When one thinks of Japan, popular American images that come to mind are affordable and reliable automobiles (I drive a Toyota Camry Hybrid), sophisticated electronics and gadgetry (I have an iPod nano), and, to those who have been there, the most advanced toilets in the world (you really have to experience them for yourself).

In short, a commonly held view of this island nation-state is one of extraordinarily advanced technological wonder – robots, Shinkansen (bullet trains) and all. I will be the first to admit that these and other images ran through my mind on the direct flight from LAX to Narita; I wondered how such mastery of machines translated to countering terrorism in Japan. In my first meeting in the heart of Tokyo, my fantasies and preconceived notions were thoroughly dispelled.

The Japan Science and Technology Agency’s Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society (RISTEX) sounds about as innocuous and typically “Japanese” as any bureaucratic organization. Yet, as it turned out, I may have learned more at this initial meeting than I learned during my entire fortnight in the land of the “Rising Sun.”

I was early to RISTEX and sat in a modern yet simplistic meeting room, nondescript blue-gray carpet and walls with light-beige built-in shelving. The unusually hot September morning caused difficulties for foreigners and locals alike. As it turned out, my interviewee was delayed not because of the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway (which would be unusual, indeed) but because of his normal walk, a forty minute jaunt, as opposed to the fifteen-minute ride underground. Counterterrorism in Japan, as it turns out, is more akin to the sweaty forty-minute walk than the efficient Tokyo subway system.

In my discussions at RISTEX, as well as the National Police Agency (NPA) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), I learned that the traditional counterterrorism approach in Japan involves encirclement, monitoring and observation, as needed. While advanced technological tools are undoubtedly used, the Japanese focus on the traditional craft of counter-espionage and counter-intelligence in their counterterrorism operations, relying on human intelligence (HUMINT) as opposed to technical intelligence.

The focus on HUMINT and first-line-of-defense reveals the Japanese tendency toward prevention, especially through border control (i.e., garrisoning), in countering terrorism. Over the past fifty years, Japan has developed tactically proficient human methods of counterterrorism, so much so that Japan shares its techniques with others across East Asia (e.g., seminars with Southeast Asian security agencies). Rather than relying on high-tech solutions, Japanese counterterrorism as it turns out places much emphasis on the human element.

Yet, considering the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in 1995 and left-wing terrorist incidents during the Cold War, Japan’s history of counterterrorism may be criticized as decidedly deficient. Strategically, as I learned during my meetings in Tokyo, Japanese counterterrorism is sorely lacking. The decidedly non-security oriented society may be one impediment; higher education in the topics of national security and strategy as well as study of potential regions of the world of concern such as the Middle East and Africa is deficient. Moreover, the legal framework for countering terrorism is absent and even constraining (terrorists have fundamental human rights, for example). Certain security lapses have not resulted in meaningful punishments and wiretapping remains severely circumscribed for countering terrorists. What does this all mean for counterterrorism in Japan?

Like most, if not all, liberal democratic nation-states, Japan’s policy of counterterrorism is reactive and passive. Japanese counterterrorism tends towards so-called consequence management, which was performed admirably after the 1995 Aum attacks. Trying to prevent the initial entry of potential terrorists into Japan is also a key focus of counterterrorism. These emphases, border control and consequence management, would appear to account for the fundamental nature of terrorism, which is ultimately a duel between state and non-state actors.

Terrorists seek to strike, when and where physically able. Preventing their entry and, failing that, being ready to respond, would seem like sensible counterterrorism solutions. Yet, the long-term, political nature of terrorism should inform us that understanding terrorism remains paramount to countering it. And understanding terrorism requires deep and intimate knowledge of terrorists’ motivations, intentions and capabilities. Terrorists understand violence and its consequences. The message that passive counterterrorism measures (like border control) sends to terrorists, however, is counterproductive in Japan and elsewhere.

Japan has experienced terrorism in its various forms for several decades now; and the Japanese have participated in terrorism internationally. Yet, Japan’s measures to counter terrorism remain short on the strategic level. Ostensibly safe and secure, Japan has much to learn, and it will do so in due course. Though remarkably different from the United States, Japan’s experience attempting to counter terrorism nevertheless remains informative to other democratic nation-states. The focus on the human element of counterterrorism is particularly useful, especially to America, which has a propensity to look for technological solutions to national security challenges.

As international terrorists continue to threaten liberal democracies like Japan and the United States, it is necessary to continually enhance and modify border control measures as well as immigration policies for countering terrorism. Likewise is there an imperative to understand better how cyberspace and unconventional weapons (especially chemical and biological weapons) may be used by terrorists, who remains thinking and adaptive. Yet, for all the techno-imagery that Japan conjures up in the mind, the most important lesson learned during my research trip to Japan – and one of enduring value – is that effective counterterrorism begins and ends with the human beings involved; the United States would be well-advised to remember this.