Political Gamesmanship and Somber Reflection Follow Hostage Crisis

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Japan has been left reeling by the recent executions of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa at the hands of ISIS.


By Kyle Mullin


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had vowed to “do whatever we can” to secure the hostages release. But a recent New Yorker article pointed out that there was very little the government could do to quell the crisis. Aside from Japan’s lack of diplomatic ties in Syria, it was also hampered by post-WWII pacifist policies keep its military from carrying out offensive strikes.

But Abe’s harshest critics say the entire crisis sprang from the PM’s earlier Mideast tour, during which he pledged $200 million in what he now calls non-military aid to countries contending with ISIS. According to a recent Nikkei report Goshi Hosono, policy chief for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) criticized the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for knowing of the hostage crisis for months, yet not making it public until long after the December lower house election. It went on to quote Hosono as saying, ”the foreign minister (Fumio Kishida) was also touring around the country for the election,” before asking Kishida if had been aware of the crisis during the campaign. The foreign minister countered by saying, “I was receiving updates and was aware of the situation, even during the elections.”

Meanwhile, as Jake Adelstein noted in a recent Vice article, former DPJ president Seiji Maehara criticized Abe’s for being reckless during his Mideast junket, and the coinciding hostage crisis, adding: “How did you assess the risk of announcing support to countries [battling the Islamic State] at such a time?”

The PM parried by saying: “We will not give in to terrorists… If we give in to threats by terrorists for fear of taking risks, we can never provide humanitarian support to countries in the region.” Adelstein questioned how the LDP is now depicting its offer, quoting Abe before the hostage videos were released as saying “that Japan was supporting those ‘contending with ISIS,’” before adding that such a comment “does not sound like a message about humanitarian aid, especially in a society that still prizes circumspection and self-restraint.” The article also insinuated that Abe will use the hostage tragedy as leverage to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution in order to “further his longstanding military agenda.”

“I had hoped he’d come back, so it’s sad…I think the onus is on us all to keep his wishes for peace alive.”

Another journalist has taken umbrage with the LDP’s post-hostage stance, but for different reasons. Yuichi Sugimoto, who according to Al Jazeera works as a freelance reporter and was planning to enter Syria on February 27 for a story about refugee camps, was angered by the government’s confiscation of his passport, so as to avoid another captive crisis. But Sugimoto, who has extensive experience covering conflict throughout the Middle East, insisted that he had no intention to enter ISIS territory, before adding, “What happens to my freedom to travel and freedom of the press?”

These critiques may be vehement, but they are far from the prevailing attitude in Japan. In fact, Abe’s hardline stance has been lauded by much of the public. According to a Reuters article published on Sunday, the government’s handling of the hostage crisis was praised by 60 percent of those surveyed in a recent Kyodo News poll. Meanwhile, a separate poll coordinated by leading Japanese daily Yomiuri showed an increase in Abe’s approval ratings, from 53 to 58 percent. Both of the polled groups concurred with the the PM’s plan to continue humanitarian aid in the fight against ISIS, but 57 percent of those surveyed by Kyodo insisted those efforts should remain non-military.

Their stance was fittingly exemplified by BBC correspondent James Longman, who Tweeted after Goto’s death, “Don’t share the [hostage] video. Don’t play their game. Share pictures of Kenji doing his job.”

Throngs of other Goto supporters made equally somber statements at a number of rallies across the country Sunday night. The Japan Times noted that Tokyo’s typically bustling Hachiko square was instead crowded with mourners clutching candles and hoisting placards with messages such as “I AM KENJI” and “In memory of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.” The article quoted Julia Maeda, one of the attendees and an old friend of Goto’s, as saying: “I had hoped he’d come back, so it’s sad…I think the onus is on us all to keep his wishes for peace alive.”

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