Written by Sebastian Maslow.

Japan was shocked by the killings of freelance journalist Kenji Goto and security consultant Haruna Yukawa by the terrorist group known as ISIS. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has moved fast to link the hostage crisis to his security agenda envisioning a more militarily proactive Japan.

In the eyes of Abe’s critics, the ISIS hostage crisis illustrated the risks associated with Japan’s new strategic outlook, branded ‘proactive pacifism’. In fact, the Abe government has been criticised for announcing non-military aid to the ‘coalition of the willing’ fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In January, during a visit to the Middle East, Abe announced a $200 million aid package. The announcement was quickly followed by the jihadist’s public threat to kill the two Japanese prisoners, holding the Abe government responsible for engaging in the fight against ISIS. In light of the disappearance of Yukawa and Goto last year, the administration faced protests over its timing in engaging proactively in the international effort against terrorism. Hence, during recent budget committee meetings in the Japanese Diet, many have questioned the risk assessment applied by the Abe government in the context of an unresolved hostage crisis.

While the administration has emphasised its posture of not yielding to terrorists, and denied making any contact with them throughout the crisis, Abe has to face questions over choosing Jordan instead of Turkey as the location of Japan’s emergency response headquarters. Thus, while the government in Ankara is believed to possess channels for negotiation with the terrorist group, Jordan’s own hostage crisis has likely served as an obstacle to achieving a positive resolution of the kidnappings.

The Abe administration has lost no time in using recent events to burnish the case for reforming Japan’s post-war pacifist security system. Abe has vigorously pushed for broad change in Japan’s security and defence posture since taking office in December 2012. Following the deadly hostage crisis at an Algerian gas plant in January 2013 resulting in the deaths of ten Japanese nationals, Abe emphasised the need for enhancing Japan’s intelligence capabilities. This has resulted in growing support for his initiative toward the establishment of a US-style National Security Council (NSC) which was finally established in November 2013. The new institutions for policy and intelligence coordination, particularly with the US, have required tighter measures for state secrecy protection which the Abe administration pushed through the Diet in late 2013. While strengthening the Prime Minister’s Office role in crisis management and diplomacy, these legal measures were widely criticised as a threat to Japan’s democracy, as they discourage investigative journalism by exposing potential whistleblowers to a possible ten years in prison.

The recent ISIS hostage crisis should mark a pivotal point for the Abe administration and its critics to question the efficiency of its new security system and strategic outlook. Budget committee deliberation has revealed that the NSC has met five times throughout the crisis. Little, however, is known about the procedure of intelligence analysis and its active role in managing the crisis. In addition, the 2013 state secrecy law raises new obstacles in critically scrutinising the government’s crisis management capabilities and hence its responsibility for outcomes.

Critical reflection on the crisis has been replaced with debate over enabling overseas dispatches of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces in order to rescue citizens held hostage. Disregarding the potential lack of such capabilities, the Abe administration is likely to include such scenarios as part of SDF legislation submitted to the Diet later this year in attempt to follow up last year’s reinterpretation of the constitution which opened the path for Japan’s participation in collective self-defence operations.

Abe has seized the opportunity to push for a national referendum on the constitution during his third term. This time he may be bound for success. A recent survey sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun has revealed that a large bipartisan majority of 84 per cent in the Diet is in support of constitutional revision.

It needs to be acknowledged that the Abe administration has been successful in embracing security crises to reframe Japan’s security agenda. Abe has taken the middle-ground in advocating constitutional reinterpretation. In so doing, he has not only side-stepped lengthy parliamentary and public debate, but more importantly has forced his opponents to leave their positions of opposing constitutional revision in their critique of Abe’s deficit in honouring democratic procedure. Hence, as revision is considered more democratic than reinterpretation, Abe has scored against liberalism in Japan, further undermining the power of those who would veto Japan’s departure from its post-war pacifism.

Sebastian Maslow is an independent analyst of Japan’s domestic and international affairs and a PhD candidate in political science at the Graduate School of Law at Tohoku University. He is the co-editor of Risk State: Japan’s Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty. Sebastian tweets @smaslow_japan. Image Credit: CC by Global Panorama/Flickr.

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