Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force spies have secretly gathered intelligence abroad since the Cold War era without informing the prime minister or defense minister, a practice considered as deviating from civilian control, former senior defense officials said Wednesday.
A special unit of the Ground Staff Office has set up bases in countries such as Russia, China, South Korea and Poland, and several dozen GSDF members of the team have engaged in intelligence activities overseas without legal basis and by assuming false identities, according to the officials.
In Japan, the prime minister acts as the commander-in-chief of the Self-Defense Forces and the defense minister supervises troops. The Diet also has a say in some SDF activities.
A former chief of the Ground Staff Office admitted that the GSDF has a secret intelligence unit but told Kyodo News he did not ask about the team's activities overseas in detail so he would not be held responsible for unforeseen events.
A former head of the Defense Ministry's Defense Intelligence Headquarters said prime ministers and defense ministers are not even aware that such a special GSDF intelligence unit exists.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said of the reported special intelligence unit Wednesday night, "I verified with the GSDF chief of staff if there was in the past or is now such an organ and told none." He was speaking to reporters at the Defense Ministry.
All members of the secret unit have completed courses on defense against psychological warfare at a GSDF school in Kodaira in the suburbs of Tokyo, the officials said.
The Kodaira school is seen as the successor of an Imperial Japanese Army institution in Tokyo's Nakano Ward that specialized in training for spying and counterintelligence activities before and during World War II.
GSDF spies trained at the Kodaira school began collecting intelligence mainly on the former Soviet Union, China and North Korea at their bases overseas during the Cold War, under the guidance of the U.S. Army, the officials said.
They have moved constantly between cities and countries but have always maintained around three different bases for their activities. The unit members have recently been gathering intelligence in countries such as Russia, South Korea and Poland, they added.
When dispatched abroad, the spies often disguise themselves as officials of Japanese government bodies other than the Defense Ministry and employees of Japanese trading companies, collecting military, political and security information through informers.
They relay intelligence gathered overseas to the chief of the Ground Staff Office and the Defense Intelligence Headquarters without clarifying sources.
It remains unknown how GSDF spying activities abroad that lack a legal basis are funded. Many defense sources say the secret unit under the Ground Staff Office is still closely connected with the U.S. forces.