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Interview with former NSS head Kitamura: Strengthen the Cabinet’s intelligence capacity

By Okuyama Miki


The importance of economic security is increasing. The U.S.-China conflict has intensified in the area of cutting-edge technologies, and the Japanese government is taking measures to prevent technology leaks. Nikkei asked Kitamura Shigeru, who supported the Noda, Abe, and Suga administrations as the Director of Cabinet Intelligence and the Secretary-General of the National Security Secretariat (NSS), about the crisis that Japan faces and how it should respond.


Nikkei: The international situation surrounding Japan is severe.


Kitamura: I am concerned that there is a gap between public opinion and the actual threat posed by China, which is expanding its military and economic power. Japan not only must face China, but also Russia and North Korea. We should also keep an eye on the situation in the Taiwan Strait.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) scrambled against Russian military aircraft about 400 times in 2020. Japan scrambled 947 times in FY 2019, more than double NATO’s figure. More than half of all Japan’s scrambles were in response to Chinese aircraft. 


The China Coast Guard sails every day in the waters around the Senkaku Islands. I would like to pay tribute to the daily activities of the Self-Defense Forces and the Japan Coast Guard. There is no doubt that even by global standards the Far East is a region of extremely high military tension.


Nikkei: The government created an economic team within the National Security Secretariat in April 2020.


Kitamura: Many people think of the military when they think of security, but in recent years security has expanded into the economic sector. A recent trend is that information desired by foreign intelligence agents has shifted from national politics and military affairs to the cutting-edge technologies owned by private companies.


Advanced technology can be adapted for military use. China in particular supports the adaptation of private sector technology to military use by promoting a “military-civilian fusion” policy that brings together private companies and the military.


There has been remarkable development of technologies in the private sector that affect not only the military but also the economy and the people’s lives. Artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum technology are such technologies. There is growing competition over cutting-edge technology among major powers.


Japan’s public and private sectors must work together to protect and nurture technology. Without sufficient mechanisms to prevent leaks, Japan could lose its technological advantage.


Nikkei: The government is strengthening regulations [on technology].


Kitamura: The NSS’s economic team worked on amendments to the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law, and tightened restrictions on foreign investment in Japanese companies with security-critical technologies.


The U.S. allows ex post facto intervention to a greater extent than Japan. Exercise of shareholders’ rights under commercial law is important, but the entities behind the shareholders should be monitored from a security perspective.


I felt that administrative law, which stipulates the authority of government agencies to regulate businesses, was not duly crafted from a security perspective. In the future, we should consider incorporating a security perspective into business law, which is a major part of administrative law.


Nikkei: One aspect of economic security relates to business regulations.


Kitamura: There is a protectionist aspect to economic security in terms of business regulations, but economic security also has a promotional aspect to nurture industries. Balancing the two sides is important. In the long term, preventing the illegal transfer of Japanese technologies to foreign governments and companies will promote free and fair international competition.


There will be more opportunities for companies in Japan and in friendly countries to conduct joint research and development of advanced technology. The government should introduce a qualification system (security clearance system) for handling confidential and advanced technology to ensure reciprocity.


Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray said in 2020 that “Even if it serves the company’s interests in the short term, damage to intellectual property and leaks of sensitive data is a big loss in the long term.”


Corporate executives and boards need to be more careful about who they do business with and who participates in the supply chain.


Nikkei: National intelligence is important.


Kitamura: First of all, we need a place for “decision-making.” We need to strengthen the intelligence capabilities of the Cabinet, which is the center of policy making. The Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office should be upgraded to a permanent organization, but I could not implement the upgrade during my tenure.


Democratic control over an intelligence agency will become an issue. One idea is to install a minister or a deputy who is a Diet member in charge [of intelligence].


There is debate among the Japanese people about creating an intelligence system. In the process of enacting the Act on Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, the approval rating of the Abe Cabinet fell by nearly 10 points. The law would not have been achieved without strong political will to implement important measures at the sacrifice of political capital.


Nikkei: You said that you wrote your new book “Information and the Nation” while thinking about notifying policy makers of information that includes “inconvenient truths.”


Kitamura: It is especially important to have personal relationships with leaders so that we do not make mistakes in national policy. Leaders will not listen to “inconvenient truths” without personal relationships.


Nikkei: Leaders do not always listen to such truths..


Nikkei: I spent nine years and six months at the Prime Minister’s office [Kantei]. When I was a secretary during the first Abe administration, I once slept on a government plane. When I woke up, I jumped because I saw former secretary Imai Naoya (currently a Special Advisor to the Cabinet) seated next to me. All of us spent time sleeping and eating together.


The network, unity, and loyalty I built up during my days as a secretary supported the smooth execution of the policy of the second Abe administration, the longest administration in the history of constitutional government. Teamwork at the Kantei is an important element of governance.


Nikkei: What do you look for in political leaders?


Kitamura: The development of the Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of security. I would like Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to build a close relationship with his counterpart President Biden. That is my wish as a fellow alumnus (of Kaisei High School, a private school).


My tenure as NSS Secretary-General was a time of transition from the Abe to the Suga administration. In the U.S., the Trump administration transitioned to the Biden administration. The Biden administration has maintained the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept advocated by Japan, due to the smooth and meticulous transition from Robert O’Brien to the new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Both were my counterparts.


The current U.S.-Japan relationship is supported by building multi-layered relationships between leaders, foreign ministers, defense ministers, national security advisors, and directors of relevant ministries and agencies. I believe that multilayered and robust relationships will continue to develop.

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