OSAKA – Last month’s terror attacks in Paris and the closely timed suicide bombings in Beirut have raised fears in Japan of a similar attack to unprecedented levels. With Japan hosting next year’s Group of Seven leaders’ summit in Mie Prefecture, and a host of smaller ministerial conferences elsewhere around the country, the government announced earlier this month it was stepping up counterterrorism measures.
Despite the effort, how effective these measures will actually be and what impact they will have on legitimate public protest at the two-day summit, remains unclear.
On Dec. 8, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government launched a counterterrorism intelligence unit within the Foreign Ministry. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the mission of the new entity, Counterterrorism Unit-Japan, is to gather information on terrorist threats. More generally, he added, the government also plans to beef up security at airports, ports, and other key facilities and step up counterterrorism training.
Counterterrorism Unit-Japan will focus particularly on extremist groups like Islamic State, but will also review potential threats to the G-7 summits, the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It is staffed by about 20 bureaucrats from the foreign and defense ministries, the National Police Agency and the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office who will examine intelligence on terrorist networks operating in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and north and western Africa. Another 20 officials familiar with those areas will be sent to diplomatic missions overseas.
In Mie, where the G-7 Ise-Shima summit will be held in May on Kashikojima Island, Gov. Eikei Suzuki is moving to get more involved in stopping potential terrorist acts. In late October, the prefecture established a group to encourage residents to keep their ears open during the summit, especially in places outside the official venues.
“What we saw in the Paris attacks was that soft targets were attacked, like the theaters and restaurants, places where ordinary people will gather. It’s impossible to place heavy security over a long period of time at these kinds of soft targets. Therefore, it’s crucial to have cooperation from citizens and the private sector. For example, if citizens note that there is something suspicious, then they should notify the police. Private companies should also see to it that they do not hire anyone suspicious,” Suzuki told foreign journalists in Tokyo last month.
In addition, Mie was expected to soon pass an ordinance banning the flying of drones in the vicinity of the venue during the conference.
Keeping potential terrorists from entering Japan will be an even bigger challenge. While many Japanese media reports stress official efforts to block entry at major international airports in Tokyo, Nagoya, and the Kansai region, there are many other ways to get in. In 2014, 29 airports offered regular international flights. Most were to East or Southeast Asia, although there were some to Russia from airports in Hokkaido.
In addition, there are ferries that run regularly to China and South Korea from Osaka, Kobe, Shimonoseki and Hakata, and international cargo ships that call at nearly two dozen ports.
At any international summit, nongovernmental organizations and protesters are present. But what the new fears about protecting the world’s top leaders mean for those planning to visit Mie next May is uncertain, though security can be expected to be extra tight as usual.
Given the concerns about security, there is also the question of just how easy it will be for NGOs in particular to directly access the world’s media and provide counterpoints to official press releases.
“At past G-7 summits, it’s been possible for NGOs to enter the International Media Center provided they pre-register. We’re now in talks with the Foreign Ministry about having NGOs being able to enter the International Media Center at the Ise-Shima summit,” said Aoi Horiuchi, of the Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation, who is a liaison for international NGOs planning to come.
He added that, given Japan’s distance from the other G-7 countries, fewer representatives were expected but that at least 20 and perhaps as many as 50 NGO leaders may come. Most will probably be development and environmental NGOs, but a few human rights representatives are also expected.
“We will ask the Japanese government not to deny foreign NGOs permission to enter the country to conduct NGO activities,” Horiuchi said.
“We don’t think it will be a problem with anti-terrorism security measures for the NGO events we conduct during the summit. But we probably won’t have any activities on Kashikojima itself (where the leaders will convene). Meetings will be held in other Mie cities and perhaps Nagoya,” he added.
Official fears — some might say paranoia — over NGO activities and the possibility of terrorism at the summit remain strong, however. In its most recent report on state security, released earlier this month, the National Police Agency outlined its preparations for the Ise-Shima and smaller summits. It identified not only IS and al-Qaida as potential threats, but also people who have tied up with members of what it called the anti-globalization movement.
“It appears these domestic forces within Japan have allied themselves with extreme groups overseas, and will conduct various protest activities at the Ise-Shima summit, including demonstrations and rallies. There are concerns extreme protest activities will cause violence and cause roads to be sealed,” the report said.
As to monitoring groups like the Islamic State group, however, Akira Usuki, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at Japan Women’s University, says as long as Japan doesn’t conduct hostilities against IS, he doesn’t think the organization itself will target the country.
“Of the Muslims who live in Japan, the largest share are from Indonesia, Pakistan and other Asian countries. So while we can’t deny the possibility of a ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attack, I think it’s small,” he said.
The bigger issue over the next five months leading up to the summit may be whether Japan has enough qualified specialists, linguistic and otherwise, to properly gather and interpret raw data on potential threats.
“Since the true number of Arab experts in Japan, including the Foreign Ministry, is insufficient, it’s not a problem that can be quickly solved. Furthermore, even though we say the ‘Islamic world,’ we’re talking about not only Arabic in the Middle East, but also Southeast Asian languages like Indonesian.
“As there are a lot of Arab terrorists in IS and al-Qaida, the request for Arab language experts is urgent. But it’s difficult to meet even that need in the short term. In the end, we’ll be forced to rely on information from allies like the United States,” Usuki said.