Hostage crisis awakens Japan to Middle East risks

by Elaine Kurtenbach and Yuri Kageyama


Outrage over the slaying of two Japanese hostages by the Islamic State group is settling into a heightened awareness of risks associated with the nation’s pursuit of lucrative energy projects and other economic ties in the Middle East.

Tokyo’s No. 1 salesman, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was wrapping up a six-day Middle East tour with executives from several dozen Japanese companies in tow on Jan. 20, when the Islamic State group purportedly issued a demand for $200 million in exchange for the two hostages.

The beheading of journalist Kenji Goto and self-styled security contractor Haruna Yukawa has shattered a general sense of security among Japanese and raised questions over Abe’s effort to sell nuclear power technology in a region that supplies more than 80 percent of Japan’s oil and gas.

On Tuesday, a government committee began investigating the killings, and will also assess ways to better protect Japanese overseas.

“Japan is keen to play a more active role in the world and it will be exposed to more dangers than it is accustomed to and it needs contingency plans for the future,” said Yoel Sano, global head of political risk at Business Monitor, a London-based research consultancy.

About 800 Japanese businesses are operating in the Middle East and North Africa region, while around 12,000 Japanese live there, according to the government.

Huge conglomerates such as Mitsubishi Corp. and Hitachi Corp. as well as retailers including Muji and confectioner Yokumoku are finding opportunities in a market of 500 million people that stretches from Mauritania to Afghanistan.

Surging auto shipments boosted Japan’s exports to the Middle East by 21 percent last year to approximately ¥3 trillion ($25.3 billion), while imports from the region, almost all oil and gas, inched up 1 percent to ¥15.83 trillion ($133.2 billion) thanks to lower oil prices, according to the Ministry of Finance.

Abe is fending off criticism that he drew unnecessary attention to Japan during his Middle East tour with a speech mentioning a new $200 million contribution to countries “contending with” Islamic State militants, who control about a third of both Iraq and Syria.

Japanese have been taken hostage before, but usually only by happenstance. As the Constitution limits the nation’s military to domestic defense, Japan can provide only nonmilitary support to the U.S.-led alliance against the Islamic State group.

Still, the final message from the hostages’ purported captors, which announced the slaying of Goto, included a dire threat: “let the nightmare for Japan begin.”

Sano believes that Asian targets will increasingly draw attention, but the greatest threats still are to Western and other Middle Eastern countries.

“The bigger risk is not that they (the Japanese) will be targeted but that they will be caught up in incidents where they are playing a bigger role,” Sano said. “Japan needs to develop greater awareness and greater ability to solve or act upon these situations.”

There was shock, mourning and hand-wringing after a militant attack on an Algerian gas plant in early 2013 took Japanese lives. The four-day hostage standoff between al-Qaida-affiliated militants and the Algerian army resulted in the deaths of at least 37 foreign workers, including nine Japanese working for a Yokohama-based engineering company, JGC Corp. Seven JGC workers survived.

But little changed, and the menacing messages last month targeting all Japanese seem to have struck a deeper nerve.

“Japanese felt that they were under the radar and really didn’t have to worry so much about these kinds of things,” D. Bruce McIndoe, chief executive of U.S. security company iJet, said during a visit to Tokyo earlier this month.

Companies with global operations, such as automaker Nissan Motor Co., Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. and travel agency JTB Corp., are already iJet clients, but the company is now starting a Japanese language service, he said.

The government is also tightening security at embassies, schools and other facilities, while airlines are also taking extra precautions. The Foreign Ministry also elevated alerts for areas affected by the conflict with Islamic State and other extremists.

As individuals used to living in a low-crime society, Japanese tend to be less aware of risks than some other nationalities. Compared with American corporations, Japanese companies aren’t as prepared to give intensive training for traveling abroad.

They are even less equipped to handle crises like hostage-taking, said Tsuyoshi Takemura, a crisis-communications expert at public relations firm Burson-Marsteller in Tokyo.

But since the killings of Yukawa and Goto, many Japanese companies have been trying to develop specific guidelines in order for their employees abroad to stay safe, he said.

McIndoe said he sees increasing interest in iJet’s services, which are modeled on U.S. military strategies and include crisis management, travel training and round-the-clock security monitoring.

The hostage crisis, McIndoe said, “is bringing home that Japanese citizens are potential targets globally.”