The Japanese Response to Terrorism

Lessons from Japan’s response to Aum Shinrikyo:

Yet what’s as remarkable as Aum’s potential for mayhem is how little of it, on balance, they actually caused. Don’t misunderstand me: Aum’s crimes were horrific, not merely the terrible subway gassing but their long history of murder, intimidation, extortion, fraud, and exploitation. What they did was unforgivable, and the human cost, devastating. But at no point did Aum Shinrikyo represent an existential threat to Japan or its people. The death toll of Aum was several dozen; again, a terrible human cost, but not an existential threat. At no time was the territorial integrity of Japan threatened. At no time was the operational integrity of the Japanese government threatened. At no time was the day-to-day operation of the Japanese economy meaningfully threatened. The threat to the average Japanese citizen was effectively nil.

Just as important was what the Japanese government and people did not do. They didn’t panic. They didn’t make sweeping changes to their way of life. They didn’t implement a vast system of domestic surveillance. They didn’t suspend basic civil rights. They didn’t begin to capture, torture, and kill without due process. They didn’t, in other words, allow themselves to be terrorized. Instead, they addressed the threat. They investigated and arrested the cult’s leadership. They tried them in civilian courts and earned convictions through due process. They buried their dead. They mourned. And they moved on. In every sense, it was a rational, adult, mature response to a terrible terrorist act, one that remained largely in keeping with liberal democratic ideals.

Posted on June 21, 2013 at 6:25 AM26 Comments


JE June 21, 2013 7:04 AM

This will probably cause lively debate. It could be argued that the Japanese didn’t need to introduce draconian domestic surveillance measures because they were most likely already in place. Of course, they were probably focused on the wrong things, like the remains of the labour movement, etc. Meanwhile the radical right, and nutty religious groups are studiously ignored.

Brad Hicks (@jbradhicks) June 21, 2013 7:58 AM

Do you think that maybe Japan’s refusal to be terrorized by Aum Shinrikyo has something to do with why it inspired fewer followers and copycats than al Qaeda has? Do you think that if Japan had freaked out for a decade about the subway attack, there would still be self-proclaimed Aum Shinrikyo “terror cells” and lone terrorists trying to attack around the world? It seems plausible.

Forgive me if I say this too often, but within hours of the 9/11 attacks, I was running around telling people that Americans, collectively, were going to decide over those first couple of days which response predominated: anger, or fear. And I begged my friends, and anybody else who would listen, to be angry. Because nobody ever made an intelligent decision while scared. Instead (probably because we were governed by an entire government full of chicken hawks) we chose fear, and, in my mind, that explains everything that has gone wrong with counter-terrorism since.

Jack June 21, 2013 8:08 AM

Noble, reasonable response with their hearts in check.

Granted, we did not know in the US what the reactions of the Government were to terrorism. We were deeply lied to, and I think, there is strong evidence we are still being lied to.

Not sure what that is. Are they hypnotized? Brainwashed? They are really good liars. I mean, the intel leaders come off as stiff as corpses, dead eyed like snakes. But, the politicians, the liberal ones anyway, come off like halo headed, puff cloud walking liberals full of mercy and good will. While lying relentlessly and doing all of this super dark stuff.

Scary stuff.

hoodathunkit June 21, 2013 8:24 AM

Japan is a different culture than the west, and doesn’t support civil liberties Americans expect. The Japanese people value adherence to societal values; they value their culture.

Japanese police have always been more intrusive than ours. They routinely inspect people’s homes, question people about minor behavior, and ‘spy’ on anti-social activities. Japanese cops are expected to have their finger on the pulse of their neighborhoods.

Criminal suspects don’t have the right to remain silent and may be kept awake a few days to be questioned. The ‘right to an attorney’ exists, but the attorney may may not interfere with interrogations or advise his client during that time.

In an odd juxtaposition, Japanese police don’t have the extensive ‘rules of engagement’ American cops have. This ranges from informing on kids to their parents, with advice about raising them, all the way up to the expedient of clubbing suspects unconscious during mass arrests.

Also on the flip side, although Japan keeps extensive records on citizens, it is locally generated and kept, and far more transparent than US surveillance.

Craig June 21, 2013 8:26 AM

One thing that I don’t think helps anyone to discuss these kinds of issues intelligently is the way writers constantly resort (perhaps they feel obliged to) to exaggerated emotional language. Aum’s death toll was “several dozen”, the writer tells us, and this was “devastating”, and their crimes “horrific”. Exaggerated emotional language encourages an exaggerated emotional response in the reader, so in a way the writer is acting against his own purpose here. Doesn’t he want us to think rationally about this? I understand that he doesn’t want to seem heartless either, but surely there is a middle ground between seeming completely unaffected and flippant, on the one hand, and this sort of borderline hysteria on the other.

Piddu June 21, 2013 8:27 AM

Aum crysis in Japan never became a mediatic and politic fair. Public interest was to end it, not to sell papers, go to talk shows, get contracts for security systems weapons and services, create lobbying groups, put politic enemies in bad light, escalate fight and related business…
That brings to a point: are terrorist always the primary threath in terms of overall cost of their crimes?

DecidedFenceSitter June 21, 2013 8:42 AM

And is this so different than earlier attacks that weren’t so dramatic? 1993 Twin Towers attack that killed 6 and injured more than a 1000; the 2000 USS Cole with 17 dead and 39 injured (though admittedly that was over there™ so may not count); the 1996 Olympic bombing (1 dead, 111 injured) (home grown); and Oklahoma City Bombing (168 dead, 680 injured) in 1995.

7 years and 4 attacks – all of which were responded to in ways that are similar to the Japanese response – barring the aforementioned cultural/legal differences noted previously.

The difference was the big outlier attack that has overstimulated the response system, to slip into a biology metaphor – the autoimmune system is eating itself alive because it has been overstimulated.

Seth June 21, 2013 8:59 AM

They didn’t, in other words, allow themselves to be terrorized

At that point in the ‘rant’ a more apt summary of the precedings qualifications would be

“They didn’t, in other words, stop being civilized.”

hoodathunkit June 21, 2013 9:56 AM

An overlooked point in this article’s comparison is how the Japanese took on Aum.

They investigated and found the group to be a threat, so stripped the designation of ‘religious organization’ from Asahara’s followers. (Splits since then have been evaluated individually, and some are ‘terrorist’ and some are ‘religious’) The original organization then became subject to organizational reporting and taxes, which led to seizures of records and property. That in turn led to an investigative bonanza, resulting in 13 sentenced to death, five life sentences, 80 prison terms, 80-odd suspended sentences, two fined, and one found not guilty. Aum still exists, but the religious splits have renounced violence. (Duh!)

In contrast, the West seems to concentrate with blinders on; focusing on the minutia of knives and ‘dangerous’ materials while ignoring groups who advocate violence. This leads to distributed hardship, where the entire population pays —direct and indirect costs— for the misdeeds or crimes of a few.

Rob June 21, 2013 9:58 AM

There was a theoretical opportunity for a powerful, essentially Christian response. Namely to spend a huge sum .. $10B .. more if needs be, on humanitarian aid such as bringing clean water and basic healthcare to millions of people, without the intent of direct political gain. Truly a ‘turn the other cheek’ response. In the first few days after 9/11 the US had tremendous sympathy world-wide, such an act would have cemented that in place for generations and at a fraction of the cost, never mind lives, of two wars. The USA would truly have been the pre-eminent world leader. Even Halliburton could have had a decent slice.

Of course it would never, ever happen. Which is why the opportunity was merely theoretical.

Michael Brady June 21, 2013 10:41 AM

In the days after September 11, 2001, I realized that our nation would respond, not just with anger or fear, but with a violent spasm of collective temporary insanity. That we did. Sadly our madness was not nearly so temporary as I had imagined. Already divided by our Culture Wars™, we let entities intent on accreting power or taking profits use anger and fear to turn us this way and that as needed. Here we are, 12 years along, Al Qaeda Classic has been essentially rubbed out yet there are more radical Islamists than ever. Here we are, more than a decade later, and the American electorate is split precisely down the middle, each side regarding its opposite as an alien, dangerous, Other. Mission Accomplished, somebody…

ENF June 21, 2013 11:40 AM

This made me think about Spain’s response to the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed almost 200 people. Being the first big terrorism act in Europe after 9/11 I thought all the american security theatre would land on the old continent. However, this did not happened due to this act.

Domestically speaking, the anger focused to a political target in the eve of a general election, which greatly helped to divert the attention from applying insane security measures. Furthermore, Spain has suffered on the last decades ETA’s domestic terrorism so we weren’t unaccostumied to bombings, although the magnitude of this act was several orders of magnitude higher than the deadliest ETA action against civils at Barcelona, killing 21 on 1987.

Abuot railway security itself, metal detectors and X-ray baggage scanners were already deployed for high speed trains and currenty are still only used for these. Also, railway photography was frowned upon before 2004 by private security agents, as was the months and years after and still is.

Airport security was eventually reinforced but due to the infamous pants bomber and equally across all Europe. Yes, people was more frightened the days after and police controls were more usual and exhaustive, but not so disruptive to daily life as the post-9/11 security is. Also, Schengen border controls with France, theorically forbidden but then routinely made by both countries, were as disruptive as usual. They were a PITA after 11-M, but as before and always.

We were somewhat lucky, either by the political controversy or because we’re already linivng in a police state. Lucky enough to carry on with our regular lives without great changes, not counting those who lost a loved one in the attack.

Kobaya June 21, 2013 11:46 AM

I second JE here. Japanese society and culture are vastly different from the West and the darker aspects, though numerous, are still widely ignored in the West, mainly due to the skewed, too positive image Japan still carries.
In a quasi-totalitarian, authoritan society with no checks and balances as Japan, there simply was no need for more surveillance or measures because people are supposed to give up most of their civil liberties like privacy anyway.
What’s more, even if there were measures being taken after the Sarin attacks, in Japan, this would be completely opaque to the public, and probably most of the government. If the need arises, Japan will simply bypass all democratic institutions (which can be said to exist merely as a facade to the outside world, anyway), and go ahead with drastic measures. Fukushima, money printing, and provoking its neighbours with no prior warning to its allies are just some examples.

jfw June 21, 2013 12:12 PM

Reminds me how the RAF terror was dealt with in the 70th in Germany: a) ignore their agenda b) prosecute their crimes as commited c) don’t exaggerate, no undue publicity – just give a sh*t. Refuse to be terrorized.

Works, also in western culture. Works for sure. Is known to work for sure.

Those who ignore this recipe should be ask what exactly they gain from supporting terror anyway.

HJohn June 21, 2013 1:38 PM

I agree that America responded irrationally to a horrific attack, one that was seemed an unfathomable due new low in the anals of human depravity. I don’t attribute this to nefarious motives or opportunism, rather a misguided belief that we could actually prevent without doing more harm. But as the old saying goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and the uses expanded to those never intended.

That said, this comparison to Japan is, to be frank, silly. First, as noted by another commenter, Japan already has a far more intrusive government than the USA. Second, and most obviously, “dozens” was defined as horrific, but what would they have done if it was “thousands” instead of dozens.

I have a feeling if 9/11 had been dozens, not thousands, our response would have been much more “rational” as the author put it.

I’m not justifying irrational responses, I’m simply saying that comparing “thousands” with “dozens” does not even remotely indicate how the USA and Japan would have responded if their death tolls would have been worse. Had the US had dozens and Japan thousands, I’m guessing we’d see a much different response.

fuchikoma June 21, 2013 2:26 PM

It varies though… more recently, countless events have been shut down or restricted due to threats being called in regarding a manga called “Kuroko’s Basketball.” They pretty much cave to the threats every single time, so they keep coming in, and keep controlling people.

twofish June 22, 2013 2:07 AM

The reaction among Chinese I know is interesting….

Most people think that the massive amount of spying that the US says that it needs is an irrational overreaction to terrorism.

Most Chinese I know are deeply cynical about the government, so their natural assumption is that the US government here in fact either has some hidden agenda (i.e. terrorism is an excuse to fight China) or else that it’s some irrational bureaucratic program that has spun out of control.

No one I know has gotten particularly outraged over the spying itself. The surprise is that most Americans and British didn’t think that their governments were doing this all of the time anyway.

There is quite a bit of outrage over spying against China. It’s not so much that the US is spying against China (that’s considered normal and even acceptable). It’s that the US got on a high horse against China spying against the US. Snowden has not revealed anything that most people in China didn’t assume was going on anyway, but he’s considered somewhat of a hero, because he revealed proof that it was being done. The fact that Snowden seems to have no connections with the Chinese government also increases his “street cred.”

jimux June 22, 2013 9:27 AM

These are very good points, but keep in mind that the US lost more than a few dozen citizens, and operational capability of the government was indeed damaged. We still shouldn’t have allowed ourselves to be terrorized and the reaction was far from proportional. But I don’t think the terrorism Japan faced could be in any way compared.

Jack June 22, 2013 12:13 PM

“There was a theoretical opportunity for a powerful, essentially Christian response. Namely to spend a huge sum .. $10B .. more if needs be, on humanitarian aid such as bringing clean water and basic healthcare to millions of people, without the intent of direct political gain. Truly a ‘turn the other cheek’ response. In the first few days after 9/11 the US had tremendous sympathy world-wide, such an act would have cemented that in place for generations and at a fraction of the cost, never mind lives, of two wars. The USA would truly have been the pre-eminent world leader. Even Halliburton could have had a decent slice.

Of course it would never, ever happen. Which is why the opportunity was merely theoretical.”

Rob, I believe the US always has the choice to turn around from its’ current course, and instead of feeding the insatiable “industrial-military complex” to deliver a powerful “sunshine policy” to the world.

You probably entertain this idea as well, as I think most would who entertain such considerations. Maybe it is simply too dismal to bat around without considering a more optimistic – if impossibly unlikely – alternative?

But, nothing is impossible, and there is a choice to avert the disasterous course they are forging for themselves:

Restructure the defense industry. Cut it out. Put all of those resources into global sunshine policies. Feed the poor. Find cures for cancer. Find alternative energy solutions. Put money into robotics. Invest in open, secure communications (the bane of cultic, totalitarian systems everywhere).

Forge true diplomatic initiatives of peace.


Allow the current inertia to continue, with the industrial-military complex into changing the world’s primary superpower into a totalitarian nightmare state that utterly controls not only its’ own citizenry but also all the other nations of the world through intrigue, sabotage, terrorism…

Because that is what they are in the process of building right now, though the engineers seem to be blind to the end result.

More global and local attacks -> more violent response by reactive forces -> more fear and patriotic jingoisim -> more intel control of corporations -> more corporate influence on intel -> intel & corporations work together against the people and politicians -> all of this feeds more seemingly legitimate needs for financing and priotization of threats.

The doctors are creating the viruses to not only remain in business but to expand their business.

The more dangerous, more spreading the virii they create, the bigger their industry can grow and the more money they, personally can have — at the expense of everyone else.

This is all an “oh duh” path the world is headed in.

Gnome Chompsky's Evil Twin June 22, 2013 3:24 PM


A SENSIBLE foreign policy? BAH! America will never be TRULY safe until cloning technology is sufficiently advanced that EVERY American shopping mall can have Chuck Norris guarding it with a souped-up pickup truck and a pair of UZIs.

Only then can we get down to REALLY grinding our boots into every skull on the planet.

deg June 23, 2013 9:47 AM

Perhaps it’s significant that the Tokyo subway attacks were domestic terrorism, while 9/11 etc. were perceived foreign terrorist attacks on the US. Maybe a more meaningful comparison would be between the Japanese response to Aum Shinrikyo and the US response to the Oklahoma bombings.

Nix June 24, 2013 6:42 PM

I can’t help noticing that the Japanese know what an actual existential threat is because they’re surrounded by one. Ten thousand or so people die every decade or two from earthquakes or the resulting tsunamis. Against that, a couple of dozen killed by human beings is just not worthy of panic. (And when the earthquakes and tsunamis strike — panic is also not what we see. Because this has been happening for the entire history of human occupation of the islands, and they know bone-deep that if they panic in those situations, they likely die.)

Jack June 26, 2013 11:57 PM

@Gnome Chompsky’s Evil Twin

Some suggestions the US government should take:

-> Killer drones that use human blood for fuel. Why bother with downtime?

-> Fifty foot tall robots that have some capacity for discriminating between civilian and soldier/cop.

-> Fast Jack: A gun designed to give people lobotomies. Lobotimized people can still work the fields and factories. A quick draw, fully automatic human drone making machine. Can’t be beat.

Pesky populations might sic journalists on you if you don’t.

-> Since laws aren’t an issue, why not get into the really hard core bioweapon scene? Blame it on the Russians.

-> Shoulder launched smart missiles that can make out red cross symbols, symbols for AP and Reuters.

In the meantime, for the survivors waiting for The Empire to crush the earth after they destroy the global currency markets:

-> Privacy Enhancing tool: It imprints “Don’t Shoot, I’M American’ on all packets in hopes the NSA will be fooled into not archiving their data.

-> Americans can hire out proxy servers for foreigners, to help them evade the crafty NSA slurping machine. Again, I like the name “don’t shoot, I’m American’.

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