he faced a formidable task: the
Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and Navy (IJN) "destroyed most
intelligence documents at the end of the war. In addition,
intelligence officers of the IJA and IJN were unwilling to talk about
their roles, as they were afraid of being punished by the victorious
Allies" (1). Kitani "dug up and struggled with the fragmented primary
sources" (ix), as well as examining existing literature and available
British and other intelligence documents.
Japanese intelligence has its roots
in Sun Tzu's The Art of War, which Japan's early military
thinkers studied. From the establishment of the IJA and the IJN in
1868, each service had its own intelligence apparatus. Their focus was
tactical, "influenced by the Prussian style of limited war" (8). That
served Japan well in wars with China in 1894-95 and Russia in 1904-5,
but, not having participated in World War I, it failed to understand
"the concept of total war" that required "total intelligence,"
including factors well beyond the scope of military collection and
In the run-up to World War II, both
services collected information through methods ranging from
exploitation of open source material and military attachés abroad to
signals intelligence (SIGINT) and code breaking. The use of foreign
agents was apparently limited and, in some cases, not greatly
successful. One IJN officer wrote: "We succeeded infiltrating the U.S.
government, but after the outbreak of the war the agents were obliged
to move to Mexico, Argentina, and Chile.… We hired native Chinese and
Australian in New Guinea, but they eventually double-crossed" (10).
By contrast, the success of the
Japanese in code-breaking is most impressive. The IJA's main target was the
Soviet Union, while the IJN focused on the United States and
Britain. The IJN broke low-level U.S. diplomatic codes early in the
1920s, and also "part of the British diplomatic code," discovering
"that the British defense of Malaya was highly vulnerable" (15).
Kotani asserts that "the IJA had significant success in breaking
Allied [military] codes" during the war (18), although a postwar U.S.
report suggests these were "low grade…, principally weather and
aircraft codes," and that the Japanese "apparently had not succeeded
in reading any high-grade American or British cryptographic systems"
The real threat to the Allies came
from Chinese codes. The IJA broke Chinese military codes in Manchuria
as early as 1928, the KMT diplomatic code in 1936, and subsequently
"Chinese systems of all types" (5). A senior IJA General Staff officer
wrote: "The IJA could divine the intentions of the United States and
Britain through the Chinese coded cables" (20). The Allies knew this
from reading the Japanese cables, and had to be very selective about
information they passed to the Chinese.
IJA code-breakers who targeted the Soviet Union
had trained in Poland in the 1920s. SIGINT sections in
Manchuria broke the Red Army's code in 1935. During the war,
IJA code-breaking operations were established in Hungary, Finland, and
Poland in cooperation with the host services, while "British and US
codes decrypted by the IJA were exchanged for Soviet codes decrypted
by Germany" (24). The IJA's SIGINT was very extensive: "the IJA had
eight SIGINT sites in Manchuria … acquiring 50,000 cables a year," but
suffered severe shortages of staff and funds. Kotani observes that
"Japanese SIGINT competence could have been equal to that of the
United States or Britain if they had urgently increased the staff to
cope with the enormous volume of traffic" (25).
The unfortunate term HUMINT,
designating IJA attachés working abroad, encompasses their exchanges
with local counterparts, open-source collection, and the "hiring" of
agents. From 1919, the primary target of IJA HUMINT operations was
again the Soviet Union, while "Soviet security centered on battling
Japanese intelligence" (28). The full range of operations against the
Soviets included massive watch operations along the Manchurian-Soviet
border, exploitation of Russian defectors, and attempts to run Russian
agents back across the border. "Manchurians, Koreans, and Mongols were
also chosen as spies, but most of them tended to be Soviet agents"
(36). "Operations against the Soviets were extremely laborious, 'like
searching for very fine gold dust in the mud'" (32).
In the late 1930s, an attempt to
improve Japanese intelligence, particularly against the Soviets,
included the establishment of the Nakano school for the "rapid
training" of officers who "would fight in the covert war … of
espionage, propaganda, security, and plots" (31). The first class of
eighteen graduated in 1939, but "HUMINT" successes against the Soviets
did not increase significantly. The most reliable information came
from censored open source material: the attaché in Moscow predicted
the Soviet invasion of Poland by reading Soviet newspapers (40).
HUMINT collection in China was more
effective. IJA attachés had been posted in major Chinese cities since
the late nineteenth century and a cadre of "China hands" developed.
Some, like General Kenji Doihara, "Lawrence of Manchuria," became
famous. But they were "specialists," and that meant a "shortage of
expertise on Chinese affairs as a whole" (43). IJA also ran
counterinsurgency operations against both the KMT and the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP). At the outset, the IJA had no CCP specialists,
held the Eighth Route Army "in low esteem," and was "deeply shocked"
when 20,000 Japanese soldiers were lost to CCP attacks in 1940 (44).
The Navy collected intelligence on
the United States from 1909 on, although the section responsible had
"fewer than ten staff until the attack on Pearl Harbor" (69). IJN code
breakers had early successes, particularly in China, but "from the
interwar period through the Pacific War the IJN made a generally poor
effort in code-breaking while their own codes were cracked by the
Allies" (76). The Navy had long considered the possibility of a war
against Britain or the United States, and in 1937 "decided to focus
SIGINT on the Hawaii area," the base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (72).
During the war, even though codes could not be broken, traffic
analysis gave useful indications of the targets and timing of U.S.
Few records of Navy HUMINT
operations exist, but Britain's MI5 had good files on Britons who
served as IJN agents, including several Royal Navy officers who were
compromised to MI5 early on. Herbert Greene, brother of novelist
Graham Greene, became an IJN spy in 1933, and then told the Daily
Worker. Great IJN hopes rode on ex-RAF officer, F.J Rutland, a
hero of the Great War and an expert on carrier aircraft, who became an
"adviser" to the IJN in 1923. He moved to California in 1934, set up
front companies, and "behaved like a billionaire" (82). The FBI
quickly pegged him "as in charge of Japanese intelligence works in
America" (84). He was repatriated to Britain in 1941 and interned as a
collaborator. Though he must have cost the IJN a great deal of money,
"he seems not to have reported much genuinely useful information"
Kotani believes that "in the first
phase of the Pacific War, Japan was good at using tactical
intelligence" (159). Pearl Harbor was the outstanding example. Once it
was decided to draft a plan for an attack, an IJN officer was posted
to Hawaii as a junior diplomat. He made sight-seeing trips around Oahu
and reported to Tokyo details of installations, airfields, and the
strength and location of the U.S. fleet. Other IJN officers booked
passage on liners to explore the seaways, and collected information
"from human sources in Hawaii" (137). Security was flawless. Neither
the IJA nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was informed of the
target, and few in the IJN knew the specific plan. Once the ships
deployed, radio silence was total. The Americans never had a clue:
"this was not American failure, but the success of Japanese security"
(137). That would soon change.
"IJA and IJN information gathering
was not poor, but structural flaws meant that the efforts were often
wasted." The flaws comprised "the vulnerable position of the military
Intelligence Departments, the lack of a central intelligence
machinery, and the war planners' indifference to intelligence" (159). Causing
further vulnerability were IJN operations staff--the best and
brightest--who looked down on the intelligence staff and tailored
their own assessments to support IJN strategic goals (160). Evidence
contrary to operational staff assessments was ignored. This was not
analysis, but wishful thinking.
The lack of a coordinating body--a
central intelligence organization--caused many problems as the war
went on. The IJN took heavy losses at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but
announced it had sunk eleven U.S. carriers, two battleships, and three
cruisers. Crediting this report, IJA planners shifted their main force
from Luzon to Leyte--only to have much of it annihilated in transit by U.S.
aircraft that should not have been there.
The most striking example of
Japanese intelligence failure--on many levels--was the compromising of
IJN operational codes prior to the battles of the Coral Sea and
Midway. Though the IJA knew secrets were being leaked, its "conceit
[was] that 'our codes cannot be broken'" (90):
The chief staff officer of the 1st
Air fleet noted: "The major factor of the failure in the operation was
the leaking of the Japanese Combined Fleet's plan on the battle of
Midway to the US Navy." In the operational diary of the General Staff
it was recorded that "the enemy had grasped our intentions
beforehand." However, in the minds of the Navy General Staff, the
major factors behind the defeat were technical issues, such as a
problem in liaison between the fleets and replenishment vessels and
the lack of reconnaissance…. The lack of thorough examination
regarding code failures resulted in the shooting down of the plane of
Admiral Yamomoto on April 18, 1943 (87-88).
And there was no help from the
Army: "Although the Army SIS could break some of the US military
ciphers … the Navy SIS failed to break them. The Army was superior to
the Navy in code-breaking and the code-breakers of the IJA knew the
vulnerability of the Navy's code. However, they did not share their
knowledge of code-breaking, and the Navy was not informed of their
"But the fundamental problem was
the Japanese decision-making process itself, which could not handle
intelligence for war planning or for strategic policy" (150). Official
decisions, once made, became impervious to change by "rational ideas"
or by intelligence. In the prewar period, three power centers--the
IJA, the IJN, and the government--each pulled in its own direction,
with no one entity formulating national strategy. Before that, the
Genro (the Emperor's advisers) had set Japan's grand strategy, but
they had been pushed aside by the IJA. Intelligence became useful when
it supported a position being negotiated within the power structure.
"The war planners usually chose reports in an arbitrary and impromptu
manner for their own strategic goals" (163). The IJA Chief of Staff is
quoted on one such occasion: "The report is perfect and there is no
room to argue. But the report is against our national policy" (151).
The report was ordered burned.
Kotani convincingly describes what
Professor Murray calls "not so much a failure of the intelligence
organizations themselves as a massive failure of the culture and
bureaucratic organization of the Japanese military from top to bottom"
(viii). The book is indeed a significant contribution to the
literature of intelligence and World War II, particularly for
English-language readers with no access to works in Japanese. The
translation, by Kotani's wife, is competent, despite a few odd word
choices (for example, Japanese agents are "hired," not recruited), too
many unfamiliar acronyms, and occasional imprecise phraseology.
The bibliography attests to
extensive use of Japanese and British documents, but U.S. documents
are limited to Office of Naval Intelligence "Records of the Oriental
Desk" and a brief history of communications intelligence in the
United States. There is but a single reference to the Office of
Strategic Services (OSS) and none to Chinese documents. This does not
diminish Kotani's accomplishment, but suggests that future
explorations of U.S. and Chinese sources may add further insights into
Japanese intelligence operations, perhaps like those Kotani gained
from MI5 files. Nonetheless, this important work will benefit
specialists and general readers and indeed anyone wanting a more
complete picture of Japanese intelligence during World War II than