When an escaped zebra was chased down by police in Gifu Prefecture last month and died after being shot with a tranquilizer and falling into a pool, I couldn’t help but think of the drills Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo has conducted depicting the escape scenario.

Why did Ueno Zoo use a zebra? Zoo worker Yumi Tamura told reporters that a zebra panics easily. I bet the Gifu police didn’t know that.

Having no practical experience in an emergency situation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there are certain advantages to having had some. Perhaps the Gifu police could have saved the zebra if they had the zoo keepers’ knowledge and experience, but 20/20 hindsight is of little help in safeguarding either animals or a nation.

“To understand Japan’s counterterrorism response forces you have to first understand that prevention is the aim,” says James Simpson, a freelance defense journalist who is well-informed on Japanese security issues. “Stop foreign terrorists at the border and you can save yourself a lot of trouble.”

Thus, biometric screening and vigilant gatekeepers at designated points of entry to the nation are the first line of defense.

However, if someone slips through the net and finds another point of entry, or the terrorist threat is a homegrown one, Simpson says the National Police Agency and the Public Security Intelligence Agency are the intelligence-gathering agencies tasked with preventing terrorist attacks in Japan.

“The PSIA in particular has a bad reputation from years of being seemingly unable to catch Aum Shinrikyo members linked to the 1995 Tokyo Sarin attacks,” Simpson says, “but that reputation hides a wealth of experience in breaking apart a domestic terrorist threat, as well as handling militant leftists and North Korea’s proxies in the country.”

Although both the NPA and PSIA have extensive ties to police and intelligence networks around the world, Simpson questions “the extent of their human intelligence network in the case of a threat by non-Japanese residents” such as an attack linked to the Islamic State group.

If there is a terrorist attack, Japan has an array of well-trained units (both in the SDF and police) geared toward counterterrorism. However, in the event of a terrorist attack on Japanese soil, the SDF’s role would be to support civilian authorities.

“For example, if a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) attack occurred in the Tokyo area,” Simpson says, “the SDF’s Central Readiness Force would be asked to help alongside the fire service’s NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) response team, but we would never see the SDF deploying like the British SAS (Special Air Service) or French GIGN (National Gendarmerie Intervention Group).”

Under Japanese regulations, the local police and the National Police Agency would be in charge or, if at sea, then the Coast Guard.

“The Coast Guard’s Special Security Team is quite probably the best trained thanks to its strong ties with the MSDF’s Special Boarding Unit and foreign navies,” Simpson says. “Members have been sent on Japan’s anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and have spent a significant amount of time cross-training internationally with the U.S. Navy in particular.”

While Japan’s police teams are well-trained and disciplined, they operate in a very low-threat environment compared to other countries.

“How many times have you heard of a SWAT-like response in Japan?” Simpson asks. “The police’s Special Assault Teams — Japan’s direct counterpart to foreign counterterrorism paramilitary units — do have a fairly strong record when put to use. They train with their military counterparts (the Special Forces Group at GSDF Camp Narashino) and have a history of training with foreign antiterrorism forces (notably in the United States).”

Once the immediate threat is dealt with, the manhunt would begin. Again, the NPA and PSIA would be the key players in this scenario, but Simpson says the biggest wildcard is the Special Forces Group.

“The extent of their operations is largely unknown due to the Defense Ministry’s unwillingness to discuss their work, but they have been tasked with a domestic counterterrorism mission and do have extensive foreign ties to U.S. special forces.” However, he says, “it is extremely unlikely an SDF member will ever be allowed to fire their weapon on Japanese soil. They would almost certainly be working with the police in an advisory role, but I cannot help but doubt claims that they would do a lot more.”

Overall, Japan has all the counterterrorism organelles or substructures typical of a modern security-focused state, and its counterterrorism infrastructure is well-disciplined and well-trained. Simpson, however, points out its lack of actual experience.

“I am skeptical as to how well they could handle a real destructive, violent incident, particularly of the kind we saw in Paris last year,” he says. “The different teams conduct a variety of public training displays and have cultivated impressive reputations, but a lot of these lack real substance. The people they hire are exceptional and the training is rigorous, but nothing beats real experience.”

The main difference is that “whereas other countries can rely on people with combat experience or high-threat armed response experience to create a team of seasoned professionals, this experience is very difficult to gain in a country with barely any gun violence. I would also question the extent to which Japanese counterterrorism exercises properly simulate a modern terrorist threat. They frequently seem to lack the rigor and a veneer of reality necessary to test first-responders.

“As Japan’s primary ally and as the home to the most seasoned and well-budgeted military and paramilitary forces in the world, the U.S. works very closely with Japan’s counterterrorism organelles. A lot of that support has been fostered during the Cold War as a way to protect U.S. military bases and personnel in Japan. It also largely occurs in secret and seemingly in small-scale liaisons.”

The greatest weakness is the poorly developed intelligence capabilities, which doesn’t necessarily mean spies.

“Holistic domestic counterterrorism operations require teams able to work alongside elements of the community who might not speak the national language,” Simpson says. “They have to identify sources of extremism and root them out, and that is particularly difficult if you cannot bring people onto your side. The Japanese police and PSIA need to build this capability to protect them from the kind of threats we are seeing in Europe — although Japan is far less susceptible to them thanks to strict immigration controls.”

The greatest strengths are discipline and rigorous training of terrorism response units, but the country’s immigration policies help keep threats at bay, and its peaceful foreign policy maintains goodwill toward the country.

“That is really the most simple way to protect an island nation,” Simpson says.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s foreign policy, however, has become more assertive and risky regarding the war on terrorism, while the fate of Japanese abducted by North Korean agents from the country’s coastline suggests that some threats can slip in and out undetected — a blind-spot that could be exploited.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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