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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #130: April 13, 2004

Hostage Taking Could Push Japan into a Combat Role in Iraq

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)

The conflict in Iraq hit home for many Japanese this past week when footage of three compatriots taken hostage by an unknown Iraqi group was broadcast in prime time broadcasts throughout the country. Uncertainty about the fate of the three, whose freedom has been made conditional to the withdrawal of Japanese Self Defense Forces from Iraq, has put the country on edge and the Koizumi administration is clearly facing the toughest test of its tenure as it tries to secure the safety of its citizens. News reports indicate a country torn between the principle of not bowing to the demands of terrorists and the need to save those lives from a horrible fate no matter what the cost. The demands put forth by the kidnappers has also led the nation to reconsider why Japanese troops are in Iraq at all and whether their presence is worth the toll that it is taking on Japan's sense of (in)security.

Japan was sent to Iraq on a "humanitarian" mission, however, as the Mainichi newspaper puts it, "the government is caught between honoring human lives and continuing humanitarian work." These kidnappings, aided by widespread violence in Iraq, have prevented the Japanese Self Defense Forces from carrying out humanitarian work, thus far, and may determine whether or not that mission is continued. Considering the government's handling of the threats, however, I would argue that, if Japan chooses to stay, its mission in Iraq will likely move beyond the humanitarian realm to include a role in combating Iraqi violence and terrorism.

Statements issued by the government demonstrate a staunch Japanese position that refuses to negotiate with the kidnappers and clearly associates them with terrorists. The threats have been characterized as "cowardly" by senior Japanese officials such as Yasuo Fukuda (Chief Cabinet Secretary) and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who stress that Japan will not be beaten by these demands.

This hostage taking has had the effect of throwing Japan into the battle against terrorism and violence in Iraq and this is the message that the United States wants to reinforce. As he visited Japan, vice president Dick Cheney's main mandate was to convince Japan against pulling out of the "coalition of the willing" by stressing that such an act would be equivalent of acquiescing to terrorism. Ever since the outcome of Spanish elections, the U.S. has been obsessed with ensuring that terrorism aimed at other allies does not derail its plans to internationalize the occupation of Iraq. An unnamed U.S. official reinforced this view point when he was quoted by Kyodo news on 9 April stating that, "we believe that it's incumbent upon all free nations to join together to combat terrorists. And part of that is not allowing them by threats."

The point is well taken and if possible should be headed to. However, there are several problems with this approach. First, there are human lives at stake and some level of negotiation need to be attempted. Second, Japan's mandate in Iraq clearly prohibits a combat role. Japanese troops are not in Iraq to combat terrorism or violence, their mission is limited to humanitarian efforts and it would be a breach of this mandate to step beyond those boundaries and assist the coalition in fighting these enemies. Nevertheless, now that Japanese have become a target of terrorism, its government has no option but to fight terrorism if the SDF is to remain in Iraq. The choice facing the Japanese government is thus, much more grave than originally presented by the Mainichi newspaper. The government is caught between honoring its humanitarian role and taking an active role in combating terrorism in Iraq. This could ultimately imply the revision of Japan's postwar constitution much earlier than originally anticipated.

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