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In Japan, some blame the victims for Islamic State hostage crisis

Reuters – The images always share terrifying similarities: hostages kneeling in orange jumpsuits, a black-clad terrorist threatening a beheading. This time, however, the victims are Japanese, and the response of their government and the attitudes of their fellow citizens expose key differences from the standard Western response. Those differences may have strategic impact both for domestic politics in Japan and for support of American policy in the Middle East.

Negotiations and ransom

It is the long-stated policy of the United States not to negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom. Understood is that the United States will use its military resources as the sole means of freeing its hostages.

The idea of not negotiating in a crisis is alien in Japan. In contrast to the United States, the Japanese government has gone out of its way to signal a willingness to negotiate, both to the hostage takers and to its own public. Government spokesperson Yoshihide Suga reiteratedFriday that Japan was trying all possible channels to reach those holding the hostages. Japan’s pseudo state-run television channel, NHK, has been featuring the dispatch of the number two official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Amman.

The Japanese government has conspicuously avoided the question of paying ransom; Suga dodged the issue at a news conference. Ransom payments are not off-limits; Japan is known to have paid for the release of hostages held in Kyrgyzstan in 1999. The public generally accepts ransoms have been paid for the return of kidnap victims in places like the Philippines, and that some form of financial deal was involved in the return of Japanese citizens abducted years ago by North Korea.

Unlike the view held by many Americans that ransom means giving in to terrorists, the exchange of money for lives fits squarely within the Japanese ethos of compromise. The complication in the current situation is pressure from the United States for its ally to stick to the American script.

Victims of American pressure on Japan?

The horror concerning beheading is shared fully by the American and Japanese public. The follow-on emotions, however, can differ. Unlike in the United States, where much of the public reacts with renewed resolution, many Japanese are at odds with their government’s desire to engage in the Middle East. Rather than seeing themselves as players on the world stage, many blame Japan’s involvement on American manipulation, dragging their nation into matters not really its business.

The issue was raised first in 2003, when at the insistence of George W. Bush, Japan joined the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq and sent its first troops abroad without a UN mandate since WWII. That deployment took place in the context of the return a Japanese hostage from North Korea. She was freed along with her husband, an American citizen and U.S. Army deserter, whom the United States then allowed to live in Japan without facing military justice. Some saw it as a quid pro quo.

Political challenges at home

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bases his foreign policy on Japan assuming a more active global role. Abe was actually in the Middle East pledging $200 million in nonlethal aid to countries battling the Islamic State when the hostage crisis struck. That the ransom demanded is identical to the amount of aid being offered is not lost on the Japanese people. This prompted the government to announce that the militants’ demand was based on a “misunderstanding,” underlining that the aid would be used only for humanitarian purposes. “We are absolutely not trying to kill people in the Muslim world,” said a spokesperson. Handling the hostage crisis and managing the aftermath poses a serious political challenge for the Prime Minister and could affect his freedom to act further in support of America’s Middle East strategies.

Personal reactions

Junko Ishido, mother of Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist being held captive by Islamic State militants reacts during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo

On a more personal level, there remains a conflicting view of hostages in Japan, with greater sympathy reserved for those seen as “more victim” than others. At one extreme, for example, are those Japanese abducted to North Korea through no fault of their own.

In the current instance, there are quiet questions. The statement by one of the hostages’ mothers, that her son went to Syria to rescue his colleague, Haruna Yukawa, with the plan “that if he could speak directly to the Islamic State he could make them understand,” underscores the concern many Japanese have about why their nation is now embroiled in a global event based on such a naive individual act. It would be hard for some Japanese to avoid the word “selfish” when speaking in private. Indeed, apologizing publicly for the trouble her son caused the nation, Junko Ishido, the mother of hostage Kenji Goto, said she accepted that some people believe her son acted foolishly.

Memories in Japan are long; most people remember the case of three young Japanese freelance journalists held in Iraq in 2004 by a militant group protesting the country’s involvement in the war. They were released under unspecified conditions (ransom was suspected), only to return home to face public criticism for bringing shame on their country. The 2004 beheading in Iraq of another Japanese hostage brought about similar reactions.

A tragedy is a tragedy is a tragedy. But the reaction of a government and its people to such events can significantly influence broader policy. How Japan deals with the outcome of the current crisis has implications for its prime minister, and for how much support for American goals the nation can offer in the future.

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