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Safety Jitters in Nagano

Japan, more exposed to terrorism recently, uses undercover cops to protect Olympics.

Below the wooden gate of Nagano's Zenkoji temple, a policeman directs cars and pedestrians through the clotted, rain-soaked intersection.

In his neon yellow-and-pink uniform, he's a Day-Glo presence in a watercolor landscape. But every traffic cop in Nagano has a silent partner, a plainclothes colleague patrolling the streets, making this the most heavily policed winter Olympics ever.

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Security at the Games in Nagano has been one of Japan's top priorities. The unsolved 1996 Atlanta bombing served as a chilling reminder that the sporting world's greatest contest is a tempting target for terrorists - a lesson first driven home by the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

"There is definitely a threat at any Olympics," says Clark Staten, director of the Chicago-based Emergency Response & Research Institute, which specializes in counterterrorism. "Extensive media coverage makes them a target. Any insurgent who wants to make a statement knows it will be covered."

To date, Japan's record in dealing with terrorism has largely been characterized by a willingness to negotiate and pay. Though Japan didn't buy its way out of the hostage crisis sparked when Peruvian rebels stormed its embassy in Lima in 1996, the perception of Japan as a capitulator still remains, and that makes it vulnerable to further attack.

"History would suggest that those who capitulate would find themselves a target on a more frequent basis," says Mr. Staten. "Any number of terrorist groups might view negotiation as a sign of weakness."

Security at home has become a new and unsettling problem as well. A 1995 gas attack on Tokyo's subways killed 12 people and dealt Japan's self-image a body blow, much the way the Oklahoma City bombing did to America. Japan, which had prided itself on a low crime rate, had to come to grips with homegrown violence.

And violence has grown increasingly familiar. In January, a right-wing protester disrupted the stock exchange by taking hostages. On Feb. 4, three rockets were launched at Tokyo's Narita airport, leaving one worker injured. Officials have attributed that attack to left-wing radicals who have long protested the building of a second airport runway, but it remains unsolved.

Against this backdrop, Nagano organizers prepared for more than a year, relying both on police presence and widespread community involvement.

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At Nagano Commercial High School, an annual contender in the national high school baseball championships, coaches have begun keeping the pitching machines under lock and key.

"The Nagano police advised us to be 'terrorism conscious' about six months ago," explains team director Takahiko Marui. The school's four machines hurl balls at high speeds, he says, making them potentially lethal weapons.

Travel agents selling Olympic packages have reportedly been asked to provide police with a list of those who bought tickets to events attended by Japan's imperial family, or other high-profile guests.

To safeguard streets, the events, and facilities for the media and the 2,200 athletes, the Nagano Olympic Organizing Committee (NAOC) has amassed a small army. Six thousand policemen from all over the country have been here for the duration of the Games, says NAOC assistant director Keiichi Sasagawa. Security at street level is hardly noticeable as more than half the police are undercover.

If there is an obvious security presence, it's that of the Japanese military. The Self-Defense Forces have sent 1,700 officers to Nagano. Though their most public activities include grooming ski runs, their chief duty is less frivolous. "Our mission is to minimize the potential threats as much as possible," says a military spokesman.

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