Whistleblower Ed Snowden: a Japanophile who hung out with expats in Japan

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text and photos by Christopher Johnson in Tokyo and Moscow 


Edward Snowden, the fugitive former CIA employee and NSA contractor who exposed America’s secretive spying operations, often hung out online with foreigners in Japan who shared his interests in anime, video games, martial arts, the stock market and the expat lifestyle. 

Snowden, who studied Japanese as a teenager, was a Japanophile with connections to expatriates who perhaps had no idea that he was doing top-secret work for the U.S. government. 

Born in 1983, Snowden studied Japanese for a year and a half as a teenager growing up near the National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. “I’ve always dreamed of being able to ‘make it’ in Japan,” he wrote in 2001. “I’d love a cushy .gov job over there, but I hear they’ll quarantine your pets for 6 freaking months. I have kitties.”

Like other foreigners, he struggled with kanji, but he enjoyed dropping Japanese phrases such as zenzen wakarimasen [I understand nothing at all]. 

His video game skills at the fighting game “Tekken” — set in Kyoto, Chiba and elsewhere — drew attention at the 2002 Anime USA convention.

He worked in 2002 as a webmaster for Ryuhana Press, a start-up website about Japanese anime, also located in Fort Meade. On the site, he said he used the monikers “theTrueHOOHA”, “Phish”, and “E-do-waa-do”, the Japanese pronunciation of his name. The website closed in 2004, and it’s not known if his Ryuhana colleagues went on to pursue their interests here in Japan.

Snowden, who was interviewed in Hong Kong last week, wrote in 2006 that he knew many people working in Japan. He moved to Japan in early 2009 to work for Dell as a contractor for the NSA’s secretive surveillance program. ABC news reported on Friday that Snowden attended the summer semester in 2009 of the University of Maryland University College’s Asia program at a campus somewhere in the Tokyo area. UMUC’s website lists several campuses on US military bases across Japan.

Snowden, using the moniker “theTrueHOOHA” communicated with many people online. Between 2006 and 2008, he associated online with Peter Durfee, a Tokyo-based translator who studied at the American School in Japan in the 1980s and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1993. Durfee, who has more than 3,000 followers on Twitter, has written about doing contract work since 1996 for Japan’s prime minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diet members and many corporations. He’s currently director of the Nippon Communications Foundation and a translation instructor at the Simul Academy.

Using the name “Durf,” he has posted many comments on sites such as Japan Probe, Japologism and Tepido, and also 9,528 posts between 2002 and last week on Ars Technica. “We did indeed both post on some threads at Ars Technica,” said Durfee, known for his sarcastic wit on Twitter and other sites. “This doesn’t mean he’s now holed up in my Tokyo guest room.”

A search of the Ars Technica website finds Durf and Snowden posting on the same threads at least six times in 2006 between April 26 and July 28. They wrote about things such as expat life in Japan, bank wire transfers, stock markets, a drug bust, and a man jumping to his death. Their tone was often cordial as they shared information with commenters. 

Durfee and Snowden communicated again two years later, on Dec. 2, 2008. Snowden, who was stationed with the CIA in Geneva at that time, spoke with expertise about day trading on the stock market, which was falling amid the Lehman Shock weeks earlier. 

Durfee says Snowden never tried to contact him outside of Arstechnica. “I went and found those threads, but they wouldn’t have been particularly memorable ones to me otherwise.”

Snowden often posted details about his stock trading, which raises questions about the nature of his work and whether intelligence operatives with top secret clearances would have access to information unavailable to other market players.  

On May 4, 2006, Snowden chatted about Japan with other members of Ars Technica, known as “Arsians.”

“Erekose,” claiming to be a network manager at a U.S. software company, mentioned that he was hoping to move back to Japan with his wife and newborn child. “It appears there are good opportunities for someone of my skill to be found here. Anyone actually doing it?”

The next commenter, “Ian,” said his wife was working in Japan.I’m following her in September and am trying to figure out how to find an IT job in Tokyo for myself.”

Snowden, using the moniker “theTrueHOOHA”, replied: “Most of the Arsians I know of who are currently in Japan are working in the language field. I think the biggest barrier to working in IT over there is developing the professional-level language ability.” 

“Ian” then wrote: “My wife is actually Senior Manager for the IT department of an American Multi-national in Tokyo and about half her staff are Americans with minimal/no Japanese.” 

According to an AP report, the Swiss foreign ministry has confirmed that Snowden worked in Geneva as a U.S. mission employee accredited to the United Nations from March 2007 to February 2009. His co-worker at the time, Mavanee Anderson, described Snowden as friendly and brilliant, and an expert in martial arts who joined Chinese New Year parades. “He once gave me a one-on-one martial arts lesson, and I was surprised at his abilities — and very amused that he seemed unable to go very easy on a newbie,” she wrote in Tennessee’s Chattanooga Times Free Press. 

Snowden then moved to Japan in early 2009 to work for Dell as a contractor for the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, the AP reported. 

While in Japan, Snowden appears to have lost interest in posting on Ars Technica, a U.S.-based site that lists more than 700 of his comments between 2001 and 2012. 

He made no posts on the site for seven months between April 7, 2009, and November 27, 2009, when he was reportedly studying in the summer semester at the University of Maryland University College at an unknown location in Japan. He made only two posts that December, then one in February 2010, and nothing for 21 months until November 2011. After that, he made one more post, on May 21, 2012.

Since he had been a prolific poster before moving here, it’s hard to imagine he went cold turkey in Japan and made no comments at all on websites in Japan, a haven for tech industry workers using pseudonyms. Thus, observers speaking privately wonder if Snowden adopted a new pseudonym to run his own blog or post on chat forums in Japan while working here, as many expats do. 

Since fleeing to Hong Kong from his job in Honolulu, Snowden has accused the United States of running a massive and secretive surveillance network that collects data on people worldwide using Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other tech companies. Some call him a hero for defending the public interest, while others have accused him of treason. The FBI has launched a criminal investigation into Snowden’s conduct, with the bureau’s director accusing him of exposing state secrets.

During his time studying and working in Japan, Snowden would have met several Japanese and expats in various fields, and possibly some of the people he had known online for years.  

His longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, wrote that they fell in love with the little street festivals in Japan. “On the hunt for the perfect date-night venue [in Hawaii] I stumbled upon a flyer for a Japanese summer festival. Could that be more perfect?! E and I fell in love with all the little street festivals when we lived in Japan and I couldn’t think of a better event to bring smiles to our faces.”

In Hawaii, the couple often enjoyed karaoke and Japanese restaurants. “We lovingly crammed a large group into a small corner of a delicious Japanese restaurant and filled our bellies with sushi, tempura, and good conversation,” wrote Mills. 

It’s not clear where Snowden and Mills lived in Japan. Multiple websites claim that the U.S. National Security Agency employs large numbers of intelligence operatives on the Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture, which was a staging post for rescue and recovery efforts after the March 11, 2011, disasters in Tohoku. Japan hosts a number of US bases across the archipelago. 

Here are some of Snowden’s apparent writings under the moniker “theTrueHOOHA”:

“I was just wondering if anybody has considered the IT jobmarket in Japan. There’s the language barrier problem, but if you can demonstrate the appropriate language skills, I think a qualified American would actually have a better time in the Japanese job market!”

“All things considered, American certificates, especially in internet security, should prove to be extremely attractive. There have also been a couple studies that show out of qualified applicants, blondes are hired more often in Japan.”

“Does anyone have any experience in the Japanese workplace? Has anybody else considered this? Does anyone have anything to add? Will Gendou spill his tea on his bargain-basement katana?”

I’m not really worried so much about whether or not such positions exist en masse; what I’m talking about is more along the lines of an American competing with a Native Nihon-jin for one position. Market saturation etc doesn’t really matter, the jobs will always exist in some supply. I’d like to know more about how people picture or have been affected by the American “novelty” factor that teachers enjoy.”

“Right, anyway, it is pretty far-fetched, but I’ve always dreamed of being able to “make it” in Japan. I’ve taken Japanese for a year and a half (they only offered 3 semester-levels) so I can understand a little, but I’m not even close to thinking about dreaming about wishing I were fluent. Damn those Kanji!”

“Many IT-companies will offer to fly people out for interviews, and will pay relocation expenses for qualified hires. I’ve heard of a few cases of this in Japan, but it definitely doesn’t seem to be the rule.”

“…my head of vibrant, shimmering blond hair (with volume) will not be leaving me for a few decades. Youth has its benefits.”

“I’d love a cushy .gov job over there, but I hear they’ll quarantine your pets for 6 freaking months. I have kitties.”

“In any case, California seems like the first logical step. It’s the only place that seems to have decent Japanese language educational resources. Here in MD it’s all Koreans. CHON HAN CHOW GAO GYAO CHONG CHONG and so forth. No offense, of course.”

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