The hostage crisis that blew up on Jan. 20 and ended so tragically taught Japan about the reality of life in a strife-filled part of the world, and the video journalist who had tried so hard to explain that with images ended up doing so with his own life.
Moreover, the extremist who put a knife to his throat on camera declared coldly that Japan’s nightmare of terror is about to begin. Bravado or not, it was a sinister and hate-filled declaration — and one that may contain some truth.
Japan has enjoyed good relationships with many Arab nations. And in general, Arabs have expressed affection for the nation that lost World War II but through resilience and hard work rose to prosperity.
But as far as the Islamic State militants are concerned, that may no longer be the case.
Motohiro Ono, a Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker and noted expert on Middle East affairs, said Kenji Goto’s slaughter may have removed a psychological barrier for other extremists to begin targeting Japanese citizens.
“There was always a distinction between Japan and the United States, even though Japan was widely known to have been close to the U.S. and to European countries,” Ono said. “But the Islamic State’s logic has shown that Japan and the U.S. alike are enemy countries.
“Japan won’t be the prime target yet, but it may now be one terror target of many. . . . (Extremists) will no longer feel a pang of conscience in targeting Japanese citizens,” Ono added.
But Yutaka Takaoka, a researcher at the Middle East Institution of Japan, believes little has changed: He says there never had been a strong distinction between Japan and the West.
Many Islamic extremists, he added, have considered Japan to be among their enemies over the past decade or so.
Hostility toward Japan “rises and falls from situation to situation,” Takaoka said.
The hostage crisis likely increased their interest in Japan, and Japanese expatriates and travelers overseas should exercise greater vigilance, Takaoka said.
Osamu Miyata, who heads the Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan, said Goto’s killing has shown some of the risks of being a close ally of the United States.
Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe amended the official interpretation of the pacifist Constitution to lift the long-standing ban on the right of collective self-defense, which would allow Japan to aid allies under attack.
By doing this, Abe aims to expand the range of possible missions the Self-Defense Forces can join, in the event that Japan’s “vital national interests” are threatened.
“The use of the right of collective self-defense means (Japan) would fight together with the United States in an integrated manner. So the risks of (terrorist attacks) like this will rise,” Miyata said.
Japan should draw a clear line to separate itself from countries like the U.S. and Israel in its diplomacy in the Middle East, Miyata argues.
But an increased fear of terrorism among the public might also give political momentum for Abe to revise laws expanding the use of force overseas.
During a news conference Sunday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga admitted that the government is considering revising laws to allow the SDF to evacuate Japanese citizens in the event of an overseas crisis. But he said this change has no connection with the hostage crisis of the past two weeks.
Sadakazu Tanigaki, secretary-general of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, said such legislation might have a limited impact: It would allow Japan to deploy SDF units only with a host nation’s approval.
But many in Japan, particularly those on the left, remain skeptical about how far Abe would push his ambition to adopt a broader range of military roles overseas.
Tokyo has been at pains to emphasize that its economic aid to the region is nonmilitary and humanitarian in nature, designed only to help the millions of refugees and other displaced people in the region.
Suga declared in the same news conference that Japan would not provide logistics support for the U.S.-led coalition engaged in airstrikes against the Islamic State group.
But it is also true that Japan is a close U.S. military ally in regions other than the Middle East, and Abe is trying to boost the nation’s flexibility overseas to defend its national interests.
Abe has repeatedly said such a case would be rare and that the war-renouncing Constitution, even under his new interpretation, would never allow the SDF to join a coalition force like the one that participated in the Gulf War and was responsible for the Iraq War.
The hostage crisis, meanwhile, exposed sharp inadequacies in the Japanese government’s ability to deal with the Islamic State group.
Abe repeatedly said his “top priority” was to save the lives of the two hostages. He said his government was using “every diplomatic channel available” to influence the militants and that Japan would “never give in to terrorism.”
But behind the scenes, senior officials have bemoaned the fact that Japan had little option but to humbly ask another government for “cooperation.” This was particularly true of Goto, who remained alive a week longer than fellow hostage Haruna Yukawa.
“Japan was incompetent” in negotiating with the Islamic State group, one high-ranking official said Tuesday in a markedly blunt assessment.
On Jan. 24, the extremists released a recording purporting to show it had killed Yukawa.
That was the moment the group apparently switched its demands for Goto’s freedom from a ransom to the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, a failed suicide bomber jailed in Jordan.
Jordan is part of the U.S.-led coalition hitting Islamic State targets with airstrikes. It is seen as a core enemy of the militants.
“Japan was no longer a player, and it was Jordan” that was handling the prisoner swap proposal, said Masanori Naito, a professor of Islamic area studies at Doshisha University.
“Japan could not play a key role in releasing the hostages. In that sense, Japan was right to keep silent” while waiting for the outcome of negotiations between Jordan and the Islamic State group, Naito said.
Meanwhile, Fumikazu Nishitani, a Japanese journalist familiar with Middle East affairs, believes it was a “grave mistake” to set up a crisis headquarters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, as Abe chose to do.
It was difficult for the extremists to accept negotiations with Jordan, Nishitani said.
“(Abe) should have quickly switched his negotiation route to that of Turkey,” which has somewhat better ties with the extremists, he said.