Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 167

The major espionage row which erupted between Japan and Russia last week continues to generate more questions than answers. It is being described as Japan’s biggest spy scandal in some twenty years and is the first between Moscow and Tokyo since 1980, when several army officers and their retired superior handed over secrets to a Soviet defense attache. This latest row was triggered by the arrest on September 7 of Shigehiro Hagisaki, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, on charges that he had passed classified information to Viktor Bogatenkov, naval attache at the Russian embassy. The arrest made headlines in Japan and provoked an angry diplomatic exchange between Tokyo and Moscow. It also led to the abrupt departure of Bogatenkov–apparently on either his own or Moscow’s initiative–from Japan on September 9. His return to Russia came despite requests from Japanese authorities that they first be allowed to question him regarding his contacts with Hagisaki.

As Japanese and Western news agencies were quick to note, Hagisaki’s arrest came only days after a visit to Tokyo by Russian President Vladimir Putin for summit talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. Differences between Moscow and Tokyo over the Kuril Islands territorial dispute had seemingly been papered over at the summit, which ended with praise by both men for what they said were much improved bilateral ties (see the Monitor, September 6). The precipitation of the spying wrangle, however, generated speculation regarding whether Tokyo might in fact be trying to punish Moscow for Putin’s unwillingness to budge on the territorial issue. That speculation was linked to broader concerns over whether the incident is likely to harm Japanese-Russian relations more generally. As of yesterday, it was unclear whether Moscow would retaliate–there were threats to that effect from the Russian capital–or whether the two sides would choose instead to step back and to do their best to limit damage stemming from the conflict.

Yesterday, some three days after Hagisaki’s arrest, it was also unclear precisely what sort of information he had actually passed to Bogatenkov. Japanese news sources said that Hagisaki had confessed to spying, but there was little clarity or agreement as to the degree that he might have compromised Japan’s security. Japanese reports had originally suggested that Hagisaki had turned over some ten “confidential” documents to Bogatenkov that included training manuals for ship operation. The “confidential” designation is apparently the lowest of the three security classifications assigned by Japan’s defense forces. But later reports said that the documents also included information on arms performance and radar coverage–items classified as “secret,” which is just one rank below the highest security “top secret” designation. There were also suggestions that Hagisaki had access to information about Japan’s submarine force. Left unanswered were questions regarding whether Hagisaki had also revealed classified information related to U.S. military operations in the Far East and U.S. defense cooperation with Japan. That possibility led some Japanese newspapers to lament that the incident could lead Washington to loose faith in Japan as a defense partner (Reuters, Asahi Shimbun, September 9; Mainichi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 10).

One Japanese newspaper, the Mainichi Shimbun, suggested yesterday that the Hagisaki case had two unusual features. The first was the fact that meetings between Hagisaki and Bogatenkov, which were said by Japanese authorities to have taken place over nearly a year’s time, were conducted out in the open. Indeed, Hagisaki’s arrest took place while he was dining with Bogatenkov at a restaurant. Though the newspaper did not say it, the absence of “dead drops” and other Cold War era cloak and dagger means of passing information in this case appears to reflect the fact that contacts between the Russian and Japanese militaries have improved to the degree that socialization is to some degree more common. The Mainichi Shimbun also expressed surprise, however, over the fact that someone of Hagisaki’s rank was “rubbing shoulders” with a “diplomatic bigwig” like Bogatenkov (Mainichi Shimbun, September 10). In the same vein, newspapers–and Japanese authorities–are apparently puzzling over how Hagisaki had managed to get his hands on highly classified materials. His position did not give him official access to that sort of information.

Russia’s diplomatic reaction to the arrest of Hagisaki and the attempt to question Bogatenkov has been inconsistent. The Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow initially denounced Tokyo’s actions, calling the arrest unfriendly and provocative. A Foreign Ministry statement issued on September 9 claimed that there are political forces in Japan which fear improved relations between the two countries and which would prefer to turn the clock backwards. “It is obvious that these forces are trying, with the help of provocative means, to cast a shadow on such constructive work” (Reuters, September 8; The Guardian, September 9). Some Russian newspapers took a similar line, quoting intelligence officials as saying that the arrest reflected the Japanese government’s unhappiness over the firm line that Putin took in Tokyo with regard to the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. Kommersant daily, for example, opined that it was no accident Hagisaki was arrested “two days after the visit to Japan by Vladimir Putin, who showed unwillingness to settle the territorial dispute by year’s end, as Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori would have liked” (AFP, September 9).

However, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who was in New York for the UN Millennium Summit (as were Putin and Mori), took a more conciliatory line. Ivanov said in a Russian television interview that he hoped the incident would “not have any influence on Japanese-Russian relations.” He also professed to believe that the arrest and espionage allegations had “absolutely no connection” with the just-concluded Japanese-Russian summit. Mori took a similar line, telling reporters in New York that he hoped the Hagisaki case “would not lead to a regrettable outcome in my relations with President Putin” (Bernama-Kyodo, September 9). Indeed, there should be ample opportunity for Moscow and Tokyo to work out a nonconfrontational approach to the spy scandal, if that is what they really want. Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono is scheduled to meet with Ivanov in New York later this week. The issue is also expected to be raised during talks scheduled for today in New York between Kono and both U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Reuters, September 9).