NSA Spying on Japan: The Fallout
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

NSA Spying on Japan: The Fallout


Last Friday, the WikiLeaks website unveiled evidence that the U.S. National Security Agency is conducting espionage operations in Japan. On July 31, WikiLeaks published “Target Tokyo,” a list of 35 Top Secret NSA targets in Japan and five NSA reports on intercepts relating to U.S.-Japan relations, trade negotiations, and sensitive climate strategy.

According to WikiLeaks’ press release, NSA spying on the Japanese government and businesses began at least as far back as 2006. The targets were wide-ranging:

The telephone interception target list includes the switchboard for the Japanese Cabinet Office; the executive secretary to the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga; a line described as “Government VIP Line”; numerous officials within the Japanese Central Bank, including Governor Haruhiko Kuroda; the home phone number of at least one Central Bank official; numerous numbers within the Japanese Finance Ministry; the Japanese Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry Yoichi Miyazawa; the Natural Gas Division of Mitsubishi; and the Petroleum Division of Mitsui.

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The Asahi Shimbun could not get a comment from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Mitsui. or Mitsubishi. The U.S. State Department also refused to comment, because, as deputy spokesperson Mark Toner said, they “don’t want to give any credence to these allegedly classified documents that have been released by WikiLeaks.”

As of Friday, Toner said, the U.S. State Department had not received any formal or informal protest from the Japanese government. Pressed on the fallout of these revelations, Toner responded that “[the U.S.-Japan] relationship has never been stronger. Are we going to have challenges along the way? Sure, but we’ll work through those.”

In Japan, Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Yasuhisa Kawamura said that the United States and Japan are in communication about the NSA’s “information collection,” but did not provide details.

While the U.S. puts on a brave face trying to dismiss the leaks as just another mundane “challenge,” the Japanese government is likely to see a lot more trouble at home. These leaks are particularly challenging for Japan because it undermines Japanese citizens’ confidence in their own government, their trust in the United States, and their optimism about the non-security aspects of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

First, even though Kawamura has pledged that “Japan will continue to employ all necessary measures to protect [its] information,” the damage is already done when it comes to revealing Japan’s impotency before the surveillance capabilities of the United States.

Second, the timing of revelations about U.S. spying could not be more damaging, as the importance of the U.S. security umbrella plays an outsized role in the domestic debate over Japan’s security legislation. One of the major justifications for the controversial security bills currently being debated in the Upper House is that collective self-defense is necessary to more tightly commit the U.S. to Japan’s security. The reinterpretation of Article 9, which makes collective self-defense constitutional and is the premise of the security bills, stems from not only the emerging Chinese threat but the importance of alleviating Japanese abandonment concerns vis-à-vis the U.S.

Resentment against the Abe government for ramming the security bills through the Lower House can now easily shift to anger at the United States for disrespecting Japan as a major ally in East Asia. The underlying reality – that the U.S. is absolutely critical to Japan’s continued security – does not and will not change, but the alleged spying activities conducted by Japan’s patron-ally tarnishes the optics of the U.S.-Japan relationship at a time when the strength and mutual respect of this relationship is rhetorically more important than ever.

Third, the leaked documents reveal Japanese elites’ sensitivity and concern about their relationship with the United States. Granted, the documents do not reveal any concern about Japan’s security relationship with the U.S., but passages from the NSA intercepts hardly inspire Japanese confidence in the U.S. as a trade or climate change partner. For example, look at this 2007 quote, on the plan to reduce Japan’s carbon emissions by half by 2050: “The [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] was considering not informing the U.S. in advance of its intention, because the ministry did not expect Washington to approve of such a goal, based on the U.S. reaction to climate change issues so far.” Or this section from 2009, on U.S. cherry exports to Japan: “[The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries] was alarmed by the very strong reaction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Tokyo’s ruling that imports could not commence until the end of this month… The principal fear among the Japanese is that the issue will become similarly politicized, possibly at senior levels, in Washington.”

If Tokyo’s elites, who interact regularly with Washington, have such little faith in the resilience of the relationship, how can they expect ordinary Japanese citizens to trust the U.S.? It bears repeating that none of the intercepts reveal a distrust in the U.S. willingness or ability to come to Japan’s defense. However, Japan wants the U.S. to be an ally in a more well-rounded sense.

As John Swenson-Wright of London’s Chatham House told the Japan Times, “The sense that Japan is being sidelined in favor of other allies will hurt, and will not be something that [Prime Minister Shinzo Abe] will be able to deflect easily.” James Simpson, a Tokyo-based contributor to Jane’s Defense Weekly echoes this sentiment in his statement to the Japan Times: “Japan is going to be horrified to see [news of the leaks] entering the public domain.”

The U.S. has yet to offer assurances that the NSA will no longer spy on Japan at the time of this writing, but even that most likely would not be enough to curtail the damage.

The WikiLeaks report has not yet been (and may never be) independently verified – but with the NSA’s track record, it hardly matters now. Nobody doubts that the U.S. would spy on Japan if it could; as WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange quips, “The lesson for Japan is this: do not expect a global surveillance superpower to act with honor or respect. There is only one rule: there are no rules.” Any assurances about future spying are more likely to be met with skepticism than acceptance.

In the realm of international relations, the strong will continue to do what they can. And the weak will continue to suffer what they must – or in this case, do their best to mitigate the domestic consequences of another state’s foreign policy.

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