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Literally, the kempetai were the military police and counterintelligence organization of the Imperial Japanese Army. In their military police role, they reported directly to the Army Minister (Japan) rather than to the Army command.

Along with the naval police, the tokeitai, the kempetai, had extended beyond their original counterintelligence functions. While the Civilian Spy Service and the Thought Police (Japan) were separate, non-military organizations, the kempetai was also known as the Special Service Organ, and carried out operations, not always authorized at the highest levels, in support of various ideologies and missions.[1] The Army component was called the Special Service Organ.

Acting within the role of Special Service Organ, operatives had a major role in staging the Manchurian Incident. A Special Service Organ officer of apparently low rank, such as Colonel Kenji Doihara, had much more authority than his rank would indicate, much as with the KGB.