MI6's Man in Japan? Herbert Norman's Counterintelligence Assignment, 1945

Group with Herbert Norman, 1945.pdf

"Group with Herbert Norman," 1945. Norman is second from right. PA-206848, DND/LAC.

Between October-December 1945, historian of Japan, Canadian diplomat, and wartime intelligence officer Herbert Norman was posted to the US counterintelligence staff in Tokyo. This originated as neither a Canadian nor an American idea. In between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan's final surrender, Peter Cecil Wilson of MI6/British Security Coordination pitched this unusual assignment to senior US military intelligence officers, Norman himself, and Canada's Department of External Affairs.

The British Secret Intelligence Service was planning for a permanent postwar presence in Tokyo. But finding an officer with "profound knowledge of the Japanese language and of the country" to lead this work would "take time" (CDHN00009). Norman possessed both of these qualities. He could meet specific British intelligence needs and might even be well-positioned to "influence American policy" in Japan (CDHN00001). Wilson was less concerned about clandestine/subversive activities by Japanese intelligence professionals in the postwar period than the patriotic societies (and their members) that might nurture a future "renaissance of Japanese Imperialism." The British Secret Intelligence Service eventually hoped to penetrate these circles with covert agents. While Wilson did not expect Norman to build a network of spies and informants, he hoped Norman might take note of any Japanese who could be "useful in this connection" in the future (CDHN00009). 

This briefing book sheds light on the high degree of integration of the American, British, and Canadian intelligence communities in 1945. Personal relationships forged in wartime shaped postwar intelligence cooperation within the North Atlantic Triangle. As head of Canada's Special Intelligence Section, which interpreted the meaning and significance of intercepted Japanese signals traffic for Canadian/Allied leaders (see the Special Intelligence Section Reports briefing book), Norman came into close contact with the British and American intelligence communities between 1942-45. Wilson therefore wrote about visiting Norman's wife Irene in Ottawa in the very same correspondence that set out short and long-term British intelligence aims in Japan. Wilson was also able to chat informally with senior US officers about, for instance, General Douglas MacArthur's independent streak, and how this might obstruct Allied intelligence work in Tokyo.

Norman spent approximately six to seven weeks in counterintelligence before being reassigned. This was not because External Affairs did not see value in the work he was doing for British and American partners, but because of the Canadian diplomatic corps' own "urgent needs." Norman was viewed as Ottawa's leading expert on the Asia-Pacific, so he was selected to represent Canada on the Allies’ Far Eastern Commission (CDHN00012).

The documents in this briefing book are part of a wider file on Canada's liaison with British Security Co-ordination during World War II. This file was requested by Timothy Sayle and released under Canada's Access to Information Act (Library and Archives Canada ATIP A-2019-03092).

MI6's Man in Japan? Herbert Norman's Counterintelligence Assignment, 1945