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Compared to the Trump administration’s sweeping revocation of visas for “high-risk” students and researchers with suspected ties to the Chinese military, Japan’s response to campus spying has largely been muted.

But even “spy heaven,” as the nation is often dubbed due to its lack of a comprehensive anti-espionage law, can no longer remain complacent.

Japan is gradually waking up to security threats posed by industrial spies masquerading as international students, launching a nascent fight against China’s perceived infiltration of top-notch scientific universities and theft of intellectual property.

“Most Chinese students and researchers coming our way are not some kind of spy recruited by the Chinese government,” said a faculty member at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, a national research institute often considered the most elite science university in Japan, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter.

But, they added, “the possibility of some of them stealing cutting-edge technology cannot be entirely ruled out.”

As the U.S. administration ramps up its crackdown on Chinese students and researchers, security experts have expressed fears that high-risk individuals rejected by Washington may pivot toward Japan — home to many Nobel-winning scientists and physicists — as part of China’s systematic espionage program deploying “nontraditional” collectors of information, such as students.

What’s worse, experts say, is that their penetration of Japan may be relatively easy.

With a growing number of universities vying to secure enrollment each year to remain afloat, the nation has been so hell-bent on attracting international students that it has long turned a blind eye to the need to vet applicants stringently, facilitating easy access.

Nascent crusade

One fledgling effort against campus spying was detailed in the foreign ministry’s budget requests for the next fiscal year, which included a ¥220 million new initiative designed to “strengthen scrutiny of visa applications with a view to preventing technology theft.”

The project adheres to policies outlined in an “innovation strategy” released by the government in July, where it was stated that international students and foreign researchers would be subject to the stricter visa screening process in future.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is also requesting ¥1.87 billion for a project launched in fiscal 2019 that seeks to help universities and small companies establish a firmer framework for managing trade secrets.

“Big companies have relatively strict measures in place to prevent the outflow of their technology, but — despite their possession of expertise that can be diverted into military use — mid- and small-sized enterprises, tend to be devoid of any such system,” said an industry ministry official involved with the project who declined to be named.

First-year students wave Chinese flags during a commencement ceremony in China's Hubei province last month. | AFP-JIJI
First-year students wave Chinese flags during a commencement ceremony in China’s Hubei province last month. | AFP-JIJI

Equally prone to becoming the target of industrial spies are higher education institutions, a treasure trove of what is called emerging technology, the official said.

“Materials science conducted at universities is obviously not meant to be for military purposes, but should their technology be put to practical use, it can indeed be militarized,” he said. “It behooves universities to keep a close watch on their technology.”

Among those often flagged as high-risk are the development and research of semiconductors and biotechnology, which can be weaponized, as well as “fifth-generation (5G)” wireless network technology that can be repurposed for cyberattacks.

“We’re aware of cases in the U.S. where individuals from the People’s Liberation Army of China stole sensitive information obtained as students or visiting professors, so we’ve been telling universities to do stricter background checks on international students, especially those from China, and to keep track of who has access to what information,” the official said.

Underestimating the value of science

Measures under consideration in Japan are nowhere near as draconian as those implemented by the U.S., where visas for more than 1,000 Chinese students and researchers have been rescinded and a series of criminal cases are being pursued against alleged Chinese spying in academia, igniting accusations of racial profiling.

Sill, those baby steps herald progress in a nation where even the “highest-risk, downright dangerous” applicants have long been granted easy access to universities, said Nobukatsu Kanehara, a former diplomat who until last year served as deputy secretary general of the National Security Secretariat (NSS), under the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Nobukatsu Kanehara, a former diplomat who until last year served as deputy secretary general of Japan’s National Security Secretariat (NSS) under the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, says the nation has traditionally remained oblivious to the military implications of scientific technology it possesses. | KYODO
Nobukatsu Kanehara, a former diplomat who until last year served as deputy secretary general of Japan’s National Security Secretariat (NSS) under the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, says the nation has traditionally remained oblivious to the military implications of scientific technology it possesses. | KYODO

It wasn’t until a few years ago that Japan, under pressure by the U.S., began to take seriously the possibility of technology theft by China, Kanehara said.

Like many other countries, Japan isn’t immune to China’s espionage offensive.

According to a report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, Japan hosts 46 “talent-recruitment stations” that play a key role in the Chinese Communist Party’s hunt for scientific talent abroad.

These talent-recruitment programs operated by the CCP seek to “gain technology from abroad through illegal or non-transparent means,” the report said.

The report, titled “Hunting the Phoenix,” found Japan was home to the sixth largest number of such recruitment hubs, although it trailed far behind the biggest host, the U.S., where 146 such facilities were identified, and other countries including Germany, Australia and the U.K.

The industry ministry, too, acknowledged in its 2018 report a case where a Chinese student once took home an industrial camera despite being unauthorized to do so.

But vulnerable as it is to China’s economic espionage, Japan has traditionally made light of the inseparability of science and national security, Kanehara said.

“In Japan, scientific technology and national security have always been treated as two completely separate matters,” said Kanehara, who is now a professor at Doshisha University.

This has been less the case for the U.S., which — recognizing that supremacy in technology directly affects its military might and economic prowess — has been “extremely careful” about the handling of sensitive research in fields such as artificial intelligence, advanced computing and quantum physics, Kanehara said.

“The U.S. looks at these fields of study from the military perspective so it knows immediately how potentially dangerous they can be, but Japan studies them without a thought for their military implications, which tends to blind it to the fact that its technology can be quite dangerous if put to military use,” he said.

Signs of change

The last couple of years have seen Japan scramble to meet U.S. expectations in fending off industrial espionage.

In what security experts hail as testament to its growing vigilance, the government in April established a new unit within the NSS focusing exclusively on economic statecraft — the use of economic means to pursue defense goals — to tackle, among other things, the protection of sensitive technology.

The 20-member team is the nation’s first — and at the moment, only — government unit specializing in the intersection of economic security and national security, with other intelligence-gathering entities devoid of such a group, according to Kanehara.

But such is the security threat posed by the theft of intellectual property that the Public Security Intelligence Agency is eyeing creating a similar team of staff dedicated to economic statecraft, according to journalist Toshihiro Yamada, who has authored books on espionage and cybersecurity.

While firms at home have made headway in recent years in strengthening control of sensitive commercial information, changes are taking place at a far more glacial pace at universities, many of which still seem oblivious to dangers on campus.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by the industry ministry on nearly 300 national universities as well as public and private universities with medical and science departments, only 40% said they had administrative protocols for controlling the export of sensitive technology.

Among institutions without such internal guidelines, a mere 6% said they evaluated international students and foreign researchers from a national security perspective during the admissions process.

Courting international students

From universities sifting through applicants to the government issuing visas, Japan’s screening of international students has been relatively lax.

At no point in the process is there a strong incentive to subject applicants to stringent scrutiny, let alone reject them, with both educational institutions and the government predisposed to attract as many international students as possible, said education studies professor Hiroshi Ota, director of Hitotsubashi University Global Education Program.

In a nation where the number of universities keeps ballooning despite a shrinking cohort of 18-year-olds, many institutions rely heavily on tuition fees paid by foreign students for survival. Those students also help populate not only humanities but also science graduate schools, where their manpower is essential to the daily operation of labs.

Of them, students from China are often deemed the “most preferred clients” for universities, as Ota put it, since Chinese students today tend to be well-to-do and stay away from trouble. Many also master Japanese quickly and decide to continue to pursue their academic careers here, some going on to teach courses in Japanese.

Higher education institutions, a treasure trove of what is called emerging technology, are prone to become the target of industrial spies. | GETTY IMAGES
Higher education institutions, a treasure trove of what is called emerging technology, are prone to become the target of industrial spies. | GETTY IMAGES

The government, too, has bent over backward to appeal to international students under the much-hyped banner of attracting 300,000 of them a year by 2020.

Its yearslong campaign has paid off. As of May 2019, the number of international students studying at educational institutions here reached a record 312,214, statistics compiled by the Japan Student Services Organization showed. Of them, Chinese students represented the largest nationality group at 124,436, or nearly 40%.

The underlying motive behind the “300,000 international students” initiative is to encourage settlement in Japan after graduation as “highly skilled professionals,” in the hopes they will use their talents to contribute to the growth of domestic firms.

But another, less official, reason behind Japan’s hunt for international students lies in their potential to assuage the nation’s chronic labor shortage stemming from its dwindling population. Since Japan maintains an official position that it does not take in immigrants, it has tapped into multiple “backdoor” channels to secure foreign labor, including through student visas.

Labor ministry statistics from last year show that international students and foreign technical interns — another visa category that might give a misleading impression of some activities its holders perform — together accounted for a sizable percentage of the entire foreign labor force, making up about 20% each. These students and interns are omnipresent in a raft of labor-hungry industries, such as distribution, convenience store operation and hospitality.

“Since Japan is not officially accepting immigrants, it has to rely on international students for blue-collar work and a future workforce,” Ota said. “So welcoming them has been infinitely more beneficial to Japan than screening them out as possible spies,” he said.

Complacent universities

Masahiko Hosokawa, a former industry ministry bureaucrat turned visiting professor of business at Meisei University, says it’s time international students went through more thorough background checks before Japanese universities start to get the cold shoulder from their American partners. | KYODO
Masahiko Hosokawa, a former industry ministry bureaucrat turned visiting professor of business at Meisei University, says it’s time international students went through more thorough background checks before Japanese universities start to get the cold shoulder from their American partners. | KYODO

Valuable though international students are to the survival of universities and the economy of Japan, it’s time they went through a more thorough background check lest Japan’s universities be cold-shouldered by their American partners, said Masahiko Hosokawa, a former industry ministry bureaucrat turned visiting business professor at Meisei University.

“Not only the U.S. but Australia and the U.K. are now taking measures against campus spying, so if Japan keeps lagging behind, universities and companies in those countries may no longer want to have Japan as their partners because they’re afraid their sensitive information may be leaked via Japan,” he said.

Years of experience teaching at universities, Hosokawa said, have led him to witness, firsthand, questionable conduct related to research integrity on multiple occasions, including researchers’ blind embrace of foreign sources of funding.

University management, he said, often prioritizes securing funding so that its institution will stay afloat. Researchers, meanwhile, are so underfunded that some leap at the opportunity to receive Chinese funds without bothering to check the provenance of the money, or the background of scientists they collaborate with, he said.

“Japanese universities are becoming a vulnerability in efforts to stop the outflow of technology,” said Hosokawa. “And they don’t even realize.”

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