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Cyber war grips Asia

Internet users mirror diplomatic strife across the region

by Tony Mcnicol

If comments on bulletin boards were bullets and hacking attacks real skirmishes then East Asia would probably be a war zone now.

Mirroring offline diplomatic clashes, Internet users in Japan, China and Korea have been posting verbal assaults and hackers launching determined cyber-attacks.

Internet technology has also been at the core of recent frictions over textbook and territorial disputes.

In China, mobile phones and the Internet were used to organize protests against Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses. In Korea, citizens debated the row through blogs and bulletin-boards. In Japan, irate netizens reacted with sometimes jingoistic attacks on their country’s neighbors.

As tensions peaked this Spring, numerous sites in Japan were targeted by hackers — presumed to be based in China and Korea. Government ministries, universities, local authorities and the national police agency Web site were affected.

Yasukuni Shrine posted a notice on its Web site reporting that as many as 15,000 DOS (denial of service) attacks a second had been launched against its home page. The shrine described them as “a base act . . . terrorism that is a fundamental negation of Internet law and order.”

Despite some reports of counter-attacks by Japanese hackers, it seems that Japan generally came off the worse in the cyber skirmishes.

Until recently Japan’s digital security has been weak, says Naoki Miyagi of the National Information Security Center, a 26 strong department set up this April.

“Government Web sites were vulnerable, not properly managed. (But) recently we’ve been taking aggressive measures.”

The Chinese government was also caught out by changing Internet technology.

During domestic protests against Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses organizers employed text messages, blogs, Web sites and online messaging systems.

“If it wasn’t for the Internet then such large and widespread demonstrations wouldn’t have taken place,” says Qi Jing Ying, a researcher into the Chinese Internet at the University of Tokyo.

Chinese Internet users have become increasing adept at breaching the so-called Great Firewall of China.

“My friends and teachers in China can use proxy servers instead to access banned sites,” says Qi Jing Ying. Denied many other democratic freedoms, the Chinese have thrown themselves into political debate on the Internet, she says.

Qi contrasts the tone of the Chinese Internet to that in Japan, where the content of bulletin boards like the popular 2 Channel is often dismissed as trivial.

“Even Chinese foreign office officials and political leaders look at Chinese political Web sites. I doubt that Koizumi is watching 2 Channel.”

Meanwhile, in South Korea the Internet has hosted public reaction to the territorial and textbooks disputes.

South Korea has the highest broadband penetration rate in the world. Sites like the popular Daum Web portal and its bulletin boards are a venue for debate and protest.

“There can’t be many Korean (Internet users) who have never sent a message to a Daum cafe,” says Isa Ducke, a political scientist at the German Institute of Japan studies in Tokyo. Even the American Embassy has set up a page on Daum to provide information about visa applications.

Hacking attacks on Japan and other countries are well publicized in Korea. During a previous Japanese textbook controversy in 2001, three South Korean high school students going by the nom-de-net “anti-Japan” attacked the server of the rightwing revisionist “tsukurukai” textbook association, disabling it for several days.

On another occasion the same trio crashed the Warner Brothers Web site in protest against a program on dog-meat eating in Korea.

In Japan hackers get much less attention. “I guess it is partly because in Korea these people are heroes,” says Ducke. “(Hackers in Japan) are just doing something weird, or blocking a Web site that no one is interested in anyway.”

Critics of the Japanese Internet say that it is removed from real life, and rife with extremist opinion.

During tensions with China and South Korea, there was a stark difference in tone between conciliatory mainstream media commentary, and angry nationalistic discussion on the Internet.

In a recent article, Aera weekly magazine described, “the net world that can’t say ‘no’ to lip-service nationalism.”

Kenichi Asano, a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications, at Doshisha University in Kyoto estimates that 80-90 percent of comments on 2 Channel are “rightist.”

He describes the majority of postings as “irresponsible and arrogant, not based on facts.”

But do Japanese people really mean what they say on the Internet?

Professor Kaoru Endo, a researcher into the Japanese Internet at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, suggests that online xenophobia could just be an outlet for more general frustration.

Japanese society provides few chances to express frustrations or strong opinions in everyday life, she argues.

“Things that they can’t say in normal life, they become directed against foreigners.” Endo notes that personal blogs in Japan tend to be more restrained.

More so than the Internet in China and Korea, Japan’s Internet has often been dismissed by the media as a playground for “otaku” hobbyists; but that could be changing now, says Endo.

Following Internet entrepreneur Horie Takafumi’s attempted takeover of Nippon Broadcasting, interview requests to her from Japanese media have increased tenfold, she says.

Last October also saw the publication of a thread from the 2 Channel bulletin board, “Densha Otoko (train man)”; the story of a self-confessed computer geek’s pursuit of a woman he meets on a commuter train — and the advice 2 Channel users give him. Already available in comic and book form, the story just been released as a film.

There are signs that the Japanese media is finally waking up to the Internet, but time will tell whether the Japanese Internet develops as a space for real political discussion as it has in South Korea, or even in China.

In the meantime, few doubt that the influence of the Internet on the economy, media and politics of East Asia will continue to increase.

The Chinese Internet alone is booming. The China Internet Network Information Center reports that there were 94 million Internet users on the mainland in 2004, 18.2 percent more than 2003.

And if tensions continue keeping growing in the region, they are sure to be reflected online. East Asia will be watching the web.