After the killings of two Japanese nationals by "Islamic State," Tokyo is mulling new anti-terror strategies that may see rescue missions by its forces and tighter cooperation with the US, analyst Kristin Surak tells DW.
Until late last year, Japan had not been directly threatened by "Islamic State" (IS) militants. But all that changed last month when the Sunni militant group killed two Japanese citizens, Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, who had been taken hostage by IS for ransom.
The hostage drama erupted after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged 200 million USD in assistance to the region, including non-military aid to countries fighting the group. After taking the two men captive, IS militants demanded the same sum in exchange for their release.
Japan's failure to rescue the two hostages sparked a debate in Tokyo about Abe's handling of the international crisis. For many analysts the hostage drama revealed that Japan - whose constitution prohibits the use of force to settle international disputes - has not only diplomatic weaknesses overseas, but also relies too heavily on foreign intelligence agencies.
In the meantime, PM Abe, who has been advocating a "proactive pacifism" and using the right of collective self-defense as the basis for his new foreign policy, has pledged 15.5 million USD to help countries in the Middle East and Africa that are battling IS militants. The aid is to be used for "counter-terrorism capacity building," including border controls in the region.
In a DW interview, Kristin Surak, a senior lecturer of Japanese Politics at SOAS, University of London, talks about how PM Abe is touting his new "proactive pacifism" approach as the best strategy to rid the world of terrorism, despite the Japanese society being much divided over the possibility of getting involved in rescue missions abroad.
DW: How is PM Abe's handling of the recent hostage crisis viewed in Japan?
Krsitin Surak: On balance, the assessments have been positive. His declaration that Japan would not give in to terrorism has had wide support, and public opinion polls give him a 60 percent approval rating for his handling of the hostage crisis.
Yet we also see a growing polarization between those who believe that Japan ought to take a more proactive stance in the war on terror, and others who regard such foreign entanglements as stoking threats to the Japanese people.
Goto and Yukawa had been held hostage for a few months before the public ransom and beheading threats were announced. These threats came in response to Abe's pledge of 200 million USD in aid to the region.
Furthermore, there is some concern about pressure to restrain critical voices in the media. The government has condemned those questioning Japan's involvement in the Middle East as unpatriotic, and declared that anyone speaking out against the government is aiding terrorists.
In response to the government's support for self-censorship, more than 1,000 prominent journalists, authors, film-makers, and academics have signed a petition reaffirming the freedom of expression. The public generally endorses non-military contributions to peace, but is skeptical of military intervention in the Middle East.
Nearly 60 percent say that aid to the Middle East should be non-military, and only 15 percent are in favor of logistical support for the US-led coalition.
What measures has Tokyo adopted to avoid another such hostage crisis?
Tokyo has taken standard precautions and warned travelers from going to the region. In one case, the government confiscated the passport of a freelance photographer hoping to travel to Syria.
Japanese lawmakers are beginning to consider how they could have responded to the situation better. One of the key issues being discussed is how to overcome Japan’s reliance on foreign intelligence agencies to gather information.
What are the government's plans in this respect?
Japan is reliant on others for much foreign intelligence, but their most important partner is the United States which has perhaps the strongest intelligence capacity in the world. It is a relationship that we can expect to grow tighter as a result of the hostage crisis.
This year, Japan and the US will revise their defense guidelines, and the result will likely strengthen bilateral military cooperation, including both an increase in military commitments from Japan, and a movement towards the "interoperability" of military forces, which the US desires.
At present, Japan's Self-Defense Forces cannot rescue citizens held hostage overseas. Abe wants to reinterpret the constitution to make such rescue missions possible, but within strictly defined limits. Tokyo would need the permission of the government of the relevant territory, and that government cannot be a "quasi-state organization," which would rule out dealings with IS.
The revised interpretation would define rescue missions as police exercises in which proportionate force would be allowed - if they're using hand guns, we can use hand guns. Yet whether the re-reading would mean that Japan could carry out a rescue mission successfully is another question - even the US, for all its military capabilities, has had only spotty success in this area.
Furthermore, the public is very divided on the issue. About a third would like to see the SDF allowed to rescue citizens abroad, a third would like to see the ban continued, and a third are undecided. And if agreed upon, the new interpretation would take a step beyond Abe’s promise last summer that the SDF would be deployed only in the East Asian region.
Many believe PM Abe might use the hostage crisis to drop Tokyo's pacifist policies. What is your view on this?
The sensationalist arm of the media is already calling the hostage crisis as "Japan's 9/11" - a great exaggeration, but one useful for using the incident to push forward controversial reforms.
Though Japan's Constitution has never been revised - to date, it's only been reinterpreted - and the majority of citizens support the "pacifist" Article 9 that renounces the right to war, Abe has announced that he will pursue constitutional revision, partly motivated by the desire to protect nationals against terrorism.
It is likely that concrete plans will be announced at the LDP convention on March 8, and that reform will be pursed in the summer.
Last July, Abe's Cabinet decided that Article 9 could be read as allowing Japan to come to the aid of allies under attack, and now the government is considering a number of bills to put that into practice.
They recently approved new guidelines that would permit international aid to go to foreign military forces, though only for non-military purposes. Abe wants to push the line further to allow military funding as well.
Japan is also hoping to sell more arms and military components abroad to develop an export industry that became legal only last year. Abe has described his new approach as "proactive pacifism" and touts this as the best strategy to rid the world of terrorism.
Kristin Surak is a senior lecturer of Japanese Politics at SOAS, University of London. She specializes in international migration, nationalism, culture, and globalization.