The death of Osama bin Laden has provoked a myriad of emotions across the world, from jubilation and fear to uncertainty and exhaustion. The reaction in Tokyo was quite similar to that from other governments allied with the United States against al-Qaeda. In a prepared statement, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan welcomed bin Laden’s death as ‘remarkable progress in counter-terrorism.’ Kan continued by placing the obligatory caveat on this praise by stressing ‘the threat of terrorism still remains serious’ and ‘counter-terrorism efforts will not cease.’
Japan’s statement isn’t surprising, but perhaps it is overplaying its hand on maintaining a strong commitment to resources in the fight against terrorism. The security and defence establishment in Japan is privately cheering the news of the demise of al-Qaeda’s frontman not merely as a counterterrorism victory, but as a potential signal that US security policy may begin to tilt back towards issues in East Asia.
This isn’t to say that Japan trivializes terrorism. Kan recognizes that his country is not immune to terrorism (indeed, it’s one of the only countries to have ever endured a WMD terrorist attack following the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in 1995). Japan recognizes the threats posed by non-state actors and went along with the United States in its war on terror, but its primary focus remains on state-based threats in its own neighbourhood. For Tokyo, the continued enhancement of China’s military, increased naval sparring in the East China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear intransigence are issues that are seen as existential threats, compared to terrorism which is more of a dangerous nuisance.
Bin Laden’s death doesn’t signal the end of al-Qaeda, and indeed may result in a short term increase in home-grown jihadi attacks to demonstrate the post-mortem relevance of Islamist terrorist doctrine. Despite this, the symbolic goliath of the war on terror has been unceremoniously removed and the relevance of a sustained top tier prioritization of Central Asia in US foreign policy will gradually crumble. The United States will slowly begin to realign its security posture back to East Asia and focus its attentions on promoting its interests and alliances there. The Japanese government will welcome this shift, and should use it to increase pressure on Washington to commit greater attention and resources to its more localized security concerns.