Terror Strikes Pacifist Japan


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ideological view not only shaped the Japanese government’s response to the January 2015 hostage crisis, but also strongly informs the current direction of the nation’s anti-terrorism policies. But this, says Michael Penn, may prove to be a temporary phase, as it is all but certain that the general public’s own appetite for military assertiveness is far less than that of the current government

The January 2015 hostage crisis in Syria, which ended in the execution of self-styled military contractor Haruna Yukawa and freelance journalist Kenji Goto by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), refocused the attention of both the Japanese government as well as the general public to the issue of terrorism. This was especially so because the ISIL executioner, then referred to as ‘Jihadi John’ and later identified as Mohammed Emwazi, addressed a video message to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, declaring, “Because of your reckless decision to take part in an unwinnable war, this knife will not only slaughter Kenji but will also carry on and cause carnage wherever your people are found. So let the nightmare for Japan begin.”

This renewed attention to terrorism, however, does not imply that Japan has had no experience of it in the past. There have been many terrorist episodes involving Japanese, as famous references such as the Japan Red Army or Aum Shinrikyo will recall. Japanese citizens have become victims in a number of international terrorist events – 24 Japanese died in the September 11, 2001, attacks alone – but to date all major acts of terrorism inside Japan have been carried out by Japanese citizens themselves. In recent years, this has mainly involved right-wing activists, though the Japanese media usually refrains from describing these incidents as constituting ‘terrorism.’

Fear of foreign terrorists striking inside Japan, especially groups with Islamist ideologies such as al-Qaida and now ISIL, have been persistent since 2001, but up to the time of this writing, no domestic terrorist acts carried out by such groups have ever materialised.

Nevertheless, no one can deny that Islamist terrorism inside Japan is entirely implausible, and certainly some tragedies are indeed striking Japanese living or travelling abroad, so the Shinzo Abe administration and its allies are able to seize on the issue of terrorism to advance the security policies that they have long preferred for other reasons – most notably to confront North Korea and China.

Current Direction of Anti-Terrorism Policies

Japan’s anti-terrorism policies, like all of its national security policies, remain wrapped up in the legacy of aggression and defeat in the Pacific War of 1931-1945. There is a political rift in the Japanese understanding of the proper role of the nation that endures to the present day.

The post war mainstream view is enshrined in the Japanese Constitution of 1947, especially its Article Nine, which formally requires the nation to dispense with a military and to live as a symbol of peace to the world. The conservative view – of which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe notably represents a certain brand – is that such pacifism is naive and needs to be cast aside at this juncture in history.

In fact, the incumbent Abe administration is dominated by views that until recently were clearly a minority even among Japanese conservatives. The Abe brand is nearly obsessed with visions of recapturing Japan’s national honour, both in terms of what they regard as misrepresentations of conventional historical accounts, as well as in the present day through the maintenance of a strong, powerful, and ‘responsible’ military posture.

This Abe ideological view strongly informs the current direction of Japan’s anti-terrorism policies, and it shaped the government’s response to the January 2015 hostage crisis.

Indeed, there is a strong case to make that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ideology actually triggered the hostage crisis. In his January 17 speech to the Japan-Egypt Business Committee-which immediately preceded the broadcast of the original ISIL video threatening the two Japanese hostages—Abe declared, “I will pledge assistance of a total of about $200 million for those countries contending with ISIL, to help build their human capacities, infrastructure, and so on.” $200 million was the symbolic sum that ISIL originally demanded in return for the release of the Japanese pair.

We later learned, thanks to an excellent report by Nobuhiro Kato of Reuters, that a meeting of Japan’s National Security Council had taken place on the eve of Abe’s trip to Egypt. No one, it is said, mentioned the fact that Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto were being held captive by ISIL, but, the report stated, “Officials involved in preparations for Abe’s agenda understood that by naming Islamic State 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 allies like the United States.” There are additional reports that the confrontational language that Abe used in Cairo was actually opposed to the advice of his own Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

During and after the hostage crisis, Prime Minister Abe’s own public response to the matter was to repeatedly declare the principle that ‘We shall not submit to terrorism!’ This again reflected his priority that Japan be recognised as a great power and a ‘responsible’ international player.

Capability beyond Constitutional Constraints

To the Japanese government’s chagrin, however, its practical ability to grapple with specific overseas terrorist events remains modest, even if one leaves aside the debate over the constitutional and legal constraints.

One major deficit is in intelligence collection. During the January 2015 hostage crisis, it would appear that Japan was almost entirely dependent on the cooperation of foreign intelligence services, especially those of Jordan and Turkey.

When ISIL changed its demand from the $200 million ransom to the release from Jordan’s death row of convicted terrorist Sajida al-Rishawi, the Japanese government could do no more than ask for the Hashemite Kingdom’s help. Unfortunately, the release of a Jordanian pilot from ISIL custody was a more important priority for Amman, and this fatally complicated the negotiations to release journalist Kenji Goto.

In the wake of the hostage executions, Tokyo has modestly increased its budget for intelligence collection in the region, but it is difficult to imagine that Japanese spies are ever going to represent an independent and potent force outside of the home islands.

That being the case, expectations must necessarily be limited for the Self-Defence Forces’ ‘Hostage Rescue Force’ that the Abe administration has been proposing in recent months. Even if one assumes that the legislative hurdles are successfully overcome, and a crack commando squad is trained, they are likely to be hampered by an inability to know when and where to strike — unless, of course, one of Japan’s allies provides them with the needed intelligence.

Broader Political Agenda

But it is a fair question to ask whether or not the proposers of the envisioned hostage rescue force are themselves particularly hopeful that it would prove effective in a real world crisis. Just as likely they are simply taking advantage of the current political mood in Japan after the slaying of Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto to advance their broader political agenda of striking down the remaining legal restraints on the deployment of military force. The notion of protecting Japanese abroad may provide a plausible rationalisation for a further loosening that could win public understanding. 

Because of institutional changes - especially the rise of the Defence Ministry — it is clear enough that Japan will not be returning to the pacifist policies that are still officially mandated by the Constitution. But whether or not future Japanese governments will be as enthusiastic as the Abe administration about finding ways to deploy military forces abroad is something that will be worked out through the democratic process and through political party competition.

Partnering International Efforts

In the current phase, one can expect the Abe government to look for almost any reason to participate in international efforts to combat terrorism, especially when it provides opportunities to work closely with the United States and other prospective allies, and when it seems to present only low risks.

In that sense, the prospect for Indo-Japanese collaboration in the field of anti-terrorism is certainly higher now than at any period in the past. The Abe government positively wants to get involved in any project that could boost its national prestige, even in some cases where the connection to Japan’s actual national interests is open to question.

This may prove to be a temporary phase; however, as it is all but certain that the Japanese general public’s own appetite for military assertiveness is far less than that of the current government. It would probably take only one overseas fiasco in which a significant number of Japanese are killed in a military action in order to provoke a national retrenchment.

To put it another way, the Abe administration’s approach to the issue of terrorism and alliance policy could easily get Japan into trouble for which this East Asian nation would then be quite unprepared - both in terms of intelligence and in national psychology — to handle effectively.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.