OSAC: a useful federal service that has to be tailored to the Japan situation

I keep mentioning about OSAC, the Overseas Security Advisory Council of the U.S. federal government.

Here is their main site, which looks like a new version. The last time I had visited it, it was something that looked like it had been patched together around 1999.

Now, the site will give you headline bulletins of serious threats to American interests around the world. The focus on OSAC seems to be “business” interests, but I wonder if that is what Congress really meant, or if a succession of Republican administrations emphasized the “business” portion of what was supposed to be an advisory council for all Americans.

I went to an OSAC meeting once last year at the Embassy, and it was more remarkable for the strange bits and pieces I took from it. There was an FBI attache guide who really seemed to be up on the DPJ’s labor law reform proposals. I’m not sure why the FBI would focus on these sorts of things, given the number of Americans in Japan who don’t file a tax return and who hide their deposit money. But since the IRS shut down their Embassy affiliate in the Bush years, I wonder why the FBI doesn’t pick up the slack, if they have time to delve into DPJ labor proposals.

There was “security” from Nike Japan (Nike the shoe, not the missile). He spoke in grunts if you tried to strike up a conversation with him. I guess the meeting was an excuse for an afternoon off. Otherwise, he’d be spending time waiting for someone who had the wrong address to be coming up the sidewalk.

The other assorted attendees didn’t seem to me to have any weighty security role.

As you can see on OSAC’s Japan page, they are just parroting the headlines in the news. Even in the annual report, you are told that crime in Japan is very low. They don’t want to say, “lower than if you were back home”, but if you read the details, you get the idea.

The crime threat level throughout Japan is considered low. However, the Regional Security Officer (RSO) reminds all visitors that low-threat does not mean no-threat. Violent crimes, while rare, do exist. In general, however, visitors who exercise the same prudence and caution that they would in any large urban area in America should find their trip to Japan to be incident-free.

Pick-pocketing does occasionally take place in crowded shopping areas and in train stations and airports. Women sometimes experience lewd jostling on crowded subway cars in Japan. During rush hours, a number of subway lines have dedicated “women only” cars.

Roppongi, an entertainment district that caters to foreign clientele, is considered a high-risk area for crime. Americans in Tokyo have reported a substantial number of crimes in Roppongi. Incidents involving U.S. citizens include assault, overdoses on heroin allegedly purchased in Roppongi, theft of purses, wallets, cash and credit cards at bars or clubs, and drugs allegedly slipped into drinks.

Drink-spiking has routinely led to robbery and has also resulted in physical and sexual assaults. Most drink-spiking reports describe a situation in which the victim unknowingly drinks a beverage that has been secretly mixed with a drug that renders the victim unconscious for several hours, during which time large charges are fraudulently billed to the victim’s credit card, or the card is stolen. Victims sometimes regain consciousness in the bar or club, while at other times awaken on the street. Several Americans have also reported being charged exorbitant bar tabs in some bars and clubs in Roppongi.

No kidnappings or targeting of corporate officials by radicals groups, or things like that. And interestingly, not even very much of a report of any incidents of anti-Americanism (unless it was a base protest that made the newspaper.) No mention of the Chris Savoie case, even though he’s a dual national.

So what OSAC does in Japan is take the high measure of serious, violent crime that exists against Americans in other countries, and says, “well, nothing like that here. But sometimes in Roppongi, we hear that people have their drinks spiked.”

Why I think OSAC is cumbersome in Japan is that there aren’t the same kind of headline-grabbing threats to U.S. interests that there are in other countries. (And good thing!) Yet the U.S. embassy in Japan houses an OSAC. What there are, however, are plenty of threats to Americans’ labor and contract rights under Japanese law. Yet OSAC does nothing about this in Japan. It should.

What OSAC in Japan should be turned into is a unit that collects labor and contract dispute information, and then acts like an ombudsman. It need not be a mediator, lest it turn into a cheap arbitration service. But there’s nothing to say it can’t make files and collect information. Here’s where the serious threats to American interests lie. It’s not the pick-pocket, it’s the employer who rips you off tens of thousands of dollars. The landlord who takes you for thousands because they’re playing a game as to whether your apartment lease is really just a “hotel room”. Things like this.

If it were losing 2,000 yen to a pickpocket in Roppongi, or 2,000,000 yen on a labor or contract issue, which one do you want to have to deal with? The 2,000 yen hurts, or course, and it’s your 2,000 yen. But OSAC has no way of controlling that. They’d have a lot more influence over landlords in Tokyo screwing around with rental terms.

They’d probably make it easier for employees of American companies with foreign affiliates to get relief on issues where American law applies.

I think OSAC overall is a good program, and I am sure the staff is dedicated to the public. I just wonder if the agenda in the safer countries like Japan needs to be tweaked towards what the real issues are.