Last month, I spent a fortnight conducting field research on counterterrorism in Japan. Because East Asia is often overlooked in terms of terrorism analysis (even Southeast Asia garners scant attention from but a small handful of scholars, analysts and commentators), I felt and continue to feel compelled to learn from the Japanese counterterrorism experience. Learning from like-minded liberal democracies (including the United Kingdom and Israel) benefits U.S. national security as well as the broader international security community. The focus of my efforts, thus, was to comprehend how the Japanese government counters terrorism – particularly its culture, system and methods. This is the first in a three-part series.

In his 1993 influential article (later published in book format), the late Samuel Huntington raised the specter of a clash of civilizations (it was originally a question, not an assertion). Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Huntington’s thesis was ostensibly proven correct. The Western civilization was attacked by the Islamic civilization, causing our current international security environment.

I bring this up because, of the seven or so civilizations mentioned by Huntington, the Japanese civilization stood out to me. How could it be that a geographically small country with about 127 million people (and declining) possessed its own civilization? And to what extent did this mean that the Japanese civilization dealt with security threats in its own unique manner, that is, its own strategic culture? Though this is not the forum to discuss in depth Japanese strategic culture, or the lack thereof (which requires a book, or at least a scholarly journal article, to begin with), this space does afford me the opportunity to discuss the Japanese cultural perception of terrorism as a national security threat.

The history of terrorism in Japan allows us to understand better the Japanese cultural view of terrorism, or so it would seem. Well before September 2001, Japan experienced attacks of various sorts that were labeled terrorism. These comprised, initially, left-wing student radicals inspired by worldwide communism from the 1960s onward. The students organized and protested violently against the U.S.-Japan security alliance and U.S. bases in Japan (which are still targets of protest). They also protested rising student fees, the construction of Narita International Airport (which I flew into, conveniently) and other evil expressions of capitalism.

Out of these left-wing student groups emerged a most infamous organization, the Japanese Red Army (Nihon Sekigun), whose members conducted terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East. (The Japanese Red Army must not be confused with the Red Army, Sekigun-ha, or the United Red Army, Rengo Sekigun, which was formed after elements of the Red Army merged with members of the Keihin Anti-Treaty Joint Struggle group, Keihin Ampo Kyoto.) Often forgotten, Japanese citizens actually joined the Palestinian struggle for independence, viewing their actions within the overall framework of communist revolution against global capitalism.

Alongside these left-wing terrorists were right-wing nationalist elements which caught (and continue to catch) the attention of the Japanese government. Though much less has been written about them, right-wing extremists protested and used violence in support of nationalistic and patriotic causes, at times targeting specific individuals or organizations that disgraced the Emperor or Japan’s imperial past.

In light of this summer’s tensions between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea, right-wing groups may once again gain in prominence. Outside of these politically motivated groups, the group that Americans may be familiar with is, of course, Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth, roughly translated). Aum, motivated by apocalyptic quasi-Buddhist views, conducted the most blatant act of terrorism in Japan to date – the March 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, which killed twelve and wounded over 5,000.

In fact, it was later learned that Aum had used chemical and biological weapons in previous terrorist attacks, and, perhaps more astonishing, the group had amassed a fortune in the hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars with an international presence in places like Germany, Sri Lanka, Russia and the United States.

All of these Japanese experiences of terrorism and the concomitant efforts to counter them (to be discussed in parts II and II) suggest that Japan knows what terrorism is and considers it a threat to national security. To be sure, the select government officials, academics and researchers I met last month in the Kanto area (Tokyo and Yokohama) certainly did. Yet they all, without fail, stated that terrorism is not high on the threat spectrum in Japan. In fact, terrorism is somewhere between low and “very low,” whereas the aging population and natural disasters are high, with North Korea somewhere below them.

Though I was not completely shocked, the explanation for Japan’s low threat perception of terrorism is revealing for us in the United States. While no liberal democratic society will be in agreement on a definition of terrorism or the so-called root causes of terrorism, the Japanese view of the terrorist threat is seemingly ephemeral – and largely influenced by public opinion. The cultural view of terrorism in Japan, therefore, holds important lessons for U.S. policymakers and analysts: Be wary of the influence of public opinion in matters of security, and do not treat terrorism as something fleeting.