The circumstances surrounding the kidnapping and killing of Japanese aid worker Kazuya Ito in Afghanistan last month remain unclear. In the web journal Japan Focus, Michael Penn conjectures that Ito’s death resulted from a “botched effort to abduct him, not . . . premeditated murder.” The gunshot wounds that caused Ito to bleed to death may have been inflicted in the shootout between his kidnappers and local police.
Penn discusses two plausible reasons for the abduction. One is that Pakistani militant groups carried it out in order to undermine the rehabilitation efforts of the current regime in Kabul. The other is that this past summer Japan was considering sending Ground Self-Defense Force troops to Afghanistan, and while the proposal has since been shelved, such talk may have spurred militant groups to target Japanese in Afghanistan.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party managed to find a use for the tragedy. During a press conference on Aug. 28, the day after Ito’s body was identified, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura mourned the loss of “a precious life” and said that Ito’s death meant that Japan has to do more to fight terrorism. “I believe that this is how the Japanese people feel,” he concluded.
As pointed out by Hiroshi Sekiguchi, the host of TV Asahi’s news discussion show “Sunday Project,” Machimura’s statement was “totally the opposite” of what Dr. Tetsu Nakamura said to the press in Bangkok while on his way to collect Ito’s body. Dr. Nakamura is the head of Peshawar-kai, the nongovernment organization for which Ito had been working since 2003. He said the situation for Japanese aid workers in Afghanistan changed for the worse after SDF inspectors arrived in the country this summer. “Using military power to stop terrorism is useless,” Nakamura said. “You have to feed people first.”
Kenji Isesaki, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, said on “Sunday Project” that there are two ways of looking at terrorism, and that the government’s way is “naive.” Dr. Nakamura, he said, can see the reality in Afghanistan with his own eyes, and it’s more complicated than what is being reported in the mainstream Japanese media, which has no assigned reporters in the country, thus making it easier for the government to control information about Japan’s role in Afghanistan. Isesaki added that there are three militant groups fighting the government of President Hamid Karzai, but the media tends to lump them under the catchall name “Taliban.” The Taliban is not, strictly speaking, a military organization. It tends to work socially by finding areas where the government is either lacking or corrupt, and then steps in to solve problems. That is how the group secures its influence in communities, as oppressive as that influence may be. The problems they address are internal; they’re not something outsiders can solve. The only thing outsiders can do to counter this influence is “help the Karzai administration gain the trust of the people,” said Isesaki. In this regard, Peshawar-kai can be seen as undermining terrorist goals, because it is working with the government to help people feed themselves by teaching them valuable agricultural techniques.
The LDP does not see this reality because it is obsessed with its “contribution” to the military effort, which is why Machimura was so quick to appropriate Ito as a symbol. Even if the GSDF plan is no longer on the table, the LDP aims to continue refueling ships in the Indian Ocean that are part of the U.S.-led War on Terror. The law that allows Maritime Self-Defense Force ships to carry out the refueling mission expires in January, and with the Upper House still in the hands of the opposition, the LDP believes it will take more time to pass a bill to continue it.
That’s why soon-to-be-former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda wanted to start this fall’s extraordinary Diet session early. According to the Okinawa Times, at July’s G8 Summit in Hokkaido, Fukuda personally promised U.S. President George W. Bush that Japan would continue with the refueling mission, even though he had no mandate to make such a promise. In surveys, most Japanese say they are against the mission, as is the LDP’s ruling coalition partner New Komeito. The main reason Fukuda resigned is that he came to the conclusion that the bill can’t pass in time as long as he’s prime minister. That was also believed to be one of the reasons Shinzo Abe quit the same post last year.
Obviously, the situation in Afghanistan influences Japanese politics, which is why Ito’s death represents more than just the sad, pointless loss of a good man. An article in the Japan Communist Party organ, Akahata, criticized the LDP for “twisting” Ito’s peace-loving legacy for its own purposes. Taken to its natural end, Machimura’s assumption that the Japanese people will support the refueling mission as a response to Ito’s killing is simply a play on the public’s perceived wish for revenge. After all, the MSDF refuels ships that support fighter jets that drop bombs on Afghanistan, ostensibly on militants. But according to a report issued last week by Human Rights Watch, the number of civilians killed by U.S. or NATO airstrikes increased from 116 in 2006 to 321 in 2007. Given Ito’s expressed desire to help the people of Afghanistan, Machimura’s statement can’t help but sound cynical.
And that brings up a disturbing question: What would the government’s response have been had Ito not been killed? If he had survived the abduction and those holding him were making demands for his release. Such a situation would surely have drawn more scrutiny to Japan’s military contribution, something the LDP wants to avoid as it faces a possible general election this fall. The fact that Ito didn’t survive makes things easier for them.