Laws thwart Japan’s resolve to deal with crises

by Toshi Maeda and Kanako Takahara

Staff writers The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States awakened Tokyo to the possibility that similar incidents could take place here, prompting lawmakers to review Japan’s own emergency contingency preparedness.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced plans to revise the Self-Defense Forces law to allow troops to guard key public facilities. The move came after the government was unable to meet U.S. military requests last week to have the SDF guard their bases in Japan following the attacks in New York and Washington.

Once the revision is approved in the upcoming Diet session, which convenes Thursday, SDF personnel — with approval from the prime minister — will be allowed to join police to guard such facilities as the Diet building, the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, nuclear plants and U.S. military installations throughout the country.

The governing coalition, led by Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party, is also considering enacting emergency contingency legislation as early as next year that would temporarily exempt SDF troops from certain legal restraints in the event of emergencies.

Under current laws, SDF members can face criminal charges if, for example, they trespass on private property without the prior permission of the owners in the pursuit of fleeing suspects, including invading forces.

While such contingency legislation has been studied by the Defense Agency since the 1970s, it has long been a political taboo under the war-renouncing Constitution, with opponents declaring any such legislation as tantamount to preparing for war.

But the legislative push has rapidly gained momentum following last week’s attacks in the U.S. The LDP is trying to persuade its coalition partners to have the relevant laws enacted during the regular Diet session that opens in January. Takako Doi, head of the Social Democratic Party, warns that hawkish politicians are taking advantage of the attacks to speed up the effort to enact the emergency legislation.

“When the public is enveloped in a mood (of fear over terrorist attacks), it is difficult to ask people to be rational,” Doi lamented.

But more important than the planned emergency legislation, a senior SDF official said, would be to review the tight rules on the SDF’s use of weapons.

“If the same kind of terror attacks happen in Japan, we would initially rush to rescue the victims in a disaster relief mission without carrying weapons, not even a handgun, because carrying arms is simply not allowed during such missions,” the official said on condition of anonymity. As the situation develops and it becomes clear there are terrorist acts that cannot be handled by the police, the SDF may be allowed to carry weapons, with the approval of the prime minister. But they must strictly follow police rules on the use of firearms.

“That means we can only fire warning shots or actually shoot at enemies only to the extent that we will not kill them,” the SDF officer said. “What if they had a trench mortar or something? We cannot do anything more than what police officers can.”

When two apparently North Korean spy boats intruded well into Japanese waters in March 1999, Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft and destroyers fired 35 “warning” shots and dropped 12 “warning” bombs as they pursued the boats, which had no trouble fleeing all the way across the Sea of Japan to North Korea.

The MSDF was not authorized to fire directly at the boats under their limited authority for using weapons. All they could do was wait until they were fired upon first by the vessels, in which case they could have fired back in self-defense.

Mitsuhiro Suganuma, a former investigative chief at the Public Security Investigation Agency, claims that what Japan critically lacks in dealing with terrorism is a full-scale intelligence-gathering system.

“The biggest help Japan could offer to the U.S. at the moment would be to provide objective information about Osama Bin Laden, because we are in a position where we can do that relatively easily,” he said.

“But unfortunately, Japan has no intelligence agency that systematically collects and analyzes information like that,” he said. “Even only asking Japanese businessmen who have just returned (from Afghanistan) about the local situation could be a lot of help. But nobody does that in Japan.”

Currently, Japan depends almost “100 percent” on the U.S. for intelligence concerning its own national security, he said.

Although officials from the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Agency, the National Police Agency and the Public Safety Investigation Agency meet on a weekly basis to exchange security information, their interest mostly lies in “who will be the first to receive information from the U.S.,” according to Suganuma.

The government was awakened to its poor intelligence-gathering capabilities in August 1998 when North Korea test-fired what is believed to have been a ballistic missile over Japan. It splashed down in the Pacific.

By March 2004, Japan plans to have four multipurpose satellites that can be used for reconnaissance, but as the resolution of those satellites will be poorer than U.S. spy satellites, experts say Japan will still have to depend on security information from the U.S.

“Many Japanese still tend to think that intelligence activities are immoral, but we must know who our potential enemies are and what they are thinking before discussing emergency contingency measures,” Suganuma said.

Many security experts agree, and also emphasize the importance of human intelligence.

“The U.S. and Japan have relied too much on information from e-mail, spy satellites, Echelon and other so-called electronic intelligence systems and looked down on information we can gather through personal relationships,” said Atsuyuki Sassa, former director of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office.

Sassa, who met with U.S. Deputy State Secretary Richard Armitage and other senior U.S. officials in Washington just days before the terrorist attacks, said they all agreed on the need to place greater emphasis on “human-to-human information-gathering.”

Since the attacks, Koizumi has also urged the government to cooperate more closely with other countries on immigration control, including exchanging information on blacklisted terrorist suspects.

U.S. intelligence authorities reportedly told Japan that 19 suspected Islamic militants, believed to be bin Laden followers, may have entered the country just before the Sept. 11 attacks, putting police on alert nationwide.

Osamu Sato, an official at the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, said the ministry reinforced its crackdown on forged passports on Sept. 12 in a bid to prevent terrorists from entering the country.

But at present, the ministry has no immediate plans to increase the number of immigration officials, who now number 2,208.

In May, 20 officials were added to the force after a man, believed to be Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, was caught trying to enter Japan on a forged Dominican Republic passport.

He had apparently entered Japan illegally a number of times previously on the same passport.

At the time, the bureau was also given new equipment to improve its ability to detect forged passports, Sato said.

“The Immigration Bureau is also keeping in close contact with police as a precaution” against the entry of terrorist suspects, he said.