TOKYO – Japan launched a new counterterrorism unit in an air of secrecy Tuesday, with journalists only allowed to photograph its 24 members from behind.
The country is expanding its international espionage work after being shocked by the deaths of five Japanese citizens at the hands of Islamic militants this year. The recent Paris attacks have also raised fears ahead of a Group of Seven summit in Japan next year and the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.
It's mostly uncharted territory for Japan, which has never suffered a terror attack by outsiders in its modern history.
"The country is inexperienced, and its counterterrorism capability is untested," said Motonobu Abekawa, a former official at the Public Security Intelligence Agency and a terrorism studies expert at Nihon University. "People have long thought terrorist attacks are a distant problem abroad."
Japan began exploring ways to boost public safety and intelligence after the Islamic State group killed two Japanese hostages in Syria early this year. An attack on tourists at a museum in Tunisia later claimed three more Japanese lives.
During the hostage crisis, Japan often appeared at a loss for quality intelligence. Japanese agents should develop their own sources so they don't have to rely on U.S. or British agents for information, Abekawa said.
"I hope eventually they can be counterparts of MI6 or the CIA," he said.
The new Counterterrorism Unit-Japan includes staff from the foreign and defense ministries, the National Police Agency and the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, Japan's version of the CIA.
Initially made up of four leaders and 20 Tokyo-based experts focusing on Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and north and western Africa, it eventually is to also include 20 intelligence officers assigned to overseas posts, possibly in Amman, Cairo, Jakarta and New Delhi.
News photographers covering the launch were told they couldn't show the faces of the team, only their backs, as they sat in rows of plastic chairs in the prime minister's office.
Japan has no institute to train intelligence agents, so they will have to learn on the job.
"Japan is still a novice in counterterrorism measures, and there are lots of blind spots," said Koichi Oizumi, an expert on risk management and terrorism at Aomori Chuo Gakuin University. "The biggest concern is intelligence gathering. There is a serious shortage of experts who can gather real intelligence and analyze it."
In its annual security report published Monday, the National Police Agency stressed the need to raise alert levels for next year's G-7 summit in western Japan because it could be "a perfect target" amid escalating extremist attacks in Europe and the Middle East.
Last month's Paris attacks prompted splashy stories about potential targets in Tokyo in weekly magazines. A "Tokyo terror target map" in one included a popular electronics district, an upscale shopping mall during the Christmas season and a major shrine.
Japan plans to obtain passenger information from airlines, install body scanners at major airports and step up identification of foreign visitors at hotels. A new police unit will search for Internet content related to extremist groups.
Some experts raised caution over the security measures, saying they could help the government exercise undue power over citizens and interfere with their freedom of information.
"There is a risk that the terrorist attacks in Europe will be used as an excuse by Japan's authoritarian lawmakers and police bureaucrats to expand their powers," said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political science professor at Hosei University. In an article he wrote in The Japan Times, he cited a 2010 leak of internal police documents showing false accusations against Muslim residents in Japan treated as terrorism suspects.
Japan's strict gun controls, the importance attached to conformity, its strict immigration policy and the language barrier may have made it difficult for Islamic extremists to take root in the country, Abekawa said. But extremist groups are now promoting a "lone wolf" strategy so they can be inconspicuous and anyone can produce homemade bombs with items sold at drugstores, he said.