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Crowds cross the street in Shibuya, a popular area of Tokyo, on Tuesday.
Crowds cross the street in Shibuya, a popular area of Tokyo, on Tuesday. (Seth Robson / S&S)

TOKYO — Accustomed to tremors beneath the earth, Japan’s residents were shaken a bit last week by fresh threats from the al-Qaida terrorist network promising new homicide attacks against countries supporting the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

The warning surfaced as Japan, among the first to back the U.S.-led war, continued deliberating whether to send a small contingent of peacekeepers to help with reconstruction efforts.

While U.S. and Japanese officials haven’t exactly pushed the panic button, they plan to remain vigilant.

But with the series of recent explosions targeting Turkey, which has offered troops for Iraq, authorities are monitoring the situation in Japan more closely.

The threats have raised significant questions:

Just how safe are Americans living in Japan?

And what’s the likelihood al-Qaida would strike at the heart of Tokyo, one of the planet’s largest cities with a population of more than 12 million people?

“It’s serious, no doubt,” says Ellis Krauss, an expert on Japanese politics and U.S.-Japan relations and a professor at University of California-San Diego’s Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.

“Given [al-Qaida’s] track record elsewhere, the threats have to be taken very seriously.”

Business as usual

Col. Victor Warzinski, a U.S. Forces Japan spokesman, said officials are aware of the recent al-Qaida threats to allies, including Japan.

“Each week, we do a threat-analysis working group meeting where we consider a range of factors and current events,” he said. “We did discuss that subject, and we also regularly assess security and deal with it accordingly.

“We’re already taking prudent security measures at each of our installations.”

Senior Master Sgt. Sadie Knight, 42, a member of the 374th Medical Group at Yokota Air Base, Japan, said she isn’t frightened by recent acts of terrorism around the world.

“I’ve only been here a month, and I feel safe,” she said. “I’m here to do a job, and that’s my focus.”

Warzinski would not say whether security on U.S. bases in Japan was tightened in the wake of al-Qaida’s renewed threats against Japan, the United States’ closest Asian ally.

“Theaterwide, across the Pacific, we’re in a somewhat higher state of alert in view of a number of circumstances around the world,” he said. “We continually assess and evaluate our security concerns and measures.”

No special precautions are being taken on Okinawa, either.

Okinawa police say they have not increased patrols in areas near U.S. military bases.

In addition, the National Police Agency — which dispatched hundreds of extra officers to the island to help guard base gates and patrol the outer perimeters after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States and earlier this year prior to the war in Iraq — has no plans to send additional police to Okinawa in light of the new threat.

Although U.S. military officials were reluctant to discuss current force-protection measures, security at gates to U.S. bases on Okinawa appears unchanged.

“Maintaining the safety of our personnel and the security of our bases has been and will continue to be a top priority,” Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Chris Perrine said. “Commanders continually assess the situation and adjust to maintain the appropriate level of security at all of our facilities.

“While it would be inappropriate to discuss the specifics of our security posture and procedures, we maintain excellent communications with local, federal and host nation law enforcement agencies to ensure protection for our bases.”

On Friday, Americans on Camp Foster had mixed feelings about Okinawa’s safety, although caution is always stressed.

“I feel that no one should ever let their guard down or feel too comfortable or safe,” said Michelle Whitehead, facility manager for The Spot, a Marine Corps Community Services mall. “No matter where you are in the world, you can’t feel 100 percent safe. They can attack anywhere.”

Marine Staff Sgt. Duwayne Reuben, who works at Mess Hall 488, said he’d feel safer if security at base gates was fortified.

“I think security is good, but it’s kind of [relaxed],” he said. “It’s not too hard to get on base during the day, and you see people all the time walking around unescorted.”

He suggested Marine gate guards check the identification of all car occupants — like they do at Kadena Air Base — instead of routinely passing through cars with valid base stickers on their windshields.

Reuben said the terrorism threat does make him a bit more nervous, especially after Thursday’s twin bombings in Turkey.

“You never know, there could be a bomb waiting to go off in this car,” he said, pointing at a passing vehicle.

No stranger to attacks

While most Japanese citizens take pride in a relatively peaceful, crime-free society, the country hasn’t been insulated from terrorism.

The Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult’s 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000. The incident occurred at the peak of the Monday morning rush hour in one of the world’s busiest commuter systems.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations Web site, witnesses said subway entrances resembled battlefields as injured commuters lay gasping on the ground with blood gushing from their noses or mouths.

Japan also lost 24 citizens in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, which led the country to quickly cooperate in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. But that support, experts say, makes Japan more vulnerable in the world’s current climate.

“With fights against terrorism, any leading country could be a terrorist target,” said Toshiyuki Shikata, a former lieutenant general in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force who’s now a professor at Teikyo University in Tokyo, specializing in defense, security and crisis-management issues. “Japan can be a target as long as it said it will fight terrorism, just like Great Britain and others.”

At this point in the terrorist crackdown, Japan has primarily involved itself by sharing intelligence, providing logistical and economic aid, and cutting off the flow of any terrorist funds that might be moving through the country.

Shikata doesn’t believe the recent al-Qaida threats will dissuade Japan from sending troops to Iraq.

“It will not give up just because there was a warning,” he said. “This is a challenge, but as a leading country, Japan needs to share the risk in eliminating terrorism.”

As for potential targets in Tokyo?

“Probably places that either have a high concentration of Americans, especially military, or those that are highly symbolic targets,” Krauss said. “Thus, that would be the New Sanno Hotel, areas near U.S. military bases or facilities, or major U.S. company headquarters in Tokyo, just as al-Qaida struck British company areas in Istanbul [Friday] morning.”

Americans living anywhere al- Qaida threatens are always at risk, Krauss added.

Shikata agrees, saying people should be cautious in places frequented by large numbers of Americans, including establishments in Roppongi.

Stronger border

Most foreign policy experts believe that Japan’s status as an island nation enhances its security.

“It’s a smaller island country the size of California, with much better immigration and border control than the U.S., for sure,” Krauss said. “It is very difficult to be anonymous if you are a foreigner in Japan, so people from other countries linked to al-Qaida can’t blend into the population and then easily come out from under their rocks when they want to. They probably have much better domestic intelligence than the U.S. in some ways, too.”

Still, the latest al-Qaida threats are likely to trigger a renewed sense of purpose at the border, according to Shikata.

“They will tighten security of people coming and leaving the country, tighten security in Tokyo and with people that entered illegally,” he said.

During the economic boom of the 1980s, Japan allowed thousands of illegal immigrant workers, including many from Middle Eastern countries, into the country because of widespread openings in manual labor jobs, Krauss said.

“They’ve been cracking down on this in the last decade since the bubble burst, but how many undocumented, especially Middle Eastern, illegal aliens are still in Japan?” Krauss said. “Let’s hope the police do.”

Another point of concern can be traced to some domestic Japanese groups that may have incentives to link up with al-Qaida, either for ideological reasons — such as the radical left — or for financial considerations, such as organized criminal groups like the Yakuza.

“It would be difficult for an al-Qaida operative to enter Japan from outside,” Krauss said. “So, one of the above who are already here probably pose the greatest threat.”

Attack consequences

Any terrorist attack in Japan today would result in one of two things, according to Krauss.

“It would either make Japan even more hesitant to send troops [to Iraq], or it would make the Japanese rally around in anger,” he said.

Krauss doesn’t think the recent threats will have an impact on whether Japan reconsiders committing peacekeepers to Iraq. Political forces at home are likely to weigh more heavily in that decision.

The Japanese, like most Europeans, were opposed to the U.S. invasion and have little direct interest in Iraq, Krauss said. A deteriorating security situation in the southern part of the country is also a major concern.

An attack at the heart of Tokyo probably wouldn’t influence the Japanese position on a troop deployment, he added.

“If I were the Bush administration, I wouldn’t expect any real military help from Japan in Iraq,” Krauss said.

“They weren’t really ever intending to send troops for combat or other dangerous duties anyway. There probably won’t even be a lot of symbolic help, other than verbal support.”

But Japan has already supported military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with money and refueling efforts in the Arabian Sea. Its strong alliance with the United States makes it a perpetual target for terrorists.

“There can’t be a way that only Japan would be safe,” Shikata said.

— Jennifer H. Svan, David Allen, Fred Zimmerman and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

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