What’s a little spying between friends?

While other US allies reacted angrily, Japan’s response to WikiLeaks’ NSA espionage allegations was muted.

Wikileaks US Spying
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga downplayed WikiLeaks spying allegations [AP]

Tokyo, Japan – The recent raft of classified documents released by WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website, again spotlights just how deep and broad electronic spying operations conducted by the United States on its friends and allies has been.

This time, Japan is the victim of the prying National Security Agency (NSA), the US electronic spy organisation accused by WikiLeaks of performing these unsociable espionage activities.

WikiLeaks published its latest round of illegal NSA intercepts on July 31 under the heading: “Target Tokyo”.

The documents allegedly show the NSA tapped communications, especially telephone calls of “Japanese conglomerates, government officials, ministries and senior advisers”.

The disclosure follows similar WikiLeaks revelations of US spying on Brazil, France and Germany. Yet while the previous exposés triggered widespread indignation and anger in those countries, Japan’s reaction has been muted by comparison.


The Japanese government’s initial response, via Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, was to indirectly query the validity of the documents.

Suga noted that WikiLeaks is a private organisation whose source of information is unknown, and therefore, the government would refrain from commenting on the content.

“But if I might say,” commented Suga, “should the documents [prove to be] factual, then this is quite regrettable.”

The US government used a similar avoidance strategy to evade admitting the NSA had breached the trust of a friendly country.

Mark Toner, deputy spokesman at the US State Department, responded to reporters’ questions concerning the charge of spying on Japan, saying, “We’ve been very clear we’re not going to respond to releases of allegedly classified documents.” 

Any doubt of the validity of the WikiLeaks content was surely removed after Suga informed the media on August 5 that – at the request of US President Barak Obama – Vice President Joe Biden held a teleconference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that morning for about 30 minutes.

Suga reported that Biden apologised for “causing trouble and inconvenience”, though Suga declined to say whether Biden had admitted the NSA spied on Japan.

Inferior information

“There are two major reasons [for Japan’s low-key reaction],” Koichiro Hayashi, a professor at the Institute of Information Security, a graduate school in Yokohama, told Al Jazeera.

Abe should express anger - otherwise Japan will be misunderstood, and America, China, others will only increase their spying activities here.

by Takashi Fukuyama, retired army general

“Japanese society emphasises politeness and avoids criticism – that’s one reason.”

The other, which makes it reliant on the US, is “the government’s capabilities in information gathering are inferior to foreign countries”, Hayashi said.

In explaining the reason for this intelligence-gathering weakness, Hayashi singled out Japan’s pacifist constitution written under US occupation following the end of WWII.

“The peaceful constitution is a good thing,” he was quick to note. “But at the same time it prevents Japan from conducting some information-gathering activities.”

With the geopolitical “environment changing, as Prime Minister Abe is pointing out, Japan has to keep up with these changes”, Hayashi added. “So the country has to think about how to achieve a balance between these conflicting ideas.”

Regional threats

Until such balance is achieved, however, Japan remains dependent on the intelligence it receives from the US, as part of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the military alliance signed by the two countries in 1960.

Today, Japan is faced with regional threats in the form of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, as well as the Chinese military challenge to Japan’s sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea.

Maintaining a steady flow of high-grade intelligence from the US will take priority over any hurt feelings caused by the NSA’s nosing into Japan’s domestic affairs.

Nevertheless, such an unbalanced relationship has serious downsides.

“Japan is too much under the control of the US,” Takashi Fukuyama, retired lieutenant general in Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force, told Al Jazeera.

“Japan’s reaction to the NSA spying is peculiar, unnatural, compared to France or Germany. Abe should express anger – otherwise Japan will be misunderstood, and America, China, others will only increase their spying activities here,” Fukuyama said.

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Fukuyama, who spent more than eight years working in various sections of Japan’s national intelligence apparatus, is also critical of Japan’s media response to the WikiLeaks revelations.

He said the liberal press is cowed by the Abe government’s controversial Special Secrecy Law that came into effect last December.

As described by Japan Times, “The law also grants the government powers to imprison whistle-blowers, and prohibits disclosure of classified material, even if its intention is to protect the public interest. This Draconian law also gives the government power to imprison journalists merely for soliciting information that is classified.”

“Because media people want to continue with their easy access to government information sources, they won’t express their anger [about the WikiLeaks revelations]. They may protest, but it is low-key protest,” said Fukuyama.

No impact on trade

The WikiLeaks NSA intercepts concerning Japan go back to 2007 and cover such subjects as technology and energy policy, as well as trade disputes and negotiations.

These revelations were published at the end of July just as trade negotiators in Hawaii were struggling to finalise agreements on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – agreements that failed to materialise.

While the WikiLeaks disclosures wouldn’t have helped matters, no one is claiming they played a role in the failure.

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“Most of the bilateral issues between the US and Japan have been settled already in the TPP negotiations,” Jun Okumura, visiting researcher at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs in Tokyo, told Al Jazeera.

“And besides, a successful conclusion to the TPP negotiations has a strategic significance for Japan that goes well beyond the relatively modest economic benefits they will bring,” Okumura said.

Nor does he believe the WikiLeaks exposé will have any long-term impact on Japan-US relations.

“The Japanese government has registered its displeasure, the US authorities have promised to get to the bottom of things. And that’s that,” said Okumura.

“The bilateral relationship is too important to Japan … to let a little spying between friends get in the way of the alliance.”

Source: Al Jazeera