The Islamic State’s brutal murder of its second Japanese hostage, Kenji Goto, has Japan’s government talking about vengeance — a major shift in tone for post-war Japan, observers have noted.
There is a clear sense that a line was crossed after ISIS murdered Goto as Japan worked frantically to secure his release. What, exactly, Japan might do to avenge the deaths of Goto and his friend Haruna Yukawa remains an open question.
The New York Times compares the shock, horror, and anger among Japanese to the mood in America after 9/11, or in France after the recent Charlie Hebdo attack.
A former Japanese diplomat and adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Kunihiko Miyake, explicitly compared Yukawa and Goto’s deaths to the attack on the World Trade Center: “This is 9/11 for Japan. It is time for Japan to stop daydreaming that its good will and noble intentions would be enough to shield it from the dangerous world out there. Americans have faced this harsh reality, the French have faced it, and now we are, too.”
“The cruelty of the Islamic State has made Japan see a harsh new reality,” added University of Tokyo professor Fumiaki Kubo. “We now realize we face the same dangers as other countries do.”
The former Japanese vice-minister of defense, Akihisa Nagashima, is quoted by the NYT asking a highly pertinent question after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to make ISIS “pay the price” for murdering Yukawa and Goto: “Japan has not seen this Western-style expression in its diplomacy before. Does he intend to give Japan the capability to back up his words?”
It is a capability that would move Japan into the front lines against international terrorism, and might also prove important during future Pacific Rim confrontations. The Japanese have been self-examining their pacifist stance for years. The brutality of ISIS has been a seismic event for them, perhaps more than outside observers long accustomed to watching ISIS murder its prisoners realize.
Goto’s slaying is especially outrageous. He was a veteran journalist who put himself at risk in Syria in an effort to rescue Yukawa, an eccentric soul who appears to have been interested in working alongside the Syrian rebellion to build credibility for his prospective security contracting firm. While the early response from some in Japan was that Yukawa and Goto had gotten themselves in trouble, they grew more sympathetic as the full story of Goto’s capture became known, and then furious as he was heartlessly murdered during a dedicated effort by the Japanese government to negotiate his release. ISIS jihadists accompanied his death with threats of further violence against Japanese citizens who fall into the Islamic State’s clutches.
If Japan decides to back away from every international policy that could turn its citizens into terrorist targets, retreating behind enhanced domestic security measures designed to reduce the odds of terrorist action on Japanese soil, they will be doing what ISIS instructed when they made that $200 million ransom demand for Yukawa and Goto. This could, in turn, weaken alliances with Western powers at war with the Islamic State, which is an uncomfortable prospect for Japan as they look ahead to a coming decade of increased tension with China and North Korea.
As angry and horrified as the Japanese might be right now, it remains uncertain if their anger will harden into deadly resolve. The Daily Beast reports on some grumbling from Japanese media that they were told to keep quiet about the plight of Yukawa and Goto while the government secretly negotiated their release, but then Abe took a tour of the Middle East and began openly discussing the hostage crisis in press conferences, in addition to characterizing Japan’s contribution to the anti-ISIS effort as “aid to those countries fighting ISIS,” rather than humanitarian relief. (It has been suggested this might have been an error in the translation of his remarks, but as the Daily Beast archly observes, “such nuances are lost on the headsmen of ISIS.”) Some have also floated the notion that Abe welcomes the hostage drama because it gives him leverage to push the stronger defense policy he wanted all along.
“We are deeply saddened by this despicable and horrendous act of terrorism, and we denounce it in the strongest terms,” Abe said, after the video of Goto’s mutilated body was released. “To the terrorists, we will never, never forgive them for this act.” ISIS can live with Japan’s eternal disappointment. It cares little for talk of revenge.