Contributor Insights into Japan

By Andrea Brás

“Contributor Insights…” is a series of interviews leveraging the experience of Localization Lab contributors in order to provide more insight into the needs and threats faced by users living and working in different parts of the world.

“このソフトウェアは検閲を破壊する” or “This Software Destroys Censorship”

Although Japan might not have a reputation for internet censorship or online authoritarianism, several Localization Lab contributors have begun to notice what they feel is a slow erosion of internet freedom in Japan. Localization Lab interviewed a group of localizers working on the Japanese language translation of Tor Browser and Tor-related tools to better understand why they think access to the Tor network is important for the Japanese population and why the time is now.

What drove your group to begin localizing Tor Browser and Tor-related tools, and pushing for its use in Japan?

While Japan does not quite have the reputation for authoritarianism that other countries do, the fact is that the local government has a very loose attitude to the concept of individual rights and liberties. We’ve already seen the ruling party propose Constitutional changes that would heavily modify “natural rights” language pertaining to speech, assembly, association, and privacy of communications in favor of responsibilities imposed on citizens by the State. Furthermore, in 2013, the Japanese National Police Agency attempted to pressure ISPs into blocking user access to the Tor network.

More recently, the Japanese government has proposed asking ISPs to maintain block lists and restrict access to websites based on fears of copyright violation, in spite of this being a clear violation of the current Japanese Constitution.

Based on the events of the past five years or so, and other personal experiences of increasingly authoritarian government behavior, I believe that Japan is heading in a bad direction with regard to press freedom, free speech, and access to information. As such, myself and my colleagues engaged in this translation project would like to help bring technology to the Japanese people that will both allow them full access to information online and render site blocking useless (or at least very difficult), in the hopes that this will discourage both the government and ISPs from pursuing these tactics in future.

In the group’s experience, does the average Japanese person worry about censorship and surveillance?

No, quite the contrary. The “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” mindset is very much the norm, at least outwardly. But the lack of an adversarial media means most people aren’t given much information to form their opinions with, and even if that information is made available, they lack the interest to engage with the topic or think very deeply about it. I haven’t seen people around me worry about censorship or surveillance, and actually, most Japanese people don’t feel a sense of crisis about that kind of thing.

Do people see the government as an adversary? Do people view ISPs as adversaries?

This isn’t limited to Japanese people, but even if most people knew they were being surveilled, most would think “it’s not causing any problems for me, so go ahead”. For this reason, there’s little hostility towards the government.

This will depend a lot on political affiliation, but on the whole, most people don’t see the government as an enemy. Supporters of parties aside from the ruling party might be more likely to regard the ruling party this way, but not the government as a whole. ISPs are not even on the radar in this regard, and many Japanese ISPs have been strong about maintaining Privacy of Communications in the past. Though NTTs recent cooperation with site blocking marks a reversal of that attitude.

What are people’s perceptions of Tor? Who do they think uses Tor and what do they use Tor to do?

Sadly, the majority’s view is that Tor is a creepy, dangerous, criminal software used for drugs, pornography, etc. Frequent media reports of bomb threats via Tor and child porn rings busted in Japan fuel this narrative, but positive stories about Tor rarely get attention. [Tor is viewed as] scary, criminal, a place of urban legends and rumors. Many [users] are those with an interest in “underground culture”.

Do individuals already use circumvention tools to access content in Japan? What are the most popular tools in use?

The average Japanese person doesn’t use circumvention tools. Google is commonly used. Companies in Japan are using VPNs, but few people take such measures on home PCs. A Japanese-made Freenet-like program called Perfect Dark was (and sometimes still is) used for P2P file sharing. While not a circumvention tool per se, it did use distributed file hashings and other obfuscation methods to make it difficult to track down its users, but that didn’t stop three users from being arrested in 2010.

In general, what do you think will be the biggest challenge in increasing adoption of digital security and anonymity tools in Japan?

Low IT literacy prevailing in Japanese society. Unless we raise awareness about protecting anonymity, adoption will not increase. Because most Japanese people don’t feel a sense of crisis about censorship etc, they aren’t very into the topic.

Overwhelming public apathy is, in my opinion, the biggest roadblock. We can’t help people who don’t feel they need to be helped, and the passive acceptance of a “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” mentality means the majority refuses to even accept they need to protect themselves at all. My greatest fear is that they won’t learn any better until the country goes to a truly dark place. My hope is that we can have working tools and infrastructure waiting should that day come.

We plan to use our existing social media and other channels in the country to advertise and distribute knowledge about Tor to increase the user-base. As more people in the country come to realize how onerous internet restrictions are, we aim to have the tools they need to bypass it ready and waiting. We’re chipping away at the strings here, and hope to eventually have Tor fully translated into Japanese. The sooner the better.

Changing Japanese public opinion about Tor and Tor-related tools from its negative image as a so-called “criminal” software to a tool that has the potential to combat internet censorship is a large part of this group’s mission. Recently, these Japanese language localizers have been contributing to the translation of Onion Browser, and to promote its use in the country, they have created a Twitter account which hopes to raise awareness about how it can be used to protect internet freedom.

Check out their Twitter account to keep up with the their work on Onion Browser.