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Chatting about Japan with Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower

Japanophile communicated online with expats here about all manner of things under the rising sun

by Christopher Johnson

Edward Snowden, the fugitive former CIA employee and NSA contractor who leaked secrets about America’s spying operations, often hung out online with foreigners in Japan who shared his interests in anime, video games, martial arts, the stock market and the expat lifestyle.

Snowden, who learned Japanese as a teenager, was a Japanophile who had longtime connections to the country and several people here, who perhaps had no idea that their online friend was doing top-secret work for the U.S. government.

Born in 1983, Snowden studied Japanese for a year and a half as a teenager after moving to a city close to the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. He called himself “E-do-waa-do” using the Japanese pronunciation of his name. “I’ve always dreamed of being able to ‘make it’ in Japan,” he wrote in 2001. “I’d love a cushy .gov job over there, but I hear they’ll quarantine your pets for 6 freaking months. I have kitties.”

Like other foreigners, he struggled with kanji, but he enjoyed dropping Japanese phrases such as zenzen wakarimasen [I understand nothing at all].

His skills at the Namco PlayStation fighting game “Tekken” drew attention at the 2002 Anime USA convention.

He worked in 2002 as a webmaster for Ryuhana Press, a start-up website about Japanese anime, also located in Fort Meade. The website closed in 2004, and it’s not known if his Ryuhana colleagues went on to pursue their interests here in Japan.

Snowden, who was interviewed in Hong Kong last week, wrote in 2006 that he knew many people working in Japan. He later moved to Japan to work for Dell as a contractor for the NSA’s secretive surveillance program in early 2009. ABC News reported on Friday that Snowden attended the 2009 summer semester of the University of Maryland University College’s Asia program at a campus somewhere in Tokyo. UMUC’s website lists several campuses on U.S. military bases across Japan.

Between 2006 and 2008, Snowden, using the moniker “theTrueHOOHA,” often chatted online with Peter Durfee, a Tokyo-based translator who studied at the American School in Japan in the 1980s and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. Durfee, who has more than 3,000 followers on Twitter, claims to do contract work for Japan’s prime minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diet members and many corporations. He’s currently director of the Nippon Communications Foundation and a translation instructor at the Simul Academy, whose graduates work in key positions across Japan’s economy and bureaucracy.

Using the name “Durf,” he posted 9,528 times on Ars Technica between 2002 and last week.

“We did indeed both post on some threads at Ars Technica,” said Durfee, known for his sarcastic wit on Twitter and other sites. “Unfortunately this doesn’t mean he’s now holed up in my Tokyo guest room.”

Durfee says Snowden never tried to contact him outside of Ars Technica. “I went and found those threads, but they wouldn’t have been particularly memorable ones to me otherwise.”

A search of the Ars Technica website reveals that Durf and Snowden chatted at least six times in 2006 between April 26 and July 28. They wrote about things such as expat life in Japan, bank wire transfers, stock markets, a drug bust, and a man jumping from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Their tone was often cordial, as they sought to share information and answer questions from other commenters.

Durfee and Snowden communicated again two years later, on Dec. 2, 2008. Durfee asked a question about the markets, while Snowden, who was stationed with the CIA in Geneva at that time, spoke with expertise about day trading on the stock market, which was falling in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse weeks earlier.

Snowden often posted details about his stock trading, which raises questions about the nature of his work and whether intelligence operatives with top secret clearances would have access to information unavailable to other market players.

On May 4, 2006, Snowden chatted about Japan with other members of Ars Technica, known as “Arsians.”

“Erekose,” claiming to be a network manager at a U.S. software company, mentioned that he was hoping to move back to Japan with his wife and newborn child. “It appears there are good opportunities for someone of my skill to be found here. Anyone actually doing it?”

The next commenter, “Ian,” said his wife was working in Japan. “I’m following her in September and am trying to figure out how to find an IT job in Tokyo for myself.”

Snowden, using the moniker “theTrueHOOHA,” replied: “Most of the Arsians I know of who are currently in Japan are working in the language field. I think the biggest barrier to working in IT over there is developing the professional-level language ability.”

“Ian” then wrote: “My wife is actually Senior Manager for the IT department of an American Multi-national in Tokyo and about half her staff are Americans with minimal/no Japanese.”

According to an Associated Press report, the Swiss foreign ministry has confirmed that Snowden worked in Geneva as a U.S. mission employee accredited to the United Nations from March 2007 to February 2009. His co-worker at the time, Mavanee Anderson, described Snowden as friendly and brilliant, and an expert in martial arts who joined in Chinese New Year parades. “He once gave me a one-on-one martial arts lesson, and I was surprised at his abilities — and very amused that he seemed unable to go very easy on a newbie,” she wrote in Tennessee’s Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Snowden then moved to Japan in early 2009 to work for Dell as a contractor for the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, the AP reported.

While in Japan, Snowden appears to have lost interest in posting on Ars Technica, a U.S.-based site that lists more than 700 of his comments between 2001 and 2012.

He made no posts on the site for seven months between April 7, 2009, and November 27, 2009, when he was reportedly studying in the summer semester at the University of Maryland University College at an unknown location in Tokyo. He made only two posts that December, then one in February 2010, and nothing for 21 months until November 2011. After that, he made one more post, on May 21, 2012.

Since he had been a prolific poster before moving here, it’s hard to imagine he went cold turkey in Japan and made no comments at all on websites in Japan, a haven for tech industry workers using pseudonyms. Thus, observers speaking privately wonder if Snowden adopted a new pseudonym to run his own blog or post on chat forums in Japan while working here, as many expats do.

Since fleeing to Hong Kong from his job in Honolulu, Snowden has accused the United States of running a massive and secretive surveillance network — involving Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other tech companies — that collects data on people worldwide. Some call him a hero for defending the public interest, while others have accused him of treason. The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into Snowden’s conduct, and the bureau’s director has accused him of exposing state secrets.

During his time studying and working in Japan, Snowden would have met several Japanese and expats in various fields, and possibly some of the people he had known online for years.

His longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, wrote that they fell in love with the little street festivals in Japan. “On the hunt for the perfect date-night venue [in Hawaii] I stumbled upon a flyer for a Japanese summer festival. Could that be more perfect?! E and I fell in love with all the little street festivals when we lived in Japan and I couldn’t think of a better event to bring smiles to our faces.”

An acrobatic dancer, Mills often tweeted with a person named Gabzilla8Japan, who IDs herself with the line “I give good hair.”

In Hawaii, the couple often enjoyed karaoke and Japanese restaurants. “We lovingly crammed a large group into a small corner of a delicious Japanese restaurant and filled our bellies with sushi, tempura, and good conversation,” wrote Mills.

It’s not clear where Snowden and Mills lived in Japan. Multiple websites claim that the U.S. National Security Agency employs large numbers of intelligence operatives on the Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture, which was a staging post for rescue and recovery efforts after the March 11, 2011, disasters in Tohoku.

TrueHOOHAisms: Japan according to Snowden

Some of Snowden’s apparent writings under the moniker “theTrueHOOHA”:

• I was just wondering if anybody has considered the IT jobmarket in Japan. There’s the language barrier problem, but if you can demonstrate the appropriate language skills, I think a qualified American would actually have a better time in the Japanese job market!

• All things considered, American certificates, especially in internet security, should prove to be extremely attractive. There have also been a couple studies that show out of qualified applicants, blondes are hired more often in Japan.

• Does anyone have any experience in the Japanese workplace? Has anybody else considered this? Does anyone have anything to add? Will Gendou [another commenter] spill his tea on his bargain-basement katana [sword]?

• I’m not really worried so much about whether or not such positions exist en masse; what I’m talking about is more along the lines of an American competing with a Native Nihon-jin for one position. Market saturation etc doesn’t really matter, the jobs will always exist in some supply. I’d like to know more about how people picture or have been affected by the American “novelty” factor that teachers enjoy.

• Right, anyway, it is pretty far-fetched, but I’ve always dreamed of being able to “make it” in Japan. I’ve taken Japanese for a year and a half (they only offered 3 semester-levels) so I can understand a little, but I’m not even close to thinking about dreaming about wishing I were fluent. Damn those Kanji!

• Many IT-companies will offer to fly people out for interviews, and will pay relocation expenses for qualified hires. I’ve heard of a few cases of this in Japan, but it definitely doesn’t seem to be the rule.

• My head of vibrant, shimmering blond hair (with volume) will not be leaving me for a few decades. Youth has its benefits.

• I’d love a cushy .gov job over there, but I hear they’ll quarantine your pets for 6 freaking months. I have kitties.

• In any case, California seems like the first logical step. It’s the only place that seems to have decent Japanese language educational resources. Here in MD [Maryland] it’s all Koreans. CHON HAN CHOW GAO GYAO CHONG CHONG and so forth. No offense, of course.

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Ron NJ

    I nearly stopped reading at “Like other foreigners, he struggled with kanji”. Did he have trouble with chopsticks and standing on the correct side of the escalator as well? The fact that some (often extremely short-term resident) people may have trouble with – or not bother learning – kanji does not, nor should it, reflect upon the remaining huge number of foreigners in Japan, many of which are from east Asia and thus intimately acquainted with kanji, and even if not, often have little trouble with this aspect of the language despite national origin.
    You should be absolutely ashamed to write such nonsense as if a mere few percent of the foreign population in Japan is representative of the whole – the very worst kind of stereotyping that those of us who are here long-term work so hard to get on without.

    • Jeffrey

      Except, sensei, that even Japanese struggle with kanji. Ask long-term expats. Like many complex tasks, and yes, learning kanji is complex when compared to learning languages written in the Roman alphabet, use it or lose it and this includes native speakers.

  • KetsuroOu

    “Thus, observers speaking privately wonder if Snowden adopted a new pseudonym to run his own blog or post on chat forums in Japan while working here, as many expats do.”

    This is journalism?

  • Masa Chekov

    I feel very, very dirty after reading this article. Not because of Snowden, but because of the creepy detail of his online activity. Has JT considered that something this… detailed should not have been published?

    And there seems to be an attempt to link Snowden with foreign residents in Japan – to what end? Why bring in small sites for foreign residents in Japan into this?

  • Ken Yasumoto-Nicolson

    I (more than 4,000 followers on Twitter) would like to thank Mr Johnson ( more than 100 followers on Twitter) for the shout-out for my site, Japologism (err, 10 followers on Twitter), but I would also like to clarify that Mr Durfee has a grand total of 8 comments on my site, a mere 0.2% of the total number, so I am at a loss as to why Mr Johnson seems to want the reader to make a connection.

    • disqus_6vaXWKklMq

      I missed your point due to laughing at your perception that the number of twitter followers you have is relevant to anything.

      • Ken Yasumoto-Nicolson

        I was just riffing off Mr Johnson’s obsession with numbers, such as the “Durfee, who has more than 3,000 followers on Twitter” in the article above.

  • http://www.stuartwoodward.com Stuart Woodward

    You have right to remain silent. Everything you comment here may be taken down in evidence and used against you.

  • http://durf.org/ Peter Durfee

    There is a somewhat interesting article to be written here—this big figure in international news had connections to and actually lived in Japan—but the article is about 300 words long, probably. Not this sprawling thing.

    The only parts that are less relevant than me to the Snowden story are Japan Probe and Japologism. I’d be shocked if I have more than 50 comments, total, spread among both of those places. The JT editors might want to remove references to websites that are clearly included because of the author’s grudge against their managers, especially when they advance the story in no way whatsoever.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, Ed has invited me over to his palace to pet his phoenix.

    • http://amzn.to/madeindna Made in DNA

      “Durf”… if that is your real name, you ARE Snowden. Admit it!

  • Frank Schirmer

    Well, he seems to never have progressed beyond the honeymoon phase of a Western person in Japan. Maybe he is quite gullible after all? I wonder if he started to see the “ura” of Japan, he’d still be so critical of his home country…

  • Nobunaga73

    Surely you could have given us a more detailed account of what his favorite anime is? Or perhaps what Japanese foods he can eat? Can he eat natto?