Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2015.02.03

Japanese Reaction to the Hostage Crisis in Syria

JBpress on Janualy 30, 2015

Last week's hostage crisis and eventual beheading of one of the two Japanese citizens greatly shook the nation. The political right forsook the two hostages and emphasized their actions at "their own risk," while the left blamed the tragedy on Shinzo Abe's speech in Cairo. While numerous news stories were dispatched from Tokyo, not all of them seem to reflect the socio-political reality in this bewildered nation.

The series of video messages produced by the Islamic State shocked the silent majority of Japanese. They would have been further devastated if they had seen the uncensored picture of the corpse of the beheaded Japanese hostage. It was so lurid that I, a former Arabic language officer of the Foreign Ministry, was speechless and could not even draft last week's column.

Now, the silent majority of Japanese feel a sense of both anger and resignation. The Islamic State kills humans regardless of their nationality, goodwill, or noble cause. Japan is no longer off the target list of terrorism. Obviously, the target this time was not only the two hostages but the people and state of Japan as a whole. It was the equivalent of 9.11 for the Japanese.

With all the news articles and TV programs, however, the helpless silent majority of Japanese still do not know the true reasons why Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto had gone to Syria, one of the most dangerous war zones on the globe. The incident reminded them of similar but slightly less violent hostage crises in Iraq, which took place between spring and fall of 2004.

Prime Minister Abe represented the feelings of the silent majority of Japanese when he said that, "This was an extremely despicable act and we feel strong indignation. We strongly condemn that." For Japan, this incident will essentially become a game changer for the government's planning and implementation of crisis management policies to protect Japanese citizens at home and abroad.

Nonetheless, some see things differently and I was appalled when interviewed by Bloomberg News live on TV during my short stay in Singapore earlier this week. The anchor person in Hong Kong raised the issue of the hostage situation in Syria and asked me whether this incident would affect the Abe administration changing Japan's defense policy.

This naive question was, as I found later in Manila, obviously influenced by a January 26 Wall Street journal article entitled, "Japan Hostage Crisis Revives Debate Over Military Force - Government Prepares Legislation Giving It More Freedom Over Self Defense," which failed to comprehend the difference between Japan's crisis management and national security policies.

While it is true, as the article reports, that Abe's administration "plans to introduce a bill that will allow Japan to engage in 'collective self-defense,' including aiding allies such as the U.S. in regional conflicts threatening Japan's security, and to come to the rescue of Japanese citizens abroad," the article only sees the branches of a tree while missing the entire forest.

So are Abe's opponents in Japan. They try to take advantage of this hostage situation and link it with the roles and missions of Japan's Self Defense Forces. Some even pointed to Abe's January trip to the Middle East and his offer of $200 million in humanitarian aid for countries affected by the Islamic State as having provoked the radical extremist group.

For example, Ichiro Ozawa, a once influential former LDP Secretary General and now leader of a small opposition party, said that, "Mr. Abe basically went all the way over there and gave a speech which could be interpreted by the Islamic State as a declaration of war." Give me a break, Mr. Ozawa! The two hostages were taken last fall, not after Abe's speech in Cairo in January.

The Wall Street Journal article also covers the issue of constitutional reinterpretation, which has enabled Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense and, contrary to the wide-spread conventional wisdom in Japan and overseas, is given equally to every single sovereign state member of the United Nations under the U.N. Charter.

When Abe said on TV last Sunday that, "For example, if Japanese abroad come into harm's way as in the recent case, the Self-Defense Forces currently aren't able to fully utilize their abilities," he was not talking about the right to collective self-defense or Japan's defense policy, but was mainly referring to measures for rescuing and transporting Japanese citizens in trouble abroad.

The hostage crisis was not Abe's fault but the result of the globalization of terrorism. The great majority of Japanese now support Abe's handling of the hostage case, which focuses on the roles of the military in rescuing and transporting our citizens abroad and not on the right to collective self-defense. Intentional confusion will only delay effective crisis management measures in Japan.