Protecting Japan’s national security from information operations
5 Jul 2024|

Japan in the past believed it was relatively safe from malign information operations, thanks to the linguistic barrier and a generally high level of public trust in traditional media.

But in the wake of some high-profile Chinese disinformation and misinformation operations targeting Japan, the government in Tokyo has rightfully moved beyond these assumptions and is now increasingly aware of the power of information operations to undermine social cohesion and trust in political institutions.

This has been an important shift, but the Japanese government still has work to do. And important, it can learn from practices adopted elsewhere, including in Australia.

A China-backed campaign on the discharge of treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2023 aimed to damage Japan’s international reputation. ASPI has also established that a malign actor created and spread disinformation and misinformation that negatively portrayed the Japanese government’s response to the January 2024 Noto earthquake. This was likely done to foster citizens’ distrust in the current government.

This is in keeping with the global rise in the incidence of information operations—the dissemination of disinformation, propaganda or misinformation intended to shape people’s thinking or behaviour.

Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy recognised the role of information warfare in cognitive and hybrid warfare and committed to establish a government unit to play a central role in responding to it. It is excellent foundation, but there is a scope to build out a more strategic approach to countermeasures.

The new government unit, which brings together resources from across ministries and agencies, can identify information operations and build a comprehensive picture of the key actors and their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs). As well as building the government’s own understanding, this can provide a better basis for public awareness and improve the government’s ability to make attributions for attacks when it sees fit.

This work could be supported by public fact-checking by non-governmental organisations and universities, who identify dis- and misinformation and call it out. There are several non-governmental fact-checking institutions in Japan, but a 2022 survey suggests their work was not well recognised in Japan, compared with that of similar organisations in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and South Korea.

As well as attribution, enforcement is also important. Following the Noto earthquake, several social media companies took measures such as removing posts after the government asked them to do more to moderate content.  However, this reminds us that under such voluntary commitments, companies might not act until the government asks them to do so.

That leaves regulation as one clear solution to force social media companies to take stronger steps to moderate content—and the Japanese began discussing such regulation in January.

Japan has in recent years publicly attributed several cyber attacks. However the government has not made public attributions of information operations, possibly because under Japanese law, these have not usually been illegal.

Attribution is not law enforcement; it should be done to hold malicious actors accountable when their actions pose critical threats to the country’s national security.

Japan’s Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs each publish facts and advice about information operations, including how to fact-check claims, but they do not specify actors or states involved.

Some local governments and researchers conduct education campaigns designed to encourage people to recognise disinformation and other information operations, and to take them seriously. Although these campaigns have had some success in enhancing people’s information literacy, they are largely ad hoc and only reach some sections of society. Substantial work is needed to standardise these programs and reach wider audiences.

News media reporting is another key element in that it can reach this larger audience. However, in Japan, it tends to focus on importance of fact-checking, rather than covering information operations as a broader societal phenomenon.

When it comes to improving international co-operation, Japan initiated the G7 Hiroshima AI Process. This resulted in the release of a Code of Conduct for organisations developing advanced artificial intelligence systems that included measures to reduce the risks that the systems could be used to create and spread disinformation and misinformation.

Japan has also been deepening collaboration with some of its neighbours—for example holding a workshop on countering disinformation with Southeast Asian countries in December 2023.

Japan should take advantage of progress being made elsewhere by studying and, where appropriate, adopting frameworks and best practice from around the world.

There are two particular measures Japan can adopt. First, the Japanese government should consider publishing details of foreign information operations activities to raise awareness of the breadth of activity and the national security implications. The Australian Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Federal Police publicise TTPs associated with specific actors, as well as advice on the measures people should take if they suspect foreign interference activities.

Even if the Japanese government stops short of public attribution, agencies might be able to publicise TTPs and advice without identifying actors or states involved in each case. Introducing actual cases or modus operandi, ideally amplified through media reports, is effective to raise public awareness of the threats to national security. The government is already using this approach to improve Japanese companies’ understanding of the risks of intellectual property theft by foreign actors.

The Japanese government should encourage—and fund if necessary— universities, think tanks and NGOs to identify and investigate information operations. Researchers have deep expertise in specialized fields, independence from government—which can enhance their credibility among some audiences—and research flexibility to identify actors behind information operations, their motives, intentions and impact on national security. Together these qualities make independent researchers important assets in the fight against mis-and disinformation.

Conversely, Australia can learn from Japan’s diplomatic approach. In response to information operations targeting the discharge of treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, Japan’s MOFA released the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scientific evidence and assessment, providing a credible alternative narrative based on evidence from an apolitical international body. This approach was successful, judging from the rapid drop in the number of disinformation posts on the topic by pro-PRC accounts. Australia should also take such an approach of working with international and expert bodies when possible.

Australia should also learn from Japan’s leading role in building international co-operation. Just as Japan initiated the G7 Hiroshima AI Process, Australia should take the initiative to help create standards and rules regarding countering information operations through the AUKUS partnership, the Pacific Islands Forum and other minilateral groups.

Creating a new framework is another option. Australia’s existing Cyber and Critical Tech Co-operation Program could be used to develop a new framework through which Indo-Pacific countries discuss hybrid threats including information operations, as ASPI has proposed.

Overall, there are many things that countries can learn from each other. As Japan gathers momentum on its response to harmful information operations it can continue to learn a lot from—and offer a lot to—its friends and partners.