Japan's failure to rescue two hostages killed by "Islamic State" has sparked a debate in Tokyo about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's handling of the crisis. His anti-terror policy is being scrutinized.
"Hate is not an undertaking for men… my Arab brothers taught me this." This was Kenji Goto's message on Twitter, which he wrote four years ago, and which was shared over ten thousand times on Monday in Japan. Twitter users reposted the message in order to share their condolences for the freelance Japanese journalist who was brutally murdered over the weekend by "Islamic State" (IS) militants.
This response shows how deeply the event has affected Japanese society. In the past, when other fellow citizens found themselves in dangerous situations abroad, the Japanese would usually respond with annoyance rather than concern.
Although his wife had just given birth at the time, Goto, the veteran conflict-zone reporter, went to Syria last October in order to save his friend and fellow countryman, Haruna Yukawa, from the Sunni militant group IS.
His death is "tragic," said a Japanese citizen in a television report.
Japanese flags flew half-mast in front of the PM's official residence in Tokyo on Monday, February 2, to pay respect to the slain journalist.
But many believe Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used the hostage crisis to achieve his own goals. He called for a new legal framework for the Japanese military in parliament so that it could carry out rescue operations abroad. Rather than airstrikes, Abe seems to have a rapid response team in mind for the future.
In 2013, his government watched as Islamic militants in Algeria kidnapped and killed Japanese engineers. So far, the constitution in Japan only allows for the country to defend itself from attacks domestically. Despite this constitutional hurdle, Abe is advocating a "proactive pacifism" and using the right of collective self-defense as the basis for his foreign policy argument.
With this latest foreign policy measure, Abe wants to strengthen the role of Japan on the world stage and thereby counterbalance neighboring China's ever-growing influence. Critics accuse Abe of giving up too quickly on Japan's traditional "undirected" foreign policy measures in the Middle East.
Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister visited Egypt and Israel to announce 2.5 billion USD of non-military, humanitarian aid to the conflict-stricken area. IS militants slammed Abe for donating the money to "kill our women and children." The group then threatened to behead the two Japanese hostages as punishment for Japan taking part in the battle against them.
In response to critical questioning in parliament, the conservative Premier said Monday, February 2, that he knew nothing of the 200 million USD ransom for the two kidnapped hostages before his tour of the Middle East. This sum was exactly the same amount Abe pledged in economic aid for the people affected by the IS' atrocities in Syria and Iraq.
Public opinion in Japan seems divided over the issue. One the one hand, some people are surprised that Japanese citizens have become victims of terrorism, especially as the world's hot spots are far away and only some 180,000 Muslims live in the East Asian country. Moreover, not many Japanese had even noticed that Japan had joined the US-led alliance against "Islamic State."
"It is unusual for Japan, which has not participated in the military operations [against IS], to be targeted," Japan's Mainichi newspaper wrote in its editorial, adding "We no longer live in a time when we can feel safe, just because we are Japanese."
A neutral country?
It is worth pointing out, however, that Japan's policy change towards the Middle East didn't begin with PM Abe. What commenced with "checkbook diplomacy" during the First Gulf War in 1990-91 – when Japan stayed out of the war after paying several billion dollars – culminated in the deployment of hundreds of Japanese soldiers in charge of providing development aid in Iraq.
When then PM Junichiro Koizumi refused to withdraw these troops, half a dozen Japanese soldiers were kidnapped and one of them was beheaded and wrapped in a US flag. Al Qaeda and IS do not regard Japan as a neutral country.
Despite the recent killings, PM Abe has vowed to continue with his anti-terrorism policy: "The terrorists are criminals," Abe said, adding "We are determined to pursue them and hold them accountable."
Abe said he did not see an increased terrorist risk following savage threats in the purported Islamic State video. His government has also called on all journalists and other Japanese nationals in areas near the conflict to withdraw, given the risk of further kidnappings and other threats.