TOKYO – The killing of two Japanese taken hostage by the Islamic State group has violently driven home the high stakes Japan faces and limited options it can muster in such circumstances.
It also offers a glimpse into how Japan is struggling to handle the rising menace of terrorism.
Until this crisis, Japan had not become directly embroiled in the fight against the militants, who now control about a third of both Syria and neighbouring Iraq in a self-declared caliphate. Tokyo’s backing for U.S.-led air strikes against the Islamic State group is confined to financial and humanitarian aid for refugees and other non-military support for countries affected by the conflict.
That proved no hindrance for the jihadis, and Japan is re-examining its response to the threat, both abroad and at home, mindful also of Tokyo’s preparations for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday that the government convened a meeting on counterterrorism to review the situation.
“During the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, there will be many visitors from overseas and needless to say, we will implement full-scale measures to prepare,” Suga.
Japan’s options for trying to free the hostages were limited. Tokyo lacks a strong diplomatic presence in the region and has a very small corps of Arab experts – only about 30 people in this case, the foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, told parliament.
It is unclear whether paying ransom would have been an option. Moreover, the military is confined by the constitution, drafted by U.S. occupying forces after World War II, to a strictly self-defence role and would be unable to stage a rescue attempt.
A video over the weekend showing the beheading of journalist Kenji Goto, purportedly from the Islamic State militants, carried chilling threats to single out Japanese anywhere as targets.
Addressing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a man resembling a militant seen in other beheading videos by the Islamic State group says, “because of your reckless decision to take part in an unwinnable war, this knife will not only slaughter Kenji, but will also carry on and cause carnage wherever your people are found. So let the nightmare for Japan begin.”
Abe has made security a top priority of his administration. He ordered greater vigilance at airports and at Japanese facilities overseas, such as embassies and schools. The government already was considering sending troops for overseas rescues.
In parliament Tuesday, opposition lawmakers questioned Abe over the crisis.
Akira Koike, an opposition Japan Communist Party lawmaker, demanded to know if Abe was mindful of the plight of the two hostages when he announced $200 million in humanitarian aid to nations fighting the militants. The announcement came just days before the release of a $200 million ransom demand for Goto and for the other hostage, gun aficionado and adventurer Haruna Yukawa.
Since the ransom message addressed Abe and demanded the same amount for the hostages, some critics contend he should not have directly mentioned the Islamic State group in announcing the aid.
“You made that speech knowing that Mr. Yukawa and Mr. Goto had been already taken captive by the Islamic State group. Were you aware that such a speech may have been risky for the two hostages?” Koike asked.
Abe rejects those misgivings and says he took the hostages’ plight into account when making his speech.
“It is most important to support the countries that are taking in refugees and fighting at the frontline. It is only natural to show our solidarity to those countries,” Abe said.
“Japan has made non-military contributions in the area, and it was our responsibility to show Japan’s commitment in that direction in a firm message in the Middle East,” he said.
Abe already has sought and won a reinterpretation of the constitution by his Cabinet allowing defence of an ally, such as the U.S., in limited conditions under a concept known as “collective self-defence.”
Japan’s aid may help discourage refugees from becoming recruits of the Islamic State group, but Abe should have used more caution, said Koichiro Tanaka, chief Middle East analyst at the Institute of Energy and Economics in Tokyo.
Nationalists in Japan might try to use the hostage crisis as a pretext for a stronger military, said Stephen Nagy, a professor of politics at International Christian University in Tokyo.
But he notes that the U.S. has lost several citizens to the Islamic State group over the past months “and has been incapable of rescuing them. And they have apparently the most sophisticated military in the world and experience in such rescues.”
For Japan, and possibly the rest of Asia, a more urgent issue is the possibility Islamic State extremists may be more likely to target their citizens, using them as pawns in Middle East regional politics, Nagy says.