The kidnapping of Jumpei Yasuda in Syria by al-Nusra Front is Japan’s latest run-in with Islamists, and highlights Tokyo’s limitations. Japan’s inability – due to constitutional and logistical barriers – to extract hostages naturally results in discussions about the country’s pacifist stance. To this end, it is interesting to note Japan’s storied and inconsistent reactions to hostage takings.
For instance, the kidnapping of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa by ISIS (also known as Islamic State) in 2015 added fuel to Japanese debates about the country’s international involvement and constitutional limitations on the use of force. In recent years the Abe government has been engaged in efforts to loosen the restrictions on Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution.
Supporters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argue that if Japan had more latitude to deploy its troops, it could prevent or at least quickly respond to future kidnappings. Opponents of the government counter that Japan’s efforts in greater international involvements (aiding U.S ventures) are to blame for the ISIS hostage crisis. A more activist Japan courts greater danger by becoming involved in far-off conflicts; so say Abe’s critics.
The claim that Japan’s activism in the region spurred ISIS to target Japanese civilians is not without merit. As part of his ongoing international campaign to increase Japan’s international profile, Abe has visited some 50 countries, including states in the Middle East. During a visit to Cairo in 2015, Abe explicitly cited ISIS as a threat, while announcing $200 million in humanitarian aid in support of the anti-ISIS coalition. A few days later ISIS ransomed Goto and Yukawa for this exact amount, citing Abe’s pledge as the reason for the ransom’s price. The short amount of time between pledge of support and ransom request had some wondering whether Abe’s words ignited the crisis.
Some in Japan were convinced this is the case. “Abe’s comments obviously provoked them,” says Masato Iizuka, an Islamic Studies professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. “Going out of your way to call a group of people terrorists and challenging them is bound to have consequences, and I think the risks, the impact it could potentially have on Japanese nationals overseas were underestimated.”
While Abe’s words do not exist in a vacuum, it would be overly critical to blame the prime minister for the actions of ISIS. Both hostages had been captured months ago, by a unscrupulous organization. ISIS captures people with a specific intent, ransom or death; Abe’s words would not have greatly changed ISIS’s plans for Goto and Yukawa. In response to such criticism, chief government spokesperson Yoshihide Suga stated that “it is not at all appropriate to link this atrocious and contemptible act of terrorism with the prime minister’s visit [to Cairo].”
Indeed at times people like Goto and Yukawa are in the wrong place at the wrong time; so too were the ten Japanese workers killed (among others) in the ill-fated 2013 Algerian hostage crisis.
In the wake of ISIS’s actions, Japanese public opinion was split on whether Japan should press forward with alterations to the constitution or become more isolationist. The hostage-pacifism dilemma is not a new one for Japan. It is also important to note that Japan’s reactions to these crises have been neither consistently hawkish nor pacifist. Those looking for signs of a militant trend will find inconsistencies.
Japan, like most countries, is faced by threats from non-state actors. Non-state actors fall into a legal gray area in international law, complicating any response. Here Japan faces the same problem as any other state. Nor does a commitment to pacifism remove threats against Japan. In 1977, Japan paid $6 million to free passengers on a plane hijacked by terrorists from the Japanese Red Army. In 1996 the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru was stormed by militants from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Dozens of Japanese hostages were taken, with the MRTA explicitly citing Japan’s foreign assistance as the reason it was targeted.
Unlike in 1977 the Japanese government, after initially seeking a peaceful resolution, eventually conceded to an armed rescue attempt carried out by Peruvian commandos. The Lima incident shows that even the provision of economic aid (MRTA argued it was contributing to inequality in the country) can threaten Japanese citizens overseas. This point is important because a key argument against Japan normalizing its defense situation is that non-military involvement is safer and less controversial. As the Goto-Yukawa and Lima incidents show, this is not necessarily the case.
Not only government responses but also Japanese media coverage and public opinion have differed starkly from one hostage crisis to another. These differences further add to the argument that Japan’s reactions cannot be viewed in isolation. In 2004 three Japanese hostages (two humanitarian workers and a photo-journalist) were released and returned home from Iraq. Upon arrival they did not receive a warm welcome, instead being derided as “misguided do-gooders.”
The Japanese media and public criticized them for venturing into a war zone and causing problems for the government. The hostages’ families appeared publicly and apologized to the nation for the inconvenience. Japanese legislators even announced they wouldbill each of the hostages $6,000 for expenses incurred while freeing them. The three eventually went into hiding to avoid the public outrage.
Conversely in 2005, Akihito Saito, a Japanese defense contractor, was killed by militants in Iraq. Saito – a former Japanese soldier and 20 year veteran of the French Foreign Legion — was praised as a national hero. Saito was held up as a professional protecting Japan abroad. Media analyst Takesato Watanabe commented on the inconsistency, stating that:
The three Japanese nationals who were abducted [in 2004] were there for humanitarian reasons, but they were against the war and the policies of the Japanese government and that is why they were attacked so severely. Yet Mr. Saito is just there for the money and he is portrayed as a kind of action hero, like a character straight out of a video game.
This difference seems to support the thesis that Japan exploits hostage situations to promote militarism. Indeed, during the tenure of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006), Japan pursued a more assertive and pro-military agenda. It seems reasonable to assume that since Abe is more hawkish than Koizumi, he too will follow the same reasoning in a hostage situation.
The Japanese public however, took a different stance than in 2004-05. Like Saito, Yukawa was in the security sector, yet Goto enjoyed greater sympathy amongst the public despite their similar plights. Whereas some felt that both men put themselves in harm’s way, Goto was viewed more favorably because he went to Iraq as a freelance journalist, whereas Yukawa was a self-described military consultant and soldier of fortune.
Hostage taking prompts reactionary thinking and calls for more security in any country, not just Japan. Whereas the potential exists for the government to use such events to push for security related changes, Japan has not consistently done so. Koizumi and Abe do represent a more assertive trend in Japanese politics, yet given Japan’s varied responses to hostage situations, such instances cannot be said to be important drivers of militarist sentiment.
Nor does Abe need to resort to fear-mongering over ISIS. Both the government and the public harbor ample concern over the rise of China and an ever unpredictable North Korea to undermine the country’s commitment to pacifism.