TOKYO -- As the U.K. makes overtures toward Japan about working more closely with or even joining the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, Tokyo faces the task of ensuring it can keep sensitive data safe both within and outside the government.
While Japan shares information with the group's members -- the U.K., the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- it is not itself part of Five Eyes. Joining would allow for intelligence to be made available at an earlier stage as well as facilitate sensitive communication.
London has broached the possibility of Japan participating amid growing alarm over China, particularly its crackdown in Hong Kong and its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Japanese cooperation with Five Eyes would come at an ideal time for Washington as it seeks to build a coalition of democracies against China. A congressional report last year positioned Japan alongside Five Eyes members as a trusted partner in intelligence sharing.
Thanks to its geographical location in northeast Asia, Japan could offer valuable information on China, Russia and North Korea -- all areas of particular concern to the alliance.
"Five Eyes is interested in Japan's satellite intelligence and in military intelligence collected in its coastal waters," said Ken Kotani, a professor at Nihon University and expert on international intelligence strategy.
Some in Tokyo appear open to joining, with one senior official saying participation is "not a bad idea." Doing so would have the advantage of splitting the burden of intelligence collection with trusted partners. Others suggest that Japan could expand information sharing with Five Eyes members without formally participating.
But the government faces the challenge of building a more effective system for protecting sensitive information.
Japan enacted a controversial law in 2014 with stiff penalties for leaking secrets related to diplomacy or defense. It was revised this past June to broaden the scope of information the government can classify under the law.
But no legal framework exists for managing sensitive data in the private sector. Japan lacks a security clearance system to limit the viewing of classified information to vetted individuals.
Businesses that work with advanced technology or in fields such as telecommunications frequently handle sensitive data. Japan "won't be trusted unless it can build a system for protecting information that covers the private sector," said Akira Igata, a visiting professor at Tama University in Tokyo.
Tokyo also needs to improve its capabilities in gathering intelligence, now handled by police, the Public Security Intelligence Agency, and the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office. These agencies "pale in comparison to the CIA and MI6 in terms of budget and staffing," a senior Japanese government official said.
There may be public objections to the idea of joining a partnership known to make heavy use of wiretapping. Japan allows tapping only with a court order in the course of a criminal investigation. Such restrictions do not apply outside national borders, and there are no clear provisions in international law banning wiretapping on the high seas, for example.