Abe acts quickly to exploit Japan’s ‘nightmare’


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.

  • Richard Solomon

    I would add three more cautionary points to this excellent analysis. First, missions aimed at rescuing civilian hostages are notable failures. Carter’s attempts in Iran and a recent effort are two obvious examples. Second, commando raids to capture/kill terrorists sometimes succeed. Eg, the one that led to the murder of Osama bin Laden. But these require extensive intelligence operations that can take years. Will Abe ask to develop these kinds of resources, too? Third, beware of politicians lying about prospective dangers to the homeland in order to justify their wish to take proactive, aggressive military action. Witness how Bush/Cheney lied about Sadam having WMD in the run up to the attack and invasion of Iraq. The USA, and other countries, have spent billions of dollars and caused much destruction and instability in the region because of those fateful decisions.

    Do the Japanese people really want to go down these roads?!? Think very carefully about where this will likely lead!

    • Japan should take an interest in it’s own defense. They should have a force in place for just such emergencies. The United States vows to protect it’s citizens where ever they are in the world. Should not Japan? Is Japan a first world democracy that can protect it’s own citizens or are they a State dependent upon others to protect them? China not long ago sent ships in a circuit around Japan for the first time. Without a military force, Japan has left itself vulnerable to intrusions and assault from far and near. Japan now has some catching up to do and the sooner the better.

      • Bruce Chatwin

        Japan has a military force, the JSDF, and has had one since the early 1950s. Japan is ranked from fifth to eighth in the world in terms of military spending by SIPRI and IISS. They have an army, navy, and air force. The army has 170,000 soldiers, the navy 50,000 personnel, and the air force has another 50,000 personnel and over 700 aircraft.

      • Well how ’bout dat? Not that I’d care to see them attack anybody but if they can take care of themselves, we should be outta there and, quite frankly, every place else.

  • Bruce Chatwin

    “the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” Hermann Göring

  • J.P. Bunny

    Enjoyed the …”no crisis should go to waste..” comment. No surprise that Delicate Flower Abe is using this as an excuse to whip up some militarism, but this is also an opportunity for many Japanese to get a real look at the world. The world outside is full of nasty people bent on doing all sorts of nasty things. Nothing especially exceptional about this, but if you are going to venture out into the world, there is always the possibility of something bad happening to you.

  • xperroni

    “Japan is probably not facing such a Big Brother watershed [as China did in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics] because it is a democracy and there are robust institutions committed to protecting civil liberties”

    Hahahahahahahahahahahahah *breathe* hahahahahahahahahahah.

  • Jeff – stop reading Jake Adelstein for your understanding of what Abe said. He did not say he would be “making the terrorists pay the price.” He said: “I will never forgive these terrorists. I will work with the international community to hold them responsible for their deplorable acts.” By inventing quotes to push your agenda you are no different from the “hawks” you decry.

    • Bruce Chatwin

      George, stop hair splitting like Japanese Bull Flinger.

      To suffer the consequences for doing something and to hold someone responsible for doing something amount to essentially the same thing.

      Furthermore, Abe is widely quoted in the media as making the quote that Kingston attributes to him. The New York Times, for example, says: “When Islamic State militants posted a video over the weekend showing the grisly killing of a Japanese journalist, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reacted with outrage, promising “to make the terrorists pay the price.””

      • Yes, I know – Fackler misquoted Abe as well, as he has a similar agenda to push. So perhaps that is where Kingston got his (mis)quote. It would be better if he wrote what Abe said, not what other people say Abe said.

      • Bruce Chatwin

        It appears that neither Kingston nor Fackler misquoted Abe. Rather your presentation of the events is suspect.
        What agenda is it that you are pursuing? You seem to be, along with the Japanese bull flinger, on a personal vendetta against Professor Kingston.

      • Guest

        Jeffrey is NOT a professor. Get your facts straight… if you want to be taken seriously.

      • Bruce Chatwin

        I do not care if I am taken seriously by an arrogant, pompous git.

      • SASmith

        Mr. Kingston is an employee of a private for-profit company called “Temple Educational Support Services” (TESS) which should not be confused with a university…. at least not in Japan, since TESS (aka: TUJ) has not been recognized by MEXT – Ministry of Education as a ”
        学校法人”…. so how can you call him a “Professor”??

    • Toolonggone

      Whatever. Accuracy of words quoted does not make any difference in his plan and motive.

      • No, it makes a very big difference: whether Abe is planning, as Kingston, Adelstein and Fackler claim, to undermine Article 9, remilitarize Japan and fight wars overseas, or whether, as Abe himself stated in the Diet on Feb. 2, that he wished to work with the international community to bring the terrorists before a court such as the ICJ in The Hague. There is a huge difference between what Abe says his plans and motives are, and what pundits such as Kingston, Fackler and Adelstein, people who publicly flirt with the despicable idea that Abe allowed citizens to be killed to further his own nefarious ends, claim Abe’s plans and motives are based on what appear to be deliberate misquotes.

      • Toolonggone

        GMainwaring, you are totally wrong. Abe did use the words “tsumi-wo-tsugunawaseru” that can be translated to what Martin Frackler described: “make them pay” (for the crimes). It was published in Nikkei Shinbun morning edition on February 1st. Nikkei even says Abe added that word in a speech prepared for him.


      • Thank you for that link. Seeing as it supports what I am saying, I am going to take it that either you did not bother to read the article, or were incapable of understanding it if you did try.

      • Toolonggone

        This is getting silly. You obviously don’t know what is all about because you don’t really know what it says in Japanese–or you don’t even bother want to try to open the link. Here’s the quote:





        「彼らのひどい行動の責任を取らせるために、国際社会と協力していく(I will work with the international community to hold them responsible for their deplorable acts.)」


        End Quote:

        Direct English translation of「罪を償わせる」is “make [one/ones] pay for [crime/crimes].” Tha’s not in the statement draft. HE ADDED THE WORDS in the draft.

        Exhibit A. No Excuse. Done.

      • johnniewhite

        I think the differences are only nuance and reception of the words of Mr Abe. I take it that he meant “Justice” and not “revenge”. The Japanese public generally supports the former, and not the latter. I am sure this is what GMainwaring means, and I agree with him.

      • johnniewhite

        PS. I cannot help but feel that the writer of this article always “acts quickly to exploit Japan’s ‘nightmare’”.

      • Toolonggone

        You’re missing the point. I have it in the writing that Abe chose the word [Fukushuu] in his prepaed statement which was written by his staff. He added it by himself, not his staff. Many English newspaper(and even most Japanese newspapers) avoided mentioning that part because the word has a very strong connotation–except for NYT.
        Give it up. No matter how you interpret the word in English in defense of him, that doesn’t change the fact.

      • Bruce Chatwin

        Such staggering arrogance.

      • Bruce Chatwin

        Where is it that Kingston, in your words “publicly flirt(s) with the despicable idea that Abe allowed citizens to be killed to further his own nefarious ends”?
        You seem to be making stuff up as you go along, like a bull flinger.

      • Toolonggone

        That’s his deliberate tactic to mislead readers.
        GMainwaring has a habit of putting his words into someone’s mouth, like a corporate education reformers or politicians.

      • SASmith

        Toolog… Probably the most ridiculous argumentative statement I’ve read thus far. Kind-of-reminds me of a politician trying to justify ignorance. Do you read and then believe your own rubbish?
        GMainwaring made an excellent observation. Jeffry K is attempting to propagate an uneducated agenda that often makes no sense.

      • Toolonggone

        You are free to critique Kingston’s piece. That has nothing to do with GMainwaring’s misrepresenation. Not on the same plane.

      • Bruce Chatwin

        It appears that neither Kingston nor Fackler misquoted Abe; rather GMainwaring’s presentation of the events is suspect. It seems that you, like Mainwaring aka Japanese bull flinger, are on a personal vendetta against Professor Kingston.

  • lostinaustin

    Nobody wants enemies, but when someone believes he is commanded by god
    to kill you, you can’t ignore him when his actions implement those beliefs. Search the Internet for “Quran war” and make up your own mind about what motivates groups like ISIS. Then decide for yourself whether hiding from them, or working with them, or ignoring them, will keep you safe from them.