With a view to China and American ties, Japanese universities to screen foreigners
With a view to China and American ties, Japanese universities to screen foreigners

With a view to China and American ties, Japanese universities to screen foreigners

Students go to the University of Tokyo in Tokyo, Japan on July 20, 2016. REUTERS / Toru Hanai

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TOKYO, May 23 (Reuters) – Japan is asking universities for greater control over foreign students and scholars to prevent technology leakage to places like China, partly for its own national security, but also to secure exchanges with US and European universities.

While many Western countries have measures in place to prevent espionage on their campuses with strict screening and sanctions for violations, experts say Japan has been a weak link given its often uncontrolled embrace of foreign students.

A number of U.S. arrests of Chinese academics in recent years on suspicion of espionage have been a wake-up call for Japan, officials say.

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“Around the world, export controls are getting stricter for foreign nations like China,” said a Japanese Ministry of Commerce official who helps colleges develop ways to monitor high-risk technology transfers and students.

“We want Japanese universities to have confidence in their security and trade controls so that joint research with the United States or Europe can continue,” said the official, who declined to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

In a time of weakening supply chain disruptions, intellectual property theft and cyber attacks, economic security has become a top priority for policy makers globally and an important area of ​​diplomatic cooperation.

Officials did not point to a specific incident in Japan that prompted the campaign, but rather said that Japan has needed an improvement in the area, not least so colleges can maintain ties with the United States and other Western partners.

Efforts to intensify surveillance in academia are part of a push to expand its export controls in line with a new bill on economic security passed this month. Read more

As Western tensions with China grow, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and visiting US President Joe Biden are expected to confirm greater coordination of technology, supply chains and other areas this week in Tokyo.


Under the new guidelines, which take effect this month, universities are being asked to conduct background checks and mark people of interest, such as those affiliated with foreign governments or defense-related institutions.

Previously, screening had been limited to cases of people trying to send potentially sensitive information and goods abroad.

The new screening is designed as an extra layer on top of immigration visa procedures.

Until now, for example, a Chinese scholar supported by his or her government would face few obstacles by taking a doctoral course in advanced radar technology in Japan and then going home to use the research for military purposes.

The same scholar could very well have been rejected as a high-risk candidate in the United States, where the stakes are high for universities: together with the individual, they can be held responsible for any breach of export controls.

The US Embassy in Japan said it welcomed the revised guidelines. In an email to Reuters, it said the United States would look for new ways to help Japan and its universities protect against what it called “real and serious” research security challenges in both countries.

Many Japanese universities are desperate to fill seats as the number of citizens of the student’s age decreases in an aging population and foreigners have provided a lifeline.

Chinese students accounted for 44% of Japan’s 279,597 foreign university students in 2020, according to government data, while the United States was the top destination for Japanese researchers, followed by China in 2019.


But there are still questions about how effective the new system will be, and some academics say they are simply not destined to be spy catchers.

The process is voluntary and relies on little more than research to determine whether foreign students receive state aid or intend to engage in defense-related technology.

Takahiko Sasaki, who oversees export controls at Tohoku University, said his college would seek written promises from staff not to teach sensitive technology to students or other faculty members affiliated with foreign government entities without permission.

That would be on top of an existing policy asking foreign faculties and students to make a written promise to comply with Japanese export control rules, he said.

“We are not intelligence operators. Checking resumes and academic records – that should be the scope of our job as a university.”

Immigration authorities are known to have missed the transfer of sensitive technology in the past.

Japan’s intelligence service learned that nine Chinese researchers had returned home to work in the defense sector after studying technologies for hypersonic missiles at Japanese institutions for years, media reported last year.

“Universities need money so they keep picking up international students, but some have a slight sense of crisis,” said Masahiko Hosokawa, a former Ministry of Commerce official who was in charge of export controls.

“They should find ways to operate without Chinese nationals.”

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Reporting by Ju-min Park; Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Edited by Chang-Ran Kim, Robert Birsel

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