Ja­pan’s be­headed il­lu­sions

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe was on a six-day tour of Egypt, Jor­dan, Le­banon, Is­rael, and Pales­tine, when the Is­lamic State posted a video on­line threat­en­ing to mur­der two Ja­panese hostages, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, if his gov­ern­ment did not pay $200 mln within 72 hours. Abe had no good op­tions. In­deed, when it comes to pro­tect­ing its cit­i­zens over­seas, Ja­pan never does.

When Abe failed to bow to its de­mands, the Is­lamic State re­leased a sec­ond video claim­ing that Yukawa, who was seized last Au­gust in Syria while re­port­edly pre­par­ing to es­tab­lish a Ja­pan-based pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pany, had been be­headed. Goto, a jour­nal­ist who trav­eled to Syria last Oc­to­ber to try to se­cure Yukawa’s re­lease, will sup­pos­edly be spared if Ja­pan se­cures Jor­dan’s re­lease of a con­victed ter­ror­ist.

In fact, Goto’s wife had re­ceived an email de­mand­ing a ran­som of JPY 2 bln ($17 mln) in De­cem­ber. But it seems that Abe’s Mid­dle East tour pre­sented a greater op­por­tu­nity for the Is­lamic State to make the most of its Ja­panese hostages.

The Is­lamic State’s ran­som de­mand was not just a bid for cash; it sent a pow­er­ful mes­sage. Just three days be­fore the de­mand was made, Abe pledged to pro­vide $200 mln in non-mil­i­tary hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to front­line coun­tries in the fight against the Is­lamic State, in­clud­ing Jor­dan, Syria, Iraq, and Le­banon, all of which have taken in large num­bers of refugees.

The Is­lamic State ex­plic­itly di­rected the video to both Ja­pan’s gov­ern­ment and its cit­i­zens, ev­i­dently hop­ing that the largely paci­fist Ja­panese would press their lead­ers to back down. And, to some ex­tent, their ex­pec­ta­tion was met; some op­po­si­tion mem­bers of Ja­pan’s Diet tweeted that Abe should cancel the promised aid. Need­less to say, Abe’s gov­ern­ment ig­nored their ad­vice.

When the ran­som de­mand did not work, the Is­lamic State shifted its ap­proach, but not its goal. The prisoner whose re­lease it had de­manded in ex­change for Goto was Sa­jida alRishawi, who faces the death penalty in Jor­dan for her role in ho­tel bomb­ings in Am­man in 2005. The group seems to be­lieve that forc­ing Ja­pan and Jor­dan to ne­go­ti­ate such a trade could un­der­mine the coun­tries’ long­stand­ing re­la­tion­ship.

The Is­lamic State prob­a­bly knows that Ja­pan has his­tor­i­cally placed the safety of its own cit­i­zens above all other considerations – even if it meant bow­ing to ter­ror­ists’ de­mands. When the Ja­panese Red Army hi­jacked a Ja­pan Air­lines flight to Dhaka Air­port in Bangladesh in 1977, Prime Min­is­ter Takeo Fukuda not only paid the $6 mln ran­som; he also re­sorted to the “ex­trale­gal mea­sure” of hand­ing over im­pris­oned mem­bers of the fac­tion. “The weight of a hu­man life,” he de­clared, “is heav­ier than the earth it­self.”

This re­sponse stands in stark con­trast to Is­rael’s be­hav­iour a year ear­lier, when the Popular Front for the Lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine (PFLP) hi­jacked an Air France flight with 256 pas­sen­gers. In­stead of giv­ing the group what they wanted – the re­lease of 53 mil­i­tants im­pris­oned in Is­rael and four other coun­tries – the Is­raeli Army launched Op­er­a­tion Thun­der­bolt, res­cu­ing the hostages at Uganda’s En­tebbe Air­port. Only three hostages and one Is­raeli commando – Yonatan Ne­tanyahu, the el­der brother of cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter Binyamin Ne­tanyahu – were killed in the op­er­a­tion.

But Fukuda’s re­sponse was not en­tirely a mat­ter of choice. Un­der Ja­pan’s con­sti­tu­tion, nei­ther the coun­try’s self-de­fense forces nor the po­lice would have had legal grounds to travel over­seas to res­cue en­dan­gered Ja­panese cit­i­zens. In any case, nei­ther force would have had the train­ing nec­es­sary to pull off some­thing like Op­er­a­tion Thun­der­bolt.

The Dhaka episode was hardly the first time that threats against Ja­panese cit­i­zens had ex­posed this short­com­ing. Seven years ear­lier, a fore­run­ner to the Ja­panese Red Army hi­jacked an­other Ja­pan Air­lines flight – the “Yodogo” – and de­manded to be taken to North Korea. The Ja­panese au­thor­i­ties got lucky: When the pi­lot landed first in South Korea, the hi­jack­ers re­leased their 129 hostages in ex­change for per­mis­sion to con­tinue to Py­ongyang, where they gained asy­lum.

Two years later, nine mem­bers of the Ja­panese Red Army, re­cruited by the PFLP, at­tacked Tel Aviv’s Lod Air­port, killing 26 peo­ple and in­jur­ing 80 oth­ers. And, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the wives of the Yodogo hi­jack­ers went to Europe, where they are sus­pected of ab­duct­ing young Ja­panese stu­dents and tak­ing them to North Korea.

As the Is­lamic State’s ac­tions demon­strate, Ja­panese are still at risk – and their gov­ern­ment still lacks ad­e­quate tools to pro­tect them. For­tu­nately, Abe – whose ef­forts to res­cue Ja­panese cit­i­zens ab­ducted by North Korea fu­eled his po­lit­i­cal rise – seems to recog­nise the need for change.

Since World War II, mil­i­tary considerations have barely fac­tored into Ja­panese pol­icy, and of­fi­cial devel­op­ment as­sis­tance, which be­gan as war repa­ra­tions, has placed in­ter­na­tional im­per­a­tives above do­mes­tic con­cerns. But, af­ter play­ing bene­fac­tor to the world for 60 years, Ja­pan’s diplo­matic and cri­sis­man­age­ment ca­pa­bil­i­ties have been se­verely weak­ened.

It is un­ac­cept­able for a gov­ern­ment to be un­able to pro­tect its own cit­i­zens. That is why Abe is determined to amend, or at least rein­ter­pret, Ja­pan’s con­sti­tu­tion to al­low for the kinds of de­fense ma­neu­vers that other coun­tries, from Is­rael to In­dia, em­ploy when their peo­ple are threat­ened. As US Supreme Court Jus­tice Robert Jack­son once put it, a con­sti­tu­tion is not a sui­cide pact.

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