Author: Yukiko Miyagi, University of St Andrews
On 21 January 2015, the Japanese government received a threat from the Islamic State (IS) that it would behead two Japanese hostages unless Japan paid a US$200 million ransom. The message from IS pointed to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement that Japan would offer US$200 million in assistance to states countering IS as part of a US$2.5 billion assistance package for Middle Eastern states. But how will the hostage crisis impact Japanese foreign policy, and especially Japan’s use of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF)?
Following the hostage crisis, Abe was criticised within Japan for not considering the safety of the two Japanese hostages when he publically committed Japan to support the anti-IS coalition — a move likely to trigger IS hostility. Abe, it was charged, had needlessly created an image of Japan as an enemy of Muslims and Arabs.
But suffering casualties at the hands of Islamic extremists is not new to Japan. Japanese tourists were among the victims of an attack by Islamic extremists in Luxor in 1997. Japanese businesspeople working in the World Trade Center did not escape the 9/11 attacks in 2001. And 10 Japanese workers were killed (the largest number of casualties among the foreign hostages) when Islamist militants seized a gas plant in Algeria in January 2013. In the most recent attack in a museum in Tunis in March 2015, three Japanese tourists were also among the victims who were killed.
Islamists first took Japanese nationals hostage as a result of Japan’s Middle East policy under former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. His cabinet actively supported the US attack on Iraq in 2003 and dispatched Japanese SDF troops to Iraq during the post-war reconstruction period. The Japanese government consistently claimed that its policy was ‘peaceful’ in nature and emphasised that SDF troops were in Iraq to help reconstruct the country, to help the Iraqi people and, importantly, not to fight. But this opinion completely left out the fact that Japan worked actively towards the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that would have sanctioned the US-led attack.
Japan’s policy towards the Middle East has to be located in the context of its overall post-Cold War foreign policy. Under US pressure, Japan has simultaneously expanded its support for US-led military operations and security agendas in the Middle East while still maintaining that Japan is a non-militarist, politically neutral and peaceful country. The potential contradictions in balancing these two positions was bound to come to a head sooner or later. But, in what could be called a ‘chameleon’ policy, Japan sought protection by presenting contrary images of its foreign policy to different audiences — as a strong partner to the US and as a peaceful actor to Middle Eastern audiences.
Japanese policy in the Middle East had ostensibly been designed to head off threats from political instability to the flow of oil and Japanese business in the region. But the explicit targeting of Japanese nationals by Islamic extremists showed that developments in the Middle East could pose a threat to the safety of the Japanese population.
What is new is Abe’s willingness to further Japan’s involvement in the Middle East in the absence demands for it from the US or a consensus among major Western states.
The Abe cabinet rejected paying ransom to IS, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2133, adopted in January 2014, banning ransom payments. After the killing of the second Japanese hostage Abe claimed that Japan would never yield to terrorists. This statement underlined the Japanese government’s intention to maintain the current policy despite criticism from the Japanese public. Abe’s Middle East policy has made Japan a high-profile actor among major Western states and therefore a target for radical Islamists.
Following the January 2013 Algeria incident, the Japanese government launched a study on how to manage hostage-taking and terrorist attacks on Japanese overseas. As a result, the government increased the number of SDF officers stationed in embassies in strategic countries in North Africa and the Middle East in order to strengthen intelligence liaison.
The Japanese government is also currently moving for a revision of security legislation and the Peace Keeping Law as part of Abe’s push to recognise the right to exercise collective self-defence. The proposed changes would allow the SDF to conduct Japanese hostage rescue operations and to participate in post-war reconstruction and humanitarian operations overseas.
While there is opposition to the reforms, public anger against terrorists targeting Japanese citizens is such that the Abe Cabinet will almost certainly succeed with this revision. But it will not pass without alterations needed to gain the support of the ruling coalition partner, Komeito. These alterations would limit Japanese hostage rescues to countries not in armed conflict and where governments have territorial control of the country. They would also limit the SDF’s use of arms to the ‘self-defence’ of SDF personnel and require explicit approval from the prime minister for such operations.
Abe has used the hostage incident to geographically expand the self-defence mission of the SDF into the Middle East and therefore advance his larger agenda of acquiring legislative and constitutional sanction for SDF military activity abroad. This comes at a time when a significant part of the Japanese population does not support such a role. Japan’s chameleon policy seems likely to continue in immediate future.
Yukiko Miyagi is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies, University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom.