On Nov. 27, 2005, an unidentified terrorist group attacked the Mihama nuclear power plant on the Japan Sea in Fukui Prefecture, damaging the facility and creating fears of a radiation leak.

Local officials on-site at emergency response headquarters in the town of Mihama — as well as at the Cabinet Office, the National Policy Agency, the Defense Agency, the Japan Coast Guard and within numerous ministries — immediately coordinated a response to evacuate local residents from the surrounding area.

If you’re surprised by the above and wonder why you missed that particular morsel of “news,” it’s because the attack was only simulated and the response was a test of the country’s emergency response system. But it was the first time ever such a large-scale, comprehensive on-site drill was held that involved a wide range of local and central government officials, as well as members of the public who played the part of “victims.”

The drill took place under the Civil Protection Law, which the Diet passed in June 2004. The law stipulates the responsibilities of the national and local governments in the event of an armed attack, including measures for evacuation, relief and response. While its architects likely had the Sept. 11 attacks, 2001, in the United States foremost in mind when they drafted the law, it might also serve as the basis of a response to an Aum Shinrikyo-esque incident.

Depending on the emergency, the government may decide to restrict freedoms under the Constitution. The law asks that if these restrictions are put into place, they be limited to the “minimum necessary” for implementing civil protection measures.

Local governments are also given more autonomy under the law to respond. For example, prefectural governors can, if need be, force medical practitioners and staff to provide treatment to evacuated residents, and expropriate medical supplies and food if the owners of such materials fail to provide a convincing reason why they are refusing to sell such material to the government. Governors and mayors also have the right to temporarily take over private land and buildings during an emergency.

Since the exercise in Fukui nearly a decade ago, more than 100 drills in response to some form of security threat have been conducted at prefectures throughout the country. Assumptions behind the threats the drills are based on range from unidentified armed groups landing on the Japan Sea coast and bombing hospitals and medical facilities to railway station bombings in major cities and a widespread chemical weapons attack in central Tokyo.

While the law has prodded various local and central government agencies to coordinate a response, the Aum threat and the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. began a process of rethinking about domestic security that first manifested itself at the 2002 World Cup and later in Hokkaido at the Group of Eight summit in 2008. In recent weeks, support for further measures picked up steam with the deaths of journalists Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa at the hands of the Islamic State group in the Middle East. The deaths of three Japanese tourists in Tunisia last week will simply accelerate what is already a fast-moving debate.

Suddenly, it seems, the domestic media, public and the political world are obsessed with threats, real and imagined, to the country’s security and to Japanese who venture abroad. Next year’s G-8 summit (sans Russia) will return to Japan, and seven cities — Hiroshima, Kobe, Nagoya, Shizuoka, Karuizawa, Niigata and Sendai — hope to host the world leaders of Japan, the United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, Germany and Italy.

The candidate cities have emphasized, in addition to their various cultural assets, their preparedness in the event of a security threat. Meanwhile, this year’s Tokyo Marathon saw an unprecedented level of police protection for the runners and those watching them, while security for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics could be some of the toughest ever seen.

The latter event in particular has a number of people worried, especially about safety in Tokyo’s subways, train stations and other public transport facilities. Over the past two decades, beginning with the Aum attack, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has ordered security measures such as increasing the number of surveillance cameras, installing emergency phones in stations for passengers to report strange bags or other items, and concentrating trash bins in certain areas of the station that can be easily monitored.

Enemies of the state?

Much of the recent media attention, and much of the official reasoning for the need to beef up security measures, is based on events abroad over the past few months rather than what happened years ago. Each January, however, the Public Security Intelligence Agency releases its annual report on what it sees as the primary issues related to domestic and international security, providing a detailed insight as to how law enforcement views the overall situation, and, more interestingly, where officials do, and do not, perceive security threats.

The last report covering 2014 is 75 pages long, with 50 pages on external terrorism issues and the remainder devoted to what the agency sees as potential threats to Japan’s own security. Six of these 25 pages detail the activities of Aum Shinrikyo and its two spinoffs — Aleph, the cult’s successor, and a much smaller splinter group called Hikari no Wa (Circle of Rainbow Light), which centers around former Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu, who has denounced former Aum leader Shoko Asahara.

The two groups remain the primary focus of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, and the agency formally keeps watch over both, conducting raids on the groups’ compounds if it is concerned. As of Nov. 1, 2014, total membership in both was estimated at about 1,650. This is far below the estimated 11,400 who were Aum members in March 1995, just before the sarin attacks. It’s also a slight increase over the 1,500 members in 2011, the year before the Public Security Intelligence Agency received formal authority to continue keeping an eye on both groups and their members.

However, former Aum members are not the agency’s only concern. Another four pages are devoted to the activities of groups trying to stop the construction of a replacement facility at Henoko for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, voicing support for keeping the 1995 Kono Statement regarding the “comfort women,” criticizing the government’s pro-nuclear energy policy, or protesting collective self-defense and the state secrets law that went into effect late last year.

In the case of the Henoko protesters, the Public Security Intelligence Agency says “Japan Communist Party … members and other anti-base activists from around the country are being dispatched to the Henoko area to engage in protests against the new facility.” The agency also says the Japan Communist Party mobilized supporters to assist two anti-base candidates in local elections last year: Susumu Inamine won the January 2014 Nago mayoral election, while Takashi Onaga won the November gubernatorial election running on anti-base platforms.

Over three pages, the Public Security Intelligence Agency claimed “extremist” groups were cooperating with overseas organizations to criticize the government’s position on the comfort women issue, and that the Japan Communist Party was involved in anti-nuclear demonstrations in Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, and in front of the Diet and the prime minister’s office. It further added that extremist groups were infiltrating anti-nuclear demonstrations and passing out flyers that called for all nuclear reactors to be decommissioned.

Two pages were devoted solely to the Japan Communist Party’s leadership and membership, and its criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government. The Public Security Intelligence Agency said the Japan Communist Party’s total membership is around 305,000, down from 410,000 back in 2010, while the average age of all members was 57 years old, up from 55.7 years old five years earlier.

By contrast, only 2½ of the report’s 75 pages were devoted to right-wing groups. The agency said right-wing groups had been involved in protests over the Senaku Islands, had called for the retraction of the Kono Statement on comfort women and had used the Asahi Shimbun’s apology in August over a story on wartime forced prostitutes as an opportunity to conduct protests at the newspaper’s branches nationwide.

There was no mention, by name, in the Public Security Intelligence Agency report of Zaitokukai, merely of a “right-wing-affiliated group” that made racist remarks. However, a separate report put out by the National Policy Agency earlier this month mentioned Zaitokukai by name and noted that 1,654 members of right-wing groups were charged with breaking the law in 2014. This included 291 people who were charged with extortion, although many charges were for traffic-related violations.

If the police and Public Security Intelligence Agency have their own ideas on what constitutes a threat to the security, or at least the security of the state and status quo, the public has shown signs of being more worried about security issues that are far more personal, even as they generally appear to be inclined to believe that despite various dangers, Japan remains, largely, a safe country.

A Cabinet Office survey in August 2012 on public safety of about 2,000 people nationwide showed nearly 60 percent of respondents thought Japan was either a safe or a fairly safe country. Only 14 percent said it wasn’t safe, with the remainder in between.

Yet 81 percent of respondents also felt that things had gotten worse between 2006, when the previous survey was conducted, and 2012. The main reasons given for their feeling life wasn’t as good as it used to be included a lack of community spirit, a worsening economy, and the proliferation of easily accessible information, including private information.

One bright spot was that, despite years of official bureaucratic and right-wing political warnings about the dangers of foreign crime, only 28 percent of respondents in 2012 cited this as a reason for what they felt was a worsening security environment. This is down from the 55 percent who cited it as a major reason for their unease in the 2006 survey.

Big brother and safety first

Beefed-up security, technical measures such as surveillance cameras, and administrative reforms under the 2004 law designed to increase inter-agency cooperation, local-national government communications and an effective response to a domestic security threat have been introduced over the past two decades with relatively little public criticism. However, that was not the case with the extremely controversial state secrets law.

Among other things, the law attempts to promote increased police monitoring of whomever the government deems a potential threat by making secret materials or plans to prevent “designated harmful activities.” What’s a “designated harmful activity”? That’s the first of many questions as yet unanswered.

It’s the same with measures designed to prevent “terrorism,” an ill-defined legal concept, and critics of the law have warned that, under the pretext of “security,” Japan will see more police monitoring of any individual or group the state deems to be a threat.

Last July, a lawyers’ group for victims of police investigations of Muslims submitted a report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on systemic surveillance and profiling of Muslims. In 2010, a report leaked on the Internet showed police collected and stored detailed personal information on Muslims in Japan. Seventeen victims sued the Metropolitan Police Department and the National Policy Agency over the issue.

In January 2014, Tokyo District Court ordered the metropolitan police to pay for violating the plaintiffs’ privacy by leaking personal data. However, the court also said police information gathering activities on Muslims in Japan constituted “necessary and inevitable measures for the prevention of international terrorism.”

The case is being appealed in the Tokyo High Court, but the initial ruling came down well before Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto were captured and executed by Islamic State militants earlier this year. Given the public shock and political reaction to those killings, extreme security measures of questionable legality are cause for worry, says Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Meiji University.

“Despite the fact that the police had no evidence of illegal activities, the record shows they engaged in religious profiling of the Muslim community,” Repeta says. “Now that this intrusive police surveillance has been approved by the court, we should expect it to continue in coming years, as Japan hosts international events like next year’s Group of Seven conference and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.”

As the Public Security Intelligence Agency report shows, domestic anti-nuclear groups are being targeted. Susumu Murakoshi, president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, sent a warning on March 11 to Naoyoshi Takatsuna, superintendent-general of the Metropolitan Police Department regarding the arrest and subsequent release of a dozen anti-nuclear protesters in September 2011.

“There was at least one case of an inappropriate arrest and although 12 people were arrested, their subsequent detainment and lack of an indictment creates doubts about the legality of the arrest,” Murakoshi said in a written statement.

In the meantime, as international headlines about the Islamic State group, violence in the Middle East, and the safety of Japanese citizens in and out of Japan continue, it’s likely that more changes will be coming, and that certain responses will be more technical in nature. There is talk in some quarters about the need to install bomb detection devices in shinkansen stations prior to the 2020 Olympics, which is starting to look like a huge windfall to law enforcement officials seeking to expand their budgets for training and personnel, and to private firms involved in security technology.

The changes of the past two decades in the domestic and international security environment, the increased concentration of people in a few areas of the country (more than half of all Japanese now live in Kanto, Chubu or Kansai) and an aging population have all contributed to an increased desire for safety, stability and security.

The 1995 Aum sarin gas attack was a reminder that, while by many indicators Japan is indeed a very safe country, it was not free of security risks, even as it also asked, and continues to ask 20 years later, what price a society is willing, and able, to pay to feel that the risk has been reduced to the lowest possible level. Among the country’s fossil fuel and nuclear power advocates, “safe,” “stable” and “secure” are the foundation upon which energy policy decisions are made. But, arguably, those three words also sum up the larger political, bureaucratic and public attitudes in Japan over the past 20 years toward public security measures.Recent events overseas involving militants are pushing the country to question whether or not it has sufficient policies in place to prevent an attack on home soil

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