Japan government strengthens measures against terrorist threats

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks down as he arrives at his official residence in Tokyo to speak to the press on February 1, 2015. A visibly upset Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to "never forgive terrorists" after the Islamic State group released a video purportedly showing the beheading of hostage Kenji Goto.

The recent hostage incident, in which Japanese citizens are believed to have been held and killed by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has posed a serious challenge to the government regarding how to protect Japanese nationals from international terrorism.

While the government has tightened security at Japanese embassies and other facilities around the world, it also plans to strengthen measures to prevent terrorists from entering Japan.

Terror alert crosses continents

"We feel the greatest sorrow and profound grief that the lives of the two Japanese nationals were lost. As a government, we will continue to take all possible measures against terrorism and to ensure the safety of Japanese nationals abroad."

With the recent hostage incident in mind, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke at the House of Councillors Budget Committee on Monday, emphasizing that the government would make every possible effort to ensure the safety of Japanese citizens at home and abroad.

In response, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced the same day a plan to form a study team - chaired by Kazuyuki Nakane, a parliamentary vice foreign minister - within the Foreign Ministry to discuss safety measures for Japanese nationals living overseas or traveling abroad.

Since the hostage incident came to light on Jan. 20, the government has instructed all Japanese diplomatic missions overseas to share security information and strengthen patrols around Japanese schools, while raising alert levels. As ISIL warned of terrorist attacks targeting Japanese citizens in a video released Sunday, the government again instructed them to thoroughly implement these measures.

Amid such circumstances, the Japanese Embassy in Jordan assembled a security measures liaison council gathering officials from Japanese companies and Japanese schools in countries neighbouring Syria, where the hostage incident took place, and urged them to remain vigilant. The Japanese Embassy in Turkey also sent an alert e-mail to Japanese nationals living in the country.

As of October 2013, there were 303 Japanese citizens in Jordan and 1,851 in Turkey.

However, as ISIL made threats in the video saying, "This knife ... will also carry on and cause carnage wherever your people are found," the government has extended its full alert for terrorist attacks not only across the Middle East and Africa, where extremist groups sympathetic to ISIL are most active, but also in the United States, Europe and Asia.

ISIL employs a strategy of sending messages all over the world in multiple languages via the Internet, and having individuals commit terrorist attacks in their own countries.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said, "The statement by ISIL of 'wherever your people are found' is not just a bluff," and the government has shown an increasing sense of caution.

Independent travel poses risk

From the viewpoint of protecting Japanese citizens, the government is struggling most on dealing with cases in which Japanese citizens go to areas of conflict, or regions prone to terrorist attacks, of their own will, like Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, both of whom appear to have been murdered by ISIL in the recent hostage incident.

The Foreign Ministry issues travel advisories, or information on security risks, about respective destinations by categorizing them into four levels of risk, based on the security situation and other factors. The risk levels are travel caution, recommendation to reconsider travel, recommendation to defer all travel, and evacuation advice for all residents.

For Syria, where a civil war has intensified, the ministry issued an "evacuation advisory" - the highest among the four levels - in April 2011. However, Article 22 of the Constitution stipulates that every person shall have freedom to choose and change his residence, and as the article also stipulates freedom to move to a foreign country - which is considered to include freedom of travel - it is impossible for the government to forcibly restrict overseas trips even if the destinations are considered to be dangerous. In October, the ministry asked Goto not to enter Syria a number of times. He reportedly did not accept the request.

The Passport Law allows relevant authorities to order the owner of a passport to surrender it in order to protect his or her life, body or property. As it also could be applied to people who are traveling to safe countries, the provision has never yet actually been applied. When the ministry is aware of people planning to travel to dangerous zones, it usually requests that they cancel the trip.

However, a high-ranking government official said, "In some cases, people enter dangerous zones via a third country, so there are limitations for the government in handling such situations."

Strategy for tourism dilemma for border control

Among its counterterrorism measures, the government places priority on border control to block the entry of terrorists to Japan.

The Justice Ministry instructed regional immigration bureaus nationwide on Sunday to strictly implement immigration control at airports and ports, requesting them again to thoroughly implement the same order the ministry issued on Jan. 20, when the hostage crisis first surfaced.

About 12,000 foreign nationals enter Japan through immigration control at Narita Airport every day, and there reportedly have been no problems since the controls were tightened.

The immigration control system was changed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Since 2007, it has become mandatory for foreign nationals 16 or older to be fingerprinted and have their photos taken. When a person is suspected of being a terrorist after checking a blacklist - a database of people recognised as being terrorists - the person will be refused entry into Japan.

However, there is a problem with this border control policy.

As a pillar of its growth strategy, the government wants to increase the annual number of foreign visitors to 20 million by 2020 when the Tokyo Olympics are held, up 50 per cent from the 2014 figure.

To realise this goal, the government eased requirements for visas for visitors from such countries as India, Indonesia and the Philippines from July last year.

"More people entering Japan means a higher risk" of terrorists slipping through, a Justice Ministry senior official said. "The pressure on immigration officers will increase greatly."

To reinforce border controls, the ministry endeavours to collect information on terrorists in cooperation with the National Police Agency, and others. The ministry also plans to work on nurturing experts to try to detect forged passports made in Southeast Asian countries and other nations.

On Monday, the government held a bureau chief-level meeting concerning what measures to take against international terrorism and received reports about current measures.