Dhaka killings force Japan to reassess security of aid workers | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 05.07.2016
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Dhaka killings force Japan to reassess security of aid workers

As the bodies of Japanese victims of the recent terror attack in Bangladesh return home, questions are raised about the protection of development experts employed in overseas hot spots. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Shortly after dawn on Tuesday, July 5, an aircraft in the red-and-white livery of the Japanese government touched down at Tokyo's Haneda International Airport and slowly disgorged its cargo of seven coffins wrapped in white shrouds.

The dead were two Japanese women and five men, aged between 27 and 80, killed in the attack by Islamic extremists on a restaurant popular with foreigners in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka on July 1.

Fumio Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister, and Koichi Hagiuda, the deputy chief cabinet secretary, took turns to step forward, bow and place flowers on each of the caskets.

Speaking to reporters after the solemn ceremony, Kishida said, "It is extremely regrettable that precious lives were lost in a savage and heinous terrorist attack. I feel deep sorrow and strong indignation."

Aid improving lives

The killings have shocked Japan, particularly given that all the Japanese victims were working on aid projects designed to improve the lives of the people of Bangladesh. But the incident has also raised questions over the precautions taken by the Japanese government when its nationals are dispatched to parts of the world where terror attacks are possible or even probable.

"Fully one-third of all the victims were Japanese and all of them were engaged in trying to do good in Bangladesh," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.

"But the real question is, given that Japan is not new to such incidents, why the government here has not already been more proactive in taking precautions," he told DW. Japanese visitors were caught up in recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, although there were no fatalities.

20 Japanese were held as hostages by extremists in an Istanbul hotel in April 2001, while a tourist bus carrying 35 Japanese had been hijacked in Greece five months earlier. Both incidents ended without any injuries.

In January 2013, however, 10 Japanese engineers were among more than 40 people killed when Islamic fundamentalists seized a natural gas plant in Algeria. That incident clearly demonstrated that Japanese nationals are often required to be in locations where security is an issue, and that has been reinforced by the latest events in Dhaka.

'A dangerous world'

"It can be a dangerous world out there and, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is increasingly putting its head above the parapet," said Kingston.

Abe is keen for Japan to play a more proactive role on the international stage, in everything from the provision of development assistance to committing troops to international peace-keeping operations, despite criticism from some quarters at home.

"If you are going to adopt a more assertive posture on the world stage, the recent attacks show us that Japan needs to take more precautionary measures," Kingston added. "In our new world order, terrorism is the new norm."

Japan has had a relatively close business and security relationship with Bangladesh, with more Japanese companies now looking to invest in production facilities in the country instead of in China, which is seeing a rise in labor costs as well as geo-political tension with Tokyo.

More than 240 Japanese companies have a presence in Bangladesh, which is helping to boost demand for infrastructure such as power plants, railways and bridges. Total trade between the two nations in 2015 stood at about 297 billion yen (2.62 billion euros, $2.92 billion), while Japan extended around 1.6 trillion yen (14.1 billion euros) in development assistance.

A very important donor

"Ever since Bangladesh became independent, Japan has been its most important bilateral aid donor and there is a significant Bangladeshi community here in Japan," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

"That also means there are a significant number of aid workers there, providing technical assistance both in urban areas and in the outback," he said. "And because most foreigners live in pockets of relative comfort, they are soft targets.

"While there is certainly going to be some short-term disruption, I think that will only be a temporary phenomenon," Okumura noted. "Expatriates will be more careful, there will be more guards, but the Japanese government will certainly extend moral support and I think we will see Japan opting to spend more development assistance there when the next budget is announced."

Analyst Kingston shares a similar view. "I think Tokyo will look very favorably on requests for assistance from Bangladesh, especially if the aid is for security or to counter terrorism," he said. "More importantly, Tokyo will not want to be seen to be backing down in the face of terrorism."