Tokyo skyline. Creative Commons photo, Flickr user evhead.

The morning of September 11th, 2001 I was waiting in line to catch the ferry to work when a friend called.

I’d been seeing hints of something bad going on all morning; when I rolled out of bed at 7am I’d seen reports on the Internet of a plane having crashed into one of the World Trade Center. I didn’t think much of it: I knew a B-25 Mitchell bomber had flown into the Empire State Building in 1944 and the building had survived.

Thirty minutes later, as I got off the express bus downtown a TV was playing MSBNC and the stock ticker said that the Pentagon had been attacked and the Capitol was being evacuated. Several of us stopped to watch the news, but it was all very confusing and nobody knew what to make of it. Onward, I plodded on to the office.

By the time I got to the bay ferry my friend had called to tell me that both World Trade Center buildings had been destroyed. The first thing I thought was that this was probably the biggest death toll for America since Antietam. The second was that we were at war.

My third thought that morning was whatever came next, America had the resources to handle it. Whatever the coming war needed, we had it. We could flatten any place on earth in probably thirty-six hours. We could do large-scale invasions, sustained bombing campaigns, naval blockades and bombardments. We could send our people anywhere, doing anything, for any amount of time necessary. Just someone try and stop us.

That morning, I was confident that the U.S. military could accomplish any mission the American people asked of it. And in the ten years since, I’ve been proven right. We’ve invaded Iraq. We’ve sustained a ten year war in the middle of Central Asia. We’ve fought minor campaigns against Al Qaeda and AQ-affiliated groups in the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, North Africa, and probably elsewhere. The resources have been there.

What if 9/11 had happened to Japan? What if terrorists had hijacked and crashed passenger planes into Tokyo? What if those attacks had been planned and executed from an organization like Al Qaeda in a country like Afghanistan, and the planners were still at large? What would be the implications of such an attack for the Japanese government and Japanese people?

Japan would be unable to respond to such an attack. Japan’s air force does not have the capability to bomb places like Tora Bora. Japan’s army would be unable to travel thousands of miles and fight an enemy. Japan’s military logistics are nowhere near ready to support a long-distance air-ground operation. Japan is about as capable as The Philippines or Nicaragua to conduct such a war. Everyone knows it.

Would the Japanese government, unable to mount a military response, survive? Given the fragility of Japanese politics it’s unlikely. Despite Japan’s pacifist nature, the pressure to respond would be overwhelming. It would come tumbling down, the military would still be powerless against the terrorist threat, and the Japanese people would still be in danger.

9/11 should have shook Japan’s political establishment out of its funk and made it realize that its military and diplomatic stature was woefully inadequate to respond to an attack. Japan’s military should have evolved a force with long reach, whether it be commandos or air power. Japan’s diplomats should have lead the way on counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation issues. Japan’s politicians should have warned the populace that such attacks were possible, and that Japan would have to respond. Even doing one of these things would have been something. But instead, Japan did virtually nothing.

The unfortunate fact is that this is a world that will kill three thousand of your citizens and plunge your country into turmoil in a single morning. Prior to 9/11 most advanced nations, in some way, were prepared to respond to a 9/11-type event. Japan was not. Ten years later, Japan is still not prepared.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 536 post(s) on Japan Security Watch