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(Updates to show drill has ended, adds comment)
By Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo
TOKYO, March 18 (Reuters) - Japan faced a full-on cyber attack across government departments on Tuesday in a drill aimed at bolstering national security as the country gears up to host the 2020 Olympics.
Japan is following the lead of Britain, which invited ethical hackers to test its computer systems in the run up to the 2012 London Olympics. In the event, London parried multiple cyber attacks.
Some 50 cyber defence specialists gathered at an emergency response centre in Tokyo, with at least three times that many offsite, to defend against a simulated attack across 21 state ministries and agencies and 10 industry associations, said Ikuo Misumi, a hacking expert at Japan's state-run National Information Security Centre.
"It's not that we haven't put effort into cybersecurity, but we are certainly behind the U.S.," Ichita Yamamoto, the cabinet minister in charge of IT policy and who is leading the effort to boost cybersecurity, said in an interview before the drill.
The exercise simulated a phishing attack, where government officials or businesses opened up their own servers to a computer virus by visiting a fake website.
"Cyber attacks are becoming more subtle, sophisticated and international, and strengthening Japan's response to them has become a critical issue," the Japanese government's spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said during the drill in Tokyo. Suga, as Chief Cabinet Secretary is in charge of Japan's cybersecurity.
The government forecasts Japan's first summer Olympics since 1964 will lift the economy. But officials worry it could also make Japan a target for computer hackers. Attacks by foreign and domestic hackers against the government doubled last year, Misumi said.
Cyber attacks against a closed Japanese network designed to lure and measure hacking increased last year to 12.8 billion times from 7.8 billion the previous year, according to its operator, the government-affiliated National Institute of Information and Communications.
In a blog published ahead of the drill, Suga said Japanese government sites were attacked twice a minute.
Officials have acknowledged that even though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has passed a strict official-secrets law, the government cannot adequately protect itself from malicious internet hackers. This is a worry for America as the two allies review their decades-old defence pact to respond to new threats, including state-backed hackers.
The government has also vowed to safeguard Japan's cutting-edge technology from industrial espionage. Last week, Toshiba Corp sued SK Hynix Inc, saying a former employee passed key chip technology to the South Korean rival.
Japan's cyber security is shared among the National Police Agency and four ministries, including those for defence and industry.
Tuesday's drill was the first time that Japan has worked together across government and business to counter the threat of hackers.
The test will help break down various "silos that currently exist in Japan", said William Saito, a U.S.-born tech entrepreneur recruited to advise the government.
IT minister Yamamoto this month convened the first meeting of cybersecurity officials from the ministries and police agency, joined by outside experts, to hammer out a unified approach to Japan's online security.
Yamamoto said his group will begin making recommendations by the summer. They might include encouraging more students to take up computer science or developing security software in Japan to guard against hackers rather than relying on imported products. (Editing by Neil Fullick)