In a historic and unprecedented display of appreciation, the government of Japan awarded two former DIA officers the Order of the Rising Sun for their contributions in strengthening the national defense relationship between Japan and the United States.
Established in 1875 by Emperor Meiji, the Order of the Rising Sun recognizes individuals who have accomplished distinguished achievements in international relations, the promotion of Japanese culture, and the preservation of the environment. After World War II, the Japanese government began presenting the award to individuals who demonstrated exemplary military service or contributed to national defense.
This year, former DIA Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr. and Kevin Novak, former DIA liaison to Japan, joined an elite few who have received the oldest decoration and third-highest honor awarded by the Japanese government. The government of Japan conferred the Order of the Rising Sun, 2nd Class, Gold and Silver Star, upon Ashley and honored Novak with the Order of the Rising Sun, 3rd Class, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon.
Ashley is the first director of a major U.S. intelligence agency to receive a government of Japan award at this level.
“I’m humbled that Japan has honored me with this recognition,” Ashley said. “It is a reflection of the joint work being accomplished between our two nations. It’s not necessarily representative of me as an individual, but of our collective efforts to ensure security in Asia and around the globe.”
The U.S.-Japanese relationship is one of DIA’s most vital missions, especially in light of provocative actions of China and North Korea throughout the region.
“This relationship and our joint efforts are critical to security in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as globally,” said Ashley. “While strategic competition may seem to be centered in Asia, it is global in nature and spans all the national instruments of power — diplomatic, information, military and economic.”
To Ashley, Japanese leadership and collaboration is critical to maintaining peace and prosperity both in the region and around the world.
“My relationships with my counterparts — first Vice Admiral Umio Otsuka and then Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Nodomi — were tremendous and built on a strong sense of trust and common purpose,” said Ashley. “From a military standpoint, I cannot overstate the high level of professionalism and cooperation that exists between our two militaries.”
There are multiple levels to every relationship, and while Ashley’s career undoubtedly influenced ties between the United States and Japan at a strategic level, Novak’s career strengthened DIA’s partnership tactically, impacting relations in the region at an operational level.
Novak first traveled to Japan as a U.S. Air Force electronic security specialist at Yokota Air Base in 1981. He fell in love with the country — and a local girl who became his wife — on this first deployment, ultimately returning to Japan five more times in various capacities, in uniform and as a civilian, until retiring in Tokyo in 2018. As a civil servant with almost 40 years of public service, Novak ended his career in the country where it began.
“It’s significant that American citizens working in the Intelligence Community were recognized,” commented Novak. “I’m not sure if that would have happened a couple of decades ago when intel folks were kept behind closed security doors.”
While describing the position as the DIAL working out of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo as his dream job, Novak acknowledged it was not without a few challenges.
“The most challenging aspect was easily language. I have studied Japanese for years and can get by socially, but the technical and military terminology was, and is, a challenge,” Novak admitted. “Fortunately, many of my Japanese counterparts spoke great, or at least a little, English.”
Novak stated that working with so many outstanding intelligence professionals from multiple countries and across a wide variety of agencies was one of the most rewarding experiences of his career.
Like Ashley and Novak, DIA officers build trust and relationships with partners and allies around the world, at embassies in over 140 different countries. While the work they do often goes unnoticed, it is vital to the Agency’s continuing success in providing foundational military intelligence to warfighters and policymakers now and in the future.
“Success with partners and allies comes from a common sense of purpose and trust built well in advance of conflict,” Ashley said. “For officers working with allies and partners, the time is now to build those relationships. There is nothing better than knowing you’re calling a friend when you need assistance.”
In August, Kazuhisa Shimada, the administrative vice-minister of defense, presented Novak with his award at the Japanese Ministry of Defense. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the ceremony was small, but no less admirable. Shimada and Taro Yamato, deputy director-general of Japan’s Defense Policy Bureau, hosted Novak and his wife for an office call, honoring Novak for his years of service in their country.
“To me, personally, it’s even more significant that a mid-level person got the honor because it’s usually awarded to higher ranking officials,” Novak said. “It’s more significant and much more humbling.”
Novak plans to spend retirement traveling around Japan and the United States, and attending baseball games with his two sons.
Ashley received his award at a ceremony at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., in October. When asked about life after DIA, Ashley referenced a popular TED Talk by Simon Sinek and described his transition as a work in progress.
“My why has always been about how to better secure the freedoms of U.S. citizens and our partners — and that has not changed,” Ashley said. “As an advisor, I try to help companies with innovative capabilities understand the problems the Intelligence Community and Department of Defense are trying to solve, and guide their efforts where I can, in defense of the Nation.”
While officially retired from military service, Ashley established his own consulting company, Ashley Global Leadership and Strategy and continues to work in the defense and intelligence sector as a principal consultant with several companies across a broad portfolio of technology capabilities.
In addition to Ashley and Novak, the government of Japan conferred the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun on James Clapper, DIA’s 11th director and former director of national intelligence.