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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (April 22, 2004)

Japan Exorcises the Ghosts of Terrorism Past

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has scored a spectacular victory in the make-or-break Iraq hostage crisis, which had threatened to derail his premiership. In one of the most pivotal episodes in post-World War II Japanese history, in one bold stroke Koizumi extinguished the nation's reputation for being weak on terrorism, and in doing so he finally exorcised the Shakespearean-like ghosts that have haunted Japanese diplomacy for the past quarter of a century.

In 1977 Japan capitulated to terrorists - hence its reputation for being soft and giving in. Then-prime minister Takeo Fukuda released six members of the terrorist Japanese Red Army and paid US$6 million in ransom to free Japanese passengers in an airline hijacking in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A human life, he said, is more than the weight of the Earth, more valuable. Literally, "The life of a person is heavier than the Earth." That redounded over the years - not to Tokyo's honor. But in the current hostage crisis, Fukuda's son took a far different, and clearly redemptive, stand. Yasuo Fukuda, Koizumi's chief cabinet secretary, stood firm. Reminded of his father's now-infamous words, the younger official said: "The times are different, and the context is also different."

With the release of all hostages, Koizumi may have emerged victorious, and support for deployment is now about 53 percent, but the soul-searching in Japan continues, and has intensified because of the 10-day ordeal. A significant majority, 57.1 percent, of those surveyed by Kyodo News now want Koizumi to review his position on maintaining strong military ties with the United States.

For Koizumi, the safe release of all five Japanese hostages in Iraq - without a single apparent concession to the terrorist captors - was a resounding triumph in the face of daunting odds. After all, frightening Japan out of Iraq would have seriously, if not grievously, wounded the US-led "coalition of the willing" - making it clear just how unwilling were its members. Koizumi's successful firm stand also marks a monumental recrafting of the country's global image and heralds the emergence of a more assertive and nationalistic Japan on the world stage.

By standing firm against terrorist threats to execute three hostages, Koizumi has demonstrated that his new Japan is a tough global player. He has also given a massive boost to the country's resurgent neo-conservatives in their efforts to redefine Japan along more aggressive nationalist lines.

Dramatic climax to hostage crisis

As in many of history's defining moments, the outcome was uncertain until the very last moment. Indeed, it seemed that Koizumi's chances of prevailing were wafer-thin, which made his final success all the more impressive. The final hours of the crisis were some of the most gripping in recent memory, with the premier's fortunes - and political prospects in summer elections - literally changing by the hour.

Five civilians had been kidnapped in two groups, three and two. The demand: Get Japanese humanitarian troops out of Iraq or your citizens die. News reports later quoted released hostages as saying their captors told them: "If you were American or British, we would kill you!" Recently released Korean missionary hostages said their captors yelled: "Kill the Americans, kill the British, kill the Japanese!"

The dramatic climax to the hostage drama came last Thursday, and it concluded on Saturday. Thursday had dawned badly for the prime minister with news that two additional Japanese civilians, Jumpei Yasuda and Nobutaka Watanabe, had also been abducted, and an Italian hostage working for a US security firm, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, brutally murdered by his Iraqi captors. Reports also surfaced that on the previous day about 300 Iraqis had protested against the presence of Japanese troops in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah, where they are deployed on a strictly humanitarian mission, but now largely confined to their fortress-like barracks.

It seemed the deteriorating situation in Iraq could not get any worse. For the first time since the hostage crisis began, Koizumi started to show signs of strain. He looked exhausted when he appeared before the national media. He repeated his pledge that Japanese troops would remain in Iraq despite the dire developments. "The Self-Defense Forces will not withdraw from Iraq," he said in a weary tone, also denouncing the cold-blooded murder of the Italian hostage. He declared, "We should not surrender to such an extremely despicable act as this."

Despite his defiance, some commentators were already writing him off. They said public opinion would not tolerate five Japanese hostages, and the death of the Italian was increasing pressure for a troop pullout. It was Koizumi's darkest hour.

Suddenly, just after 9pm, the wheel of fate or fortune moved dramatically in the opposite direction. Out of the blue, it seemed, the initial trio of hostages had been released. The nation was euphoric, and in the eyes of most ordinary Japanese, Koizumi's hardline stance was completely vindicated. It was an amazing reversal of fortune for a man who just a few hours earlier had been visibly on the ropes.

Hiroshi Sakamoto, a recently retired government official from Hokkaido, home prefecture of two of the hostages, described the jubilant scene to Asia Times Online: "When we heard the news of the hostage release, people began cheering. I felt so happy. All over the country people were celebrating. In Hokkaido, crowds gathered outside the hostages' houses."

Even though two hostages remained captive, the release of the three who had been given a death sentence set off a wave of national jubilation, instantly transforming an embattled prime minister into a national hero. Saturday brought the release of the two remaining hostages, bringing down the final curtain on the 10-day ordeal.

Poll boost for Koizumi

Opinion polls released on the weekend demonstrated the comprehensive nature of Koizumi's triumph. A Kyodo News survey found that 68.4 percent of the public positively evaluated Koizumi's handling of the crisis; 61.3 percent thought the government was correct in not yielding the terrorists' demands for a withdrawal of Japanese troops, while a mere 8.8 percent disagreed.

With regard to the military deployment in Iraq, a significant 53.2 percent of those polled said they backed it, while 38.2 percent were still opposed. This is the first time support for the dispatch has surpassed the 50 percent level since troops were first dispatched in January. Not surprisingly, support for Koizumi was up, registering 55.6 percent, a 7.2-percentage-point increase from the previous survey.

However, as Asian Times Online predicted, the crisis has also forced the public seriously to evaluate the merits of the US-Japan alliance, which many believe has made the country a prominent target for international terrorism. The Kyodo poll suggested that 57.1 percent of people now want Koizumi to review his stance on strong ties with the US, while just 36.6 percent think such ties should continue unchanged. If this shift in attitude persists, it could lead to a redefining in the basic nature of Japan's relationship with the United States.

Confucian symbolism underpins Koizumi's triumph

An important aspect underpinning the shift in public opinion is a difficult-to-define Confucian-type symbolism. To understand this almost intangible element in the equation, one needs to trace the origins of how Japan came to be considered weak in the face of terrorism.

The perception dates back to an infamous case in September 1977, when a Japan Airlines flight was hijacked over India and forced to land in Dhaka. The terrorists demanded that six Japanese Red Army members be released from prison and a $6 million ransom be paid in exchange for the lives of the passengers and crew. The Japanese government obediently complied with the demands, allowing the hijackers to fly off scot-free to Algeria with their comrades and a hefty booty.

The prime minister of the day, Takeo Fukuda, justified his capitulation with the phrase that has lived on in memory: "The life of a person is heavier than the Earth." The ghosts of the Dhaka retreat-defeat have haunted Japan ever since. In true Shakespearean fashion, a quarter of a century later, the opportunity arose for Fukuda's son, Yasuo Fukuda, to help rectify his father's mistake; a concept immensely appealing to Japanese society, with its heavy undercurrents of Confucian philosophy.

Since taking office, Koizumi's most faithful lieutenant has been Yasuo Fukuda, his chief cabinet secretary and trusted right-hand man. Along with Koizumi, Fukuda took an extremely tough and high-profile stance on the hostage-taking. At the beginning of the crisis, the press quoted the late prime minister Fukuda's famous words to his son, who replied, "The times are different, and the context is also different."

The release of all five captives unharmed has given an immense resonance to the son's comments and, most important, in the minds of many Japanese Fukuda's present-day pronouncement signifies a cleansing of the past and the beginning of a new phase in Japanese history.

Hostage crisis marks defining moment for Japan

While Koizumi's Iraq troubles are far from over, his success in resolving the hostage crisis marks a defining moment in modern Japanese history. A recent editorial in the right-wing Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper rather understated this significance. The paper wrote, "A quarter-century after the Dhaka incident, Japan appears to have at last become an 'ordinary nation' in crisis management."

In the short term this new "ordinary nation" status will allow Koizumi to keep Japanese troops in Iraq. Even if they remain barricaded and isolated in their remote desert fortress, they will still help US President George W Bush, who is currently reeling from Spain's announcement that it is quitting his coalition in the wake of the Madrid bombings in which at least 200 people perished.

In the long term, this "ordinary nation" status will enable Japan to redefine itself and adopt a more assertive stance in international affairs, finally throwing off the constraints placed upon it after World War II. For Koizumi, the Iraq hostage crisis has almost certainly clinched his place in history as one of Japan's great nationalist leaders.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 19 April 2004,, and is republished with permission.)

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