Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Abe acts quickly to exploit Japan's 'nightmare'

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

On adjacent televisions at my gym, I watched breaking news on the beheading of journalist Kenji Goto by the Islamic State group next to a “One Piece” anime segment in which fresh-faced youth defended their boat from marauding pirates. The kids routed them in a jiffy and suffered no casualties, a metaphorical moment where reality and fantasy collided.

The Islamic State has vowed to target Japanese all over the world because they have joined the American-led coalition against the terrorist group. Just before beheading Goto, his masked executioner declared, “Let the nightmare for Japan begin.” His murder has shocked the nation and sharpened divisions on Japanese security policy. However, since Goto’s reporting focused on the horrific humanitarian consequences of war, his mother and colleagues have expressed dismay that he is being used as a martyr to justify the move to shed pacifism and embrace a more assertive military posture.

Following the axiom that no crisis should go to waste, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe immediately launched a campaign to beef up Japan’s military capabilities, vowing retribution and justice by “making the terrorists pay the price.” Politicians and pundits jumped into the fray on TV talk shows and some made the claim that, after Japan’s own 9/11, a majority of the public is ready to stop daydreaming — they’re ready to back Abe’s agenda of upgrading the capabilities of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and strengthen security cooperation with the United States.

Comparing this crisis to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is really reaching, but some wonks are not above hyperbole in their eagerness to boost a hawkish agenda. The gloves are off as the anti-Article 9 conservative elite exploits the savage beheading as shock treatment to cure the Japanese public of its “unrealistic pacifism,” and fast-track revision of the Constitution.

At the moment, what we are seeing is a rally-round-the-flag reaction to the crisis, boosting Abe’s stature as a resolute leader who did what no other Japanese leader has done in postwar Japan: vow vengeance against those responsible for the gruesome killings of Japanese nationals. Most Japanese likely share his outrage even as they ponder where the prime minister is leading the country. There have been doubts raised about whether proactive pacifism is making Japan safer and whether the hostage crisis could have been handled better. It seems that the government got in over its head in the Middle East and had not carefully thought through the consequences for businesspeople, aid workers and their families in the region, who now face greater risk.

Welcome to the nasty world Americans and Brits have been dealing with. Japanese can no longer enjoy the relative security afforded to Italians, Germans or Swedes; they are now on the terrorist hit list, and even if Japan remains a noncombatant in the anti-Islamic State campaign, not even providing logistical support, the home islands are also at risk.

How will authorities cope with the much higher threat level? Hello Homeland Security! The idea of establishing Japan’s very own version of the U.S. Leviathan is gaining momentum as the Islamic State and the 2020 Olympics provide the justification. Surveillance, screening and profiling will increase, and the nice, safe and reassuring Hello Kitty-land will fade into memory along with the innocence it betokened.

Japan as we know it could well be slipping away as the hostage crisis creates a window of opportunity to enact long-standing agendas on policing, immigration, surveillance and military capacity. Agencies and bureaus are all clamoring for a piece of the Homeland Security bonanza. Authorities will invoke the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics to roll out sweeping measures to prevent any terrorist incidents and sideline critics worried about an erosion of civil liberties.

Recall that Chinese authorities exploited the 2008 Summer Olympics to beef up internal security measures and institutions and now spend more on domestic policing than external defense. Japan is probably not facing such a Big Brother watershed because it is a democracy and there are robust institutions committed to protecting civil liberties, but a significant pruning of individual freedoms and lifting of certain curbs on authorities seems likely. This is another aspect of Japan’s coming nightmare.

In the Diet, Abe is making the most of the crisis to clarify that there will be no geographical limit on the scope of collective self-defense, reversing the reassurances he offered last summer that the SDF would only be dispatched in the region. He also seeks a permanent law authorizing deployment of the SDF overseas to rescue endangered Japanese citizens and provide rear-line support for allies’ combat operations. Currently a law must be enacted each time they are deployed. There is also talk of establishing an elite commando unit like the U.S. Navy Seals or Britain’s Special Air Service. Abe’s call for vengeance is now translating into a push to develop the military capacity to do so.

Abe is no doubt swinging for the bleachers, hoping to get as much mileage as possible out of this crisis. The permanent law for rescue and support missions would grant the prime minister significant discretionary authority. This is key to his other legislation on collective self-defense and embrace of new Japan-U.S. defense guidelines that will call on Japan to significantly expand its comfort zone on armed intervention anywhere in the world. In that sense the Islamic State’s global threat of retribution against the Japanese actually puts wind into Abe’s security sails.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Samuels is a leading expert on Japanese security policy and has conducted extensive research into hostage crises around the world.

“I actually think Abe handled this crisis as well as anyone could — reassuring the home front and standing up to the beasts abroad,” he says, adding that in the aftermath “two narratives will compete with one another — the one saying this proves the world is too dangerous for Japan to engage and the one that holds that Japan must up its game to engage this dangerous world. We know where Abe would like Japanese opinion to go, and he will have new support, but the braking will remain significant.”

How strong will those brakes be? In the Diet, Abe has the numbers to pass his collective self-defense legislation and will embrace more extensive security cooperation with the United States. But can he get the public on board for his vision of “normal Japan”? To do so he has to overcome long-established norms and values that support pacifism and a nonconfrontational approach to global affairs.

In that sense, it is not whether Japan will engage the dangerous world, but rather how it does so. The costs of belligerency are now more obvious, and those who already doubted the wisdom of becoming deputy sheriff to the U.S. will argue that quiet diplomacy and retaining curbs on the SDF remains Japan’s better option. But Team Abe is playing the terrorist card and rallying support for vengeance to convince Japan’s legions of lotus eaters and herbivores that it’s carnivore time.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.