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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Q & A (July 4, 2002)

Japanese Perceptions and Reactions to Terrorism: Q & A

Steve McCarty (Professor, Kagawa Junior College, Japan)

Researchers at a U.S. military academy are investigating why Japan does not react as an ostensible U.S. ally to terrorism, despite the fact that Japan's Aum cult was the first to indiscriminately use weapons of mass destruction. They found a related article in an unpublicized e-journal at New York University, which is a remarkable aspect of Net culture. Another is that they contacted the author with many questions about the article. Usually an article ends when it is published, but the Net medium allows for a dialogue that continues the discussion and deepens understanding of the issues.

In this article an academic in Japan responds to U.S. strategic concerns about Japan by answering questions about his original article:
“Another Against the Other: Terrorism Through Japanese Lenses” (January 2002)
Online Journal of Education, Media and Health, New York University:
Also see: Steve McCarty “Japanese Perceptions and Reactions to Terrorism”

Here are the questions and answers:

Q: "Professor McCarty, Any answers or insight that you could provide would be greatly appreciated. I read your article 'Another Against the Other: Terrorism Through Japanese Lenses' and found it very interesting. In my research I have found that even after the 1995 attacks in Tokyo, the Japanese continued to largely ignore the topic of terrorism altogether. Did the sarin gas attack in Tokyo in 1995 change Japanese attitudes towards terrorism at all? Did this attitude change last?"

McCarty: The issue was never thought of in terms of terrorism, or that view by specialists never reached the public. The attitude that changed was just the taken-for-granted sense of safety for millions of Tokyo train commuters. I read that until the sarin gas attack there had never ever been a murder on the Tokyo subway. It did shake the proud self-image that Japan was a safe country.

Q: "Was there a perceived threat of worldwide terrorism or was the perceived threat limited to just the Aum cult? If so, why?"

McCarty: Just limited to the Aum cult, because again, the sarin attacks were not viewed in terms of terrorism. The image of terrorism is of something foreign, whereas this was Japanese against Japanese, not even minorities but from the well-educated mainstream. That was what was most astonishing about Aum to the public. Until recently when Americans mass-murdered Americans, it was just called crime, wasn't it?

Q: "Do Japanese people think they are immune to terrorism?"

McCarty: Not anymore, but this is since 9/11. Before then it was just small headlines in the international briefs of newspapers, someone else's problem. Now they acknowledge that Japan is openly an American ally and al Qaeda has threatened those who side with the U.S., so it is considered a possibility. It was probably one subtext of the overzealous security for the World Cup.

Q: "In your article you mentioned that the Japanese view terrorism as a 'nuisance.' Could you elaborate on that?"

McCarty: You have to imagine a people who feel that, left to their own ethnic group, they are safe and secure. They perceive that human threats are therefore generally from the outside, from foreigners. Yes, they have forgotten Aum in that sense, or see it as an isolated phenomenon. Aum/Aleph is still considered a threat, but I was surprised at all the ink devoted to Aum in the CIA's published study on international terrorism, right up there with al Qaeda. I would almost agree with Japanese who think such emphasis is exaggerated, since most cult leaders are behind bars.

Q: "Why is the post-War pacifist ideology still so ingrained in Japanese society?"

McCarty: Because it has worked so well for the Japanese. They don't like change for its own sake, so they stick with something comfortable. The unpredictable or surprising often has a negative connotation in a land of typhoons, tsunami tidal waves, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Such calamities push security and stability up on the scale of values. What I'm calling the post-War pacifist ideology is the political correctness that teachers teach, and it is remarkable when any society can nearly banish violence, at least from public view. Why re-arm to the maximum also when it is more secure under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and the status quo is advantageous economically?

Q: "How (or why) does the media influence the people to hold anachronistic values or values different from that of countries Japan is allied with?"

McCarty: The media take up events in terms of regular Japanese values. So then nothing seems amiss when there is only one slant on an issue rather than a variety of viewpoints. For example, in Afghanistan they reported mostly on the bombed civilians, and now it is similar with the Palestinians. It may also be assumed that the Japanese national interest on each issue is singular and obvious. Japan is not ready to face its own actual pluralism, as that would open an unwelcome can of worms. Certain cultures avoid conflicts in the first place because they do not have the social mechanisms to resolve conflicts once they are out in the open. So generally the lid is kept on controversial issues a la "see no evil" and the other two monkeys. Your question was good in qualifying that what one culture sees as anachronistic is a result of different values at work in another culture.

Q: "The Council on Foreign Relations answered the question how did Japan react to 9/11 by saying, 'With sympathy and horror. For many Japanese, the attacks revived awful memories of the Aum gas attacks.' This statement seems to be inflated in light of your article."

McCarty: The esteemed Council indeed seemed to project too much of their own thinking onto the response in Japan. The news articles making a connection to the Aum incidents were mostly in English and the analogy with Aum did not seem to be widely discussed in the vernacular media. You need not lose any sleep over the Aum cult; the U.S. has enough to be concerned about elsewhere.

For further reading see the Bilingualism and Japanology Intersection, an Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library 4-star site in 1997 and 2001: or in Japanese:

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