Some Asian governments keep a close watch on Japan to make sure that its military does not get out of hand. The memories of World War II run deep enough that seemingly incremental changes can cause concern.
The recent launching of Japan's Defense Intelligence Headquarters (DIH) is the kind of development that leads to raised eyebrows in other parts of Asia. "This [new organization] is a trigger to indicate that they are going farther than a defense-oriented" military posture, says a government-affiliated South Korean analyst speaking on condition of anonymity. "It makes China, Korea, and other neighboring countries a little nervous."
It's not that the new organization is much of a surprise - it has been discussed for nearly a decade, and with special interest since the Gulf war, when Japan found itself overly dependent on other countries for information.
The creation of the DIH in January also does not involve an expansion of Japan's limited intelligence-gathering capabilities. Instead it brings together intelligence units from Japan's army, navy, and air force, as well as the Defense Agency, and the military's Joint Staff Council.
But the Korean analyst is worrying about what happens down the road. Japan's defense establishment has long been caught in a dilemma. The country's Constitution, drafted by the United States after World War II, demands a strictly defensive posture. For most of the postwar era, the Japanese government has interpreted the Constitution to mean it could counter the Soviet threat. But now that the cold war is over, the country has had to consider threats that are less obvious and farther away.
It has also been called upon to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations far from home. And while the US is bound by treaty to defend Japan, some Japanese officials say that they can imagine a day when the American commitment will wane.
So while the Japanese government does not want to raise the concerns of other Asian countries nor alienate its US protectors, analysts say it has nonetheless embarked on a program of defense modernization that will result in a more self-reliant military and one with a wider reach. The DIH seems to fit this scenario.
DIH official Hiroshi Yamanouchi says the unit is not designed to further Japan's ability to participate in UN operations overseas, but adds that the DIH will focus on "important information about the international military situation," which may help the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan's military is known, decide whether to participate in international peacekeeping.
The DIH's ability to collect such information is limited in comparison with other countries' intelligence services. Japanese law bars the military's use of space, so the country has no spy satellites. The government says the country has no spies, although some 40 defense attachs posted to Japanese embassies around the world collect information. These gaps in intelligence-gathering ability have been filled in large part by the US.
The DIH staff of 1,220 uniformed officers and 362 civilians is mostly assigned to analyze information obtained from the army's radio listening posts. The staff will also interpret data from the air force and navy, which have some ability to maintain surveillance of events outside Japan's borders.
Japanese military officials, however, have long pushed for their own spy satellite while acknowledging the limits imposed by the law. As Mr. Yamanouchi says, "The Defense Agency has been very interested in an intelligence satellite ... but at present there's no plan to build one."
Japan's Foreign Ministry has asked parliament for 5 million yen ($40,000) to commission a study to see whether it should have an "international intelligence gathering satellite." And a committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has held hearings this month on the ability of Japanese companies to build such a device.
If Japan does go ahead with a plan for a spy satellite, the raised eyebrows of its Asian neighbors will almost certainly turn to alarm. Even if Japan overcomes the legal and technological hurdles involved, says Akira Kato, a military affairs specialist at Tokyo's Obirin University, a spy satellite "would seriously affect" Japan's efforts to maintain smooth relations in East Asia.
The major benefit of the DIH may come in Japan's ability to handle crises. The reliance on foreign governments for information and the lack of cohesion among intelligence units has slowed Japan's ability to react to world events.