Japan’s response to hostages reveals naivety amid push for global security role

Reuters, Kyodo, AP, Staff Report

Tokyo knew for months that Islamic State militants were holding two Japanese men captive, but appeared ill-prepared when the group set a ransom deadline and purportedly killed one of them, according to officials involved in the crisis over the past week.

The biggest foreign policy test of Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s two years in office may have blindsided an administration that has pushed for Japan to take a stronger line on global security, according to the accounts of officials speaking on condition they not be named.

As Abe prepared for a five-day trip to the Middle East where he would announce $200 million in humanitarian aid to counter the Islamic State group, he convened a meeting of his national security advisers, said a person with knowledge of the proceedings.

But the issue of the Japanese captives was not raised at the meeting of Abe’s National Security Council, the person said.

Officials involved in preparations for Abe’s agenda understood that by naming the Islamic State group as a threat during a visit to Egypt, Abe was taking a risk.

His speech before a Cairo business group was intended to drive home the message that Japan was a reliable partner for the region and for allies like the United States.

In response, the Islamic State group released a video just a few days later showing the two Japanese men, Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, beside a masked militant who demanded a $200 million ransom, citing the amount Abe had pledged in aid.

It is unclear whether the Islamic State militants would have acted differently if Abe had not made his comments. But experts said the speech was likely to have brought the crisis forward.

“Abe’s comments obviously provoked them,” said Masato Iizuka, an Islamic Studies professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

“Going out of your way to call a group of people terrorists and challenging them is bound to have consequences, and I think the risks, the impact it could potentially have on Japanese nationals overseas were underestimated.”

The government’s response to the crisis is bound to figure in a coming debate over military policy that could in the future allow Japan to offer logistical support for campaigns like the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria.

Yoshihide Suga, the government’s chief spokesman and a close Abe aide, said it was wrong to conclude that Abe’s trip had provoked the Islamic State group.

“We made a decision on the prime minister’s trip after taking (into) account all factors, including ISIL (Islamic State group) activities and local security,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

“It is not at all appropriate to link this atrocious and contemptible act of terrorism with the prime minister’s visit.”

A small anti-terrorism task force in the Foreign Ministry had been quietly working on the Yukawa case since August.

After the video threat, the Foreign Ministry expanded that to a full-blown crisis center and brought in reinforcements on Jan. 22 as embassies around the world sent out requests for help and leads.

Other officials worked from the Japanese Embassy in Jordan, which has become the regional hub for Tokyo’s response.

By Friday morning, with just hours remaining before the ransom deadline, officials had not established contact with the Islamic State militants and did not know where the Japanese were being held, a senior official said.

It was not clear whether that had changed by Saturday, when a second video emerged claiming Yukawa had been executed. But secret talks were underway Tuesday in Jordan in the presence of a Japanese envoy to secure the freedom of Goto and a Jordanian pilot captured by the extremists. A member of Jordan’s parliament said the country was in indirect talks with the militants to secure the captives’ release.

Earlier, the Islamic State group had posted a new video with a still image of Goto and a man’s voice warning there was just 24 hours left to save Goto’s life and even less time for the pilot.

Nils Bildt, president of security consultancy CTSS Japan, which has worked for the Japanese government, said Tokyo could have tried to establish contact with militants earlier.

“Japan has so far done very little to establish effective and clear channels of communication on the ground,” he said. “While surely someone is attempting to access these back channels now, it would seem they could have been more effectively used over the past few months.”

The government has declined to comment on the specifics of its actions on the hostages, saying only that it was using every diplomatic channel available to secure Goto’s release.

Separately, Abe’s office asked key ministries to clarify the legal framework for its response.

A briefing paper reviewed by Reuters said Japan would not have the legal authority to strike the Islamic State group even after changes being sought by Abe to free the Self-Defense forces from some of the restrictions of the pacifist Constitution.

With Goto in captivity, some Abe critics have held back.

Saori Ikeuchi, a Japanese Communist Party lawmaker, on Sunday said via Twitter that Abe’s administration had “taken lives at home and abroad lightly.”

Ikeuchi deleted the comment and apologized in a subsequent tweet Monday. “The tweet I made was inappropriate in times like these,” Ikeuchi said. “I offer my apology.”

On Monday, Communist Party chief Kazuo Shii condemned Ikeuchi for making “inappropriate” remarks at a time when the government is making efforts to rescue the hostage. It is rare for a Japanese Communist Party leader to walk back criticisms against the administration, with which it is frequently at odds.

A Tuesday survey by the Sankei newspaper found 59 percent of Japanese said Abe’s response the crisis was adequate.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    If the government did indeed know that 2 of it’s nationals were already being held by I.S., surely it has to be asked what the rationale was for the timing, location, and content of Abe’s speech. Did he really think it would have no effect on the situation? Or, far more cynically and sinisterly, is it that the highly visible decapitating of the two (both square pegs in the round hole of Japan and therefor not too many tears to be shed?) neatly dovetails with his aspirations for wielding more military power. Let’s face it, Japan is already in the top 10 for military expenditure, use it or lose it?

    • 武 東郷

      Your criticism is just for the sake of criticism, a tactic being used by those idiot lawmakers in the opposition and some liberal media like Asahi, Mainichi and of course JT. Only the naive and innocent fall for this withount realizing that they are playing into the terrorists hands. Sigh.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        Liberal though I may be, two things I most certainly I am not are naive, or innocent. I fail to see how fair criticism of the Abe government “plays into the terrorist’s hands.” What could they possibly gain by my seeking answer to fair questions?

      • 武 東郷

        Seriously? Under the situation like this, what we have to do is showing that we are united behind the government to strongly demand the release of hostages. Those who criticize the government should present their ideas, concrete and realistic ideas, as to what the government could do to deal with the situation. But they cannot. This is not the first time Japanese were killed in the Middle East. Japanese tourists were killed in Egypt. Japanese engineers were killed in Algeria. We are not living in a rosy and peaceful world. We should come out of that insular mentality. It is long overdue that Japanese people faced reality.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        Seriously what? I don’t understand which part you are questioning here. You disagree with questioning the government, Abe in particular, about what he thought he was doing making the speech he did, at the time and place he did, knowing what he did? Yesterday’s T.V. appearance was nothing but crocodile tears.

      • 武 東郷

        Arabs said that Abe’s speech did not provoke ISIL. Foreign countries, including Arab nations, stand by Japan. Who is blaming Abe now? Those ISIL scumbags and leftist politicians, academics and journalists etc. Goto went there against Foreign Ministry’s advice on three separate occasions.He was well aware of the risk going there as his last video message cleary showed.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        “Arabs”…which “Arabs” exactly are you referring to? When, and where did “they” say what you claim? References please?

      • 武 東郷

        You really don’t know what is going on, do you? Arab diplomats met Foreign Minister Kishida on Sunday Feb.1st and after the meeting the Palestine Ambassador representing those diplomats told the press Abe’s speech did not provoke ISIL. This case is closed, O.K?

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        The Palestinian Ambassador speaks for I.S. does he? So the timing of the ransom demand was in NO WAY related to Abe’s speech then? Despite Yukawa having been in their hands since August? Dream on.

      • 武 東郷

        Oh, ransom money. If those scumbags had been serious about ransom, they would not have withdrawn their ransom demand, right? They did not know what to do with Japanese hostages and PM Abe happened to be visiting the region.
        There! Good use for the hostages. Let’s see if the GOJ pays the ransom!

  • Tomamii

    … thought so hearing the first time about the hostage situation. Very typical for the Abe Govt to use it now for their pro-military/SDF use. So spending billions, building a new base in Okinawa will be better then the 200 Million Ransom ? If Mr. Abe would please stop traveling around and making new enemies, there is no need for all of those.

    • Bernd Bausch

      To be fair, I have not heard the government linking this case to expanding Japan’s military activity.

  • They both entered al-Qaeda and FSA areas and were sold on to ISIS. If both individuals had entered properly via Syrian government held areas then both would now be back in Japan. Turkey and Qatar have supported ISIS – video images even show armed Turkish convoys passing through ISIS held areas – so surely Japan should focus on nations that are openly involved in supporting sectarianism, terrorism and other intrigues against Syria.

  • Bernd Bausch

    Thanks, but the linked article (which is the article we are currently commenting on) doesn’t say anything about Abe’s SDF plans, and googling for the headline you mention results in no relevant hits. A lot of speculation and opinion, but nothing Abe or his government have said. My admittedly limited Japanese search skills were not sufficient to dig up anything either.
    It is obviously true that Abe wants a full-fledged army, and he is going to propose new laws that reinterpret the constitution in that sense. So far though I don’t think he has openly used the hostage crisis to further his agenda.
    Correct me please if you have better information.