February 2, 2015 – Japan’s failure to rescue two hostages beheaded by Islamic State militants has raised doubts about its ability to handle an international crisis, as the country reels from news of journalist Kenji Goto’s killing.
Analysts say the murders mark a “wake-up call” for Japan – an officially pacifist country that has long avoided involvement in Middle East conflicts – and that its response to the crisis, at times flat-footed, reveals the weakness of its diplomatic resources in the region.
“The government lacked information and that made it difficult for them to handle the situation,” said Takashi Kawakami, a security expert and professor at Takushoku University. “It’s a wake-up call. After this experience, they have to boost intelligence operations at home and overseas.”
The Islamic State group claimed in a video released Saturday that it had killed respected war correspondent Goto – the second purported beheading of a Japanese hostage in a week after the death of his friend Haruna Yukawa.
As the crisis unfolded, Tokyo’s relative lack of contacts and know-how in the region became apparent. Japan seemed almost solely dependent on key ally Jordan – which was itself trying to free an air force pilot who crashed in IS-held territory in late December.
On Sunday, Tokyo said it was moving to strengthen its intelligence-gathering operations, as well as boosting security at Japanese facilities around the world.
Masanori Naito, a professor of Islamic and Middle East studies at Kyoto-based Doshisha University, said Japan would have been wiser to seek more help from Turkey, which has previously secured the release of IS hostages.
“It’s likely the government will start studying the idea of using Japan’s military” in situations where Japanese are in danger abroad, he added.
The top-selling Yomiuri newspaper echoed that point, saying it was “important for the government and ruling parties to deepen discussion on the issue”. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been pushing to alter the pacifist constitution to broaden the capability of its military, which since World War II has been restricted to a self-defence role.
But the idea has been met with a lukewarm public response, and the hostage crisis has amplified misgivings over Abe’s push to boost Japan’s diplomatic role on the world stage. In the IS video, Goto’s apparent executioner warns that the killing is the result of Tokyo’s “reckless” policies and would mark the beginning of a “nightmare for Japan”.
The hostage drama erupted after Abe pledged US$200 million in aid for refugees fleeing IS-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq during a tour of the Middle East last month. Militants had demanded the same sum in exchange for the pair, whom it had been holding for months.
Abe knew IS was holding the two men when he made his very public announcement of aid for countries dealing with the militant group, and questions have been raised over the wisdom of this move.
“Abe stressed the aid was for humanitarian reasons and he was right. But when he originally announced it, he said the money was to help countries ‘contending with IS’ – was that a wise way to phrase it?” said Tomoaki Iwai, a politics professor at Nihon University. “When the dust settles, I think people are going to take a look at that.”
Japan admitted negotiations had stalled just days before IS announced Goto’s death – diplomats never had a direct line to the militants – and there were never any face-to-face talks over paying a ransom.
In any case, it was unclear how serious IS was about negotiating, after it quickly switched its ransom demands to the release of a failed female suicide bomber sitting on Jordan’s death row.
Tokyo set up a liason team in Tokyo after Yukawa’s capture last year, and sent diplomats to the region after a ransom demand for the two men was issued in January.
But as the months dragged on since the first hostage was taken, there was little word on whether any progress had been made or whether Japan had solid contacts on the ground to win their release. “Days and months have passed since the government knew that they were taken hostage,” the left-leaning Asahi newspaper said in an editorial.
It warned that Japan has to do better at sharpening its crisis response, and cautioned that its image as a benign aid donor would not guarantee immunity from violence. “It’s no longer just someone else’s situation — Japan has to face that fact,” the Asahi said.