By ROLAND KELTS
After the death last week of Kenji Goto, the second Japanese citizen to be executed by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the conversation in Japan has turned from obsessive analysis of the hostage crisis to a drone of regret and dread. The government had repeatedly claimed that it would “do whatever we can” to free Goto, a forty-seven-year-old journalist who had appeared in three videos posted online by ISIS issuing his captors’ demands and claiming that his time was running out. Japan has no diplomatic presence in Syria and, since the end of the Second World War, no standing military. As many Japanese became painfully aware, there was very little their government could do.
The first video showed two hostages, Goto and his forty-two-year-old friend, Haruna Yukawa. Both men were kneeling, in orange jumpsuits, beside the black-clad, knife-wielding man who has been filmed beheading other hostages. The demand at the time was a ransom of two hundred million dollars, one hundred million per hostage, to be paid within seventy-two hours. The total dollar figure was the exact amount that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had pledged, only a few days earlier, during a visit to Egypt, to support “those countries contending with ISIL.” The following day, Abe traveled to Jerusalem, where he was photographed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Abe’s trip was cut short by a day when the hostage crisis emerged and he flew back to Tokyo.
Japan has not publicly bowed to ransom demands since 1977, when the government paid six million dollars to Japanese Red Army kidnappers in Dhaka. While Japanese officials remained silent during the first few days of this crisis on the question of whether they would pay the ransom, it was commonly assumed in Japan that the government would follow the lead of its allies, the United States and Great Britain, both of which have made it a point of principle not to cave to ransom demands that support terrorism. Finally, when pressed, the Abe Administration declared that it never planned to pay the ransom, citing its signing of a 2013 G8 summit communiqué rejecting ransom payments to terrorist organizations.
The deadline expired. Shortly thereafter, a photo of Yukawa, decapitated, appeared in a video featuring a still image of Goto, his raspy voice outlining the latest turn of events. Ransom was off the table; the demand was now a hostage exchange via the Jordanian government. The hostage in question, a failed suicide bomber, Sajida al-Rishawi, would have to be delivered by Jordan for ISIS to free Goto and another hostage, the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh. (Footage of al-Kasaesbeh being burned alive was released on Tuesday; on Wednesday, Jordan executed al-Rishawai and another prisoner, the former Al Qaeda aide Ziad Karbouli.) In an audio recording broadcast in Japan, Goto urged the government to apply the necessary diplomatic pressure.
Goto was an independent journalist who began reporting from war zones in the nineteen-nineties. His mission, colleagues said, was to tell the stories of children living in conflict-torn regions. Yukawa, by contrast, was often described as a self-styled soldier of fortune. Entranced by overseas war zones, he launched a security consultancy and made his way on borrowed money to Aleppo, where he met Goto last April. Yukawa was allegedly captured by ISIS outside Aleppo on August 14, 2014. Goto flew to Syria on October 22nd or 23rd, three weeks after the birth of his second child, his mother said, partly to rescue Yukawa, telling colleagues not to worry about his safety because he had friends in the region.
At first, Japanese sympathy for both men was limited. Goto, as a journalist with a track record of working in war zones, commanded more respect than Yukawa. But that respect was tempered by the fact that he was not sent to Syria by the government or a media agency, and that he declined to follow the advice of his longtime Syrian fixer, who said in TV interviews in Japan that he refused to take Goto to Raqqa, an ISIS-controlled region. That Goto left his wife weeks after the birth of their child did not help his reputation.
But after Yukawa’s death, and the release of desperate appeals by Goto’s wife and mother for his release, Japanese support for the surviving hostage surged. Protesters gathered near the Prime Minister’s residence in Tokyo to demand that the government somehow coördinate his rescue. Taku Nishimae, a producer based in New York, made an “I am Kenji” page on Facebook, and the phrase became an online and offline slogan of solidarity with Goto. Last week, it seemed possible that the negotiations via Jordan would lead to a breakthrough. Then came the news on Friday evening that diplomatic efforts had stalled. By Saturday morning, ISIS had released footage of Goto’s apparent beheading.
The early skepticism about the two hostages was not unprecedented. This was not the first time that Japanese citizens who entered a foreign war zone without an official affiliation had been widely viewed as unnecessarily reckless, and even selfish. In 2004, when three young Japanese aid workers were released from Iraq after lengthy government negotiations, they were greeted with harsh criticism from the Japanese public and media. A Japanese psychiatrist who treated all three rated the trauma that they had experienced over the initial knifepoint abduction, on a scale of one to ten, a ten; the same psychiatrist rated their trauma over their homecoming a twelve (i.e., off the charts). Under public pressure, the Japanese government eventually charged each family more than six thousand dollars to help cover the cost of the chartered jet that brought them home.
For two-and-a-half decades, Japan has watched its economic power ebb and regional tiffs over territorial sovereignty rise, while its most significant ally, the United States, has seemed to lose interest in Japan’s needs. The U.S. has grown increasingly entangled in military campaigns that have little direct meaning or import for most Japanese. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration’s vaunted pivot to Asia has meant more attention paid to the threat of China than to the situation of Japan.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was elected, in this environment, on a promise to restore Japan’s former power. As part of his over-all push to strengthen the country’s economic and political authority, Abe, a member of Japan’s longstanding, conservative ruling party, has been pressing for a revision of Japan’s constitution, specifically Article 9, which forbids the country from taking part in war. Abe has made it his mission to ultimately overturn Article 9 so that Japan can become more directly engaged in overseas campaigns as a proactive military regime.
Last summer, amid protests at his residence in Tokyo and a pro-pacifist act of self-immolation by a middle-aged Japanese worker in a major shopping district, Abe snuck through what was called a “reinterpretation” of Article 9, using a Cabinet decision to bypass parliamentary referendum. The reinterpretation means that Japan’s military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, could for the first time in seventy years take action against other countries. It came on the heels of another provocative act: in late 2013, Abe’s party passed a “Special Secret Protection Bill” to curtail freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the name of guarding confidential matters of state.
The U.S. has either openly approved of Abe’s actions or more subtly welcomed them. In a rare public statement, the ambassador Caroline Kennedy said of the secret protection bill: “We support the evolution of Japan’s security policies, as they create a new national-security strategy, establish a National Security Council, and take steps to protect national-security secrets.” The Obama Administration hailed Abe's reinterpretation of Article 9 as “an important step for Japan as it seeks to make a greater contribution to regional and global peace and security.” Since the signing of the 1951 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the U.S. has been committed to defending Japan. But now, the message is clear: the U.S. would like to see the country take care of its own.
Most Japanese citizens opposed Abe’s revision of Article 9 but still supported Abe’s Cabinet. The ISIS hostage crisis raised new questions and criticism about Abe’s approach to international engagement. If the government knew that ISIS had taken at least one Japanese hostage, then what was Abe’s intent when he gallivanted through the Middle East last month, proffering two hundred million dollars to other countries that oppose ISIS?
As soon as the first video was posted, the Japanese government insisted that the two hundred million dollars were intended for humanitarian aid only. But what Abe actually said, that Japan was supporting those “contending with ISIL,” does not sound like a message about humanitarian aid, especially in a society that still prizes circumspection and self-restraint. After the beheadings of two citizens, Japan can’t have it both ways: if it proactively opposes terrorism, it may have to pay the cost. If it clings to pacifism, it will recede further from the global stage.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the United States.” He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.