Japan appears to be coming out of a long coma of non-violent political action in spite of being caught between domestic political violence and terrorism, and its relationships with Western states battling a seemingly never-ending war against terrorism. The idea that Japan is an island no longer serves as a metaphorical instrument in the geopolitical world of today. Al Qaeda’s global reach woke the world up well over a decade ago, and that world is being jolted again by the activities of the Islamic State (ISIS), which demonstrates an ideological pitch far exceeding that of other terrorist organizations operating today.
Reaching further back into history, even before the Gulf War, Japan opposed dipping more than its toes into the realm of international conflict management, anti-terrorism efforts, and peacekeeping missions. As early as 1954, a non-binding upper house resolution proscribed Japanese missions overseas, regardless of a mission’s purpose. Less than half of the Japanese population was in favor of Japanese involvement United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions in 1986. By the end of the 1980s, less than a quarter of Japan’s population said they would support the dispatch of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Tokyo’s position over the use of the SDF has become a tad relaxed, but even minor changes have brought major concerns, most notably from former-SDF members about the security of personnel currently overseas. Can Japan afford to get caught-up in America’s wars abroad?
Indeed, Japan was one of the latecomers in the US-led War on Terror, but it can no longer afford to overlook the growth and concentrations of ISIS influence in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. “When we have a meeting with a president or prime minister from another country,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo, “always they say that now the number one issue is ISIS … Indonesia [is] the same.” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, speaking to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), affirmed that the ISIS threat to the Philippines is real. “At least 100 of our young Filipino Muslims have already infiltrated Iraq to undergo training to return and be jihadists or militants,” stated former president, defense secretary, and armed forces chief Fidel Ramos.
Even China must heed the threat of ISIS from Afghanistan, where major operations can be funded by drugs production and trafficking. China’s Foreign Ministry underscored its position in the face of ISIS, nothing that, “China opposes all forms of terrorism. China is willing to strengthen cooperation with the international community to fight together against terrorist forces, including the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM),’ in order to protect regional and global security and stability.”
Japan’s lethargic response to international terrorism has been somewhat puzzling because of its geographical proximity to the key actors in what the US described as the “Axis of Evil.” No other key ally, not even Israel, is close to as many of the main state-sponsors of international terrorism as Japan. But like Israel, Japan is no stranger to political violence and terrorist activities.
Terrorist attacks were a large part of the Showa Restoration – the Blood Oath Corps (Ketsumeidan) involved assassinations. After World War II Japan fought the Japanese Red Army (JRA) (Nihon Sekigun) and other indigenous terrorist groups and organizations like the Chukaku-ha. Supreme Truth (Aum Shinrikyo) is a notable case. Japan has also had its close and intimate encounter with homegrown terrorism that acquired deadly materials abroad. The use of chemical agents in the Tokyo subway system came as a shock to Japan, in what some have described as chemical warfare on Japanese soil, but surprisingly few measures were implemented to circumvent future attacks.
Japan’s somewhat inconsistent experience with terrorism is still considerable, especially compared to those of some Western states like the U.S., which only began to focus a lot of energy on the issue of international terrorism during the latter half of the 1990s – although the US has definitely not been distant from political violence. The U.S. even managed to dodge a lot of the terrorist activity that Western European states had become used to throughout the 1970s and 1980s as well as Israel’s violent experiences during the 1990s.
The European Union’s (EU) response to terrorism has been closely aligned with actual terrorist attacks from 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo, and ISIS’ wave of terrorism. There has been priority focus on the issue of “foreign fighters,” pressure placed on travel and movement, propaganda, and the revival of Passenger Name Records (PNR). Attention was placed national competence because the EU recognized that this is where supranational polity has less powers to act. In Japan, reaction to terrorism has been conspicuously absent. Anti-terror initiatives in Europe have been fed by real and violent events for years but in Japan only the events of ISIS have provoked a reaction, if one could even call it that.
Although Japan has been one of the closest allies of U.S. in the post-War period, and even during America’s recent charge against international terrorism, the Japanese model of domestic security and poor response after 9/11 was a product of the US’ occupation of the Japanese home islands. Japan’s poor security defense systems, what eventually factored in to Japan becoming one of the “weak links” in the coalition against international terrorism, were established by the security framework which came about by looking to either the Soviet Union or the United States. Yet Japan is not a lame duck. It has received billions of dollars from Washington over the past seven decades in economic and security assistance. Japan will be expected now to move beyond its past responses to terrorism, which have previously involved reliance on domestic policing, appeasing terrorists, and putting limited domestic laws into practice.
What makes the Japanese security paradigm so unique?
Positive and negative points characterize the Japanese security paradigm. Tokyo’s criminal justice system and domestic policing policies interact harmoniously, and its prison and rehabilitation systems deliver results. Japan, as in the case with JRA, cannot simply pass its terrorist threats onto other states and move on by providing indirect and passive support. Japan assumed that the decline of some terrorist organizations presupposed a decrease in the threat that terrorism more generally posed to Japanese society.
9/11 figures as a step forward in Japan’s counterterrorism progression but not as significant as in other states. New laws, and the Self Defense Forces (SDF), while meaning that Japan could be present in the War on Terror, did not enable it to play a major and active, even proactive, role. Japan remained and remains reactive in terms of terrorism. Japan has moved beyond providing medical supplies/services, transportation, information gathering, and recognizing the need to protect US military facilities, in addition to the extension of sporadic humanitarian, economic, and other emergency assistance operations. The enactment of new security legislation is a continuation of Japan’s previous policy moves to make it able to play a part in combating international terrorism but this merely provides a framework. Receiving praise from the US Department of State (DoS) for bringing security legislation in line with Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation, Tokyo is acting divisively by contradicting its own constitution.
Fighting terror, now, requires Japan to avoid its past mistakes and to step lightly given the position of its domestic constituents and international partners. It needs to move beyond establishing a veneer of cooperation and activity in the face of growing terrorist threats and address the core of its anti-terrorism capabilities. Its war-renouncing constitution will always be a hindrance. Its poor and self-contained intelligence apparatus and institutions require further reform if they are to truly support any future anti-terrorism task forces. Since early in 2015, Japan has made little progress in fixing the main components of its counterterrorism efforts. Japan does not lack the essential elements to make a strong and proactive contrition to peace by combating terrorism. This is precisely what Tokyo’s response to the ISIS hostage crisis, concerning two Japanese civilians, cultivated. Japan’s financial and human resources, and political commitment are certainly in line with those of the United States and the most contributory actors in an ongoing WoT.
A number of remarkable intelligence gathering models, like the UK’s MI6, the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst [BND]), exist for Japan to pattern itself after and provide indirect security to tangible and intangible infrastructure. Japan’s baby steps in enhancing its law enforcement and domestic policing initiatives, however, do not speak to the level of commitment required for the country to make that necessary contribution. Rather, they contradict the very simple and clear message made by General Kiyofumi Iwata of Japan’s SDF, delivered nearly a year ago that: “[t]errorism is never tolerated.”