In the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered relevant government organizations to step up their efforts to prevent terrorist attacks in Japan as the nation prepares to host the Group of Seven summit next year and the Summer Olympic Games in 2020. While it is crucial to beef up Japan’s defense against terrorist attacks, the government needs to take utmost care to ensure that any increase in surveillance and expansion of the tools of criminal investigation does not infringe on citizens’ privacy and freedoms.
At a meeting Tuesday of Cabinet ministers in charge of anti-terrorism measures, Abe emphasized that the prime minister’s office would serve as the headquarters to push forward necessary steps. His administration plans to strengthen the government’s capabilities for overseas intelligence gathering and protection of Japanese citizens abroad, and beef up security at home. A new unit was set up the same day at the Foreign Ministry to collect information about international terrorist activities, as was a council of senior bureaucrats from relevant ministries and agencies, headed by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kazuhiro Sugita, in the prime minister’s office.
The Foreign Ministry unit will comprise some 20 experts from the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the National Police Agency and other organizations. The staff will collect intelligence on an area-by-area basis — the Middle East, North and West Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia. The unit’s creation was planned following the murders of two Japanese hostages by the Islamic State extremist group in January and it was to be launched next April, but that date was moved up in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Apart from the new unit, about 20 government specialists with expert knowledge on particular regions will be assigned to Japanese embassies overseas to gather relevant information. The administration wants the information gathered by the unit and the specialists to reach the prime minister’s office without fail so it can be used to make vital decisions, including those aimed at protecting Japanese citizens abroad.
It will be important for the administration to tear down the walls between different government organizations to make sure that the collected intelligence is immediately shared by all relevant parties. It has often been pointed out that ministerial walls prevent information gathered by one part of the government from being shared with others. Unless this problem is overcome, efforts made by members of the new unit and the specialists assigned to the embassies will be wasted.
Training experts on terrorism and intelligence gathering is also an important issue. There is a pressing need to nurture experts who have deep knowledge of regional affairs and are well-versed in local languages, as has been advocated for many years.
Domestic steps to be taken in the anti-terrorism efforts will include the introduction of a facial recognition system for immigration control at ports of entry to prevent suspected terrorists from entering the country. Given the increasingly important economic role played by tourism and ongoing efforts to boost the number of inbound tourists, the government should ensure that the security measures do not impose excessive inconvenience on visitors from overseas.
The Paris attacks reminded us of the vulnerability of venues where vast numbers of people gather, such as stadiums and concert halls. Beefing up security in such places will be a particularly difficult challenge. To this end, the police will need the cooperation of the public and private-sector organizations, and steps should be taken to make sure that the protective measures do not place an unnecessary burden on citizens.
The NPA has instructed the police nationwide to keep close tabs on the activities of suspected sympathizers of extremist ideas. The government is again considering criminalizing the act of conspiring to commit certain categories of illegal activities, even if the crimes aren’t committed. Successive LDP-Komeito administrations tried three times in the past to enact such a legal amendment, but strong criticism both in the Diet and elsewhere that such a law would severely restrict people’s freedoms forced them to back down.
Also under consideration is an expansion of the scope of investigation authorities’ interception of electronic communications in criminal probes. The government should weigh the benefits of such steps in preventing terrorist acts against the risk that the steps could violate people’s civil and political rights, including the freedoms of thought, conscience, speech, expression and assembly.
While beefing up the security measures, the Abe administration should also avoid making diplomatic and political decisions that can be used by terrorist groups as excuses to justify attacks on Japan. The government should make diplomatic efforts to prevent the perception that Japan is acting in tandem with the United States and European powers that are waging war against the Islamic State radicals.