The world's problems enter Japan's psyche, again


The Japanese, who inhabit one of the safest countries in the world, have been reminded in brutal fashion that the world is a dangerous place.

In a shock to a country that can feel insulated from distant geopolitical problems, two of their own have reportedly been killed by Islamic radicals in Syria, the latest apparently beheaded in a video posted online this weekend by militant websites.

This island nation, which once closed itself to the outside world for two centuries under samurai rule, has been venturing out as it has in fits and starts for the past two decades. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a bid to restore Japan's position in the world, has been driving his country to play a larger international role, most controversially seeking to loosen constitutional restraints put on its military after World War II.

And as Japan has learned before, venturing out inevitably carries risks.

The question then is whether the risks will drive Japan back into its shell. Analysts say it is too early to predict the impact of the crisis on government policy and the public psyche. Past experience, though, suggests that Japan may, after some handwringing, continue what has been a very gradual expansion of its military role. A major test could come in the spring, when the parliament is expected to take up Abe's proposals to allow its Self-Defense Forces to do more.

"Contrary to what some people are arguing, the ongoing hostage crisis will have little to no effect as far as official policy or public opinion is concerned," predicts Jun Okumura, an independent analyst.

Since coming to power about two years ago, Abe has traveled far more widely than his predecessors, meeting dozens of his counterparts in Latin America, Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia.

His most recent trip was to the Mideast, where he pledged humanitarian and development aid last month for the countries battling the Islamic State group. A larger global role includes joining the effort against terrorism, even if Japan cannot contribute troops under a post-World War II constitution that limits its military to defending Japan.

"All that, we shall do to help curb the threat ISIL poses," Abe said in a Jan. 17 speech in Cairo, using an acronym for the militant group that controls parts of Syria and Iraq. "I will pledge assistance of a total of about 200 million U.S. dollars for those countries contending with ISIL, to help build their human capacities, infrastructure, and so on."

His words apparently reached the Islamic State group, which in a video three days later accused Japan of donating money "to kill our women and children" and threatened to kill two Japanese men it held as hostages.

It's not the first time Japan faced such a crisis. It ventured out in a relatively big way in 2004, sending several hundred troops to Iraq to help in the reconstruction. Though in a noncombat role, the overseas deployment was a significant break with past policy. It required special legislation and stretched the self-defense limits imposed by the postwar constitution — some say too far.

At home, many opposed the deployment. In Iraq, half a dozen Japanese were kidnapped. One was found decapitated, his body wrapped in an American flag, after then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi refused demands to pull the troops out of Iraq.

Such violence is shocking anywhere, but particularly so in Japan, which has among the lowest murder and gun ownership rates of anywhere in the world. The troubles of the Mideast can seem farther away than in the United States or Europe. Unlike New York or Paris, Tokyo hasn't been attacked by radicalized Muslims. The most infamous terrorist act in recent times was home grown, the release of poisonous gas in the Tokyo subway system by a religious cult in 1995.

"It is unusual for Japan, which has not participated in the military operations (against the Islamic State group), to be targeted," the Mainichi, one of Japan's major newspapers, observed in an editorial. It concluded: "We no longer live in a time when we can feel safe, just because we are Japanese."

In the decades after World War II, when Japan ventured out in a really big way with disastrous consequences, the country focused on economic growth and relied heavily on the United States, its vanquisher and new ally, for protection from global threats.

It still does today, but Japan has been edging its own military overseas for more than 20 years now, though in a very cautious way.

The risks came home early. Over public opposition, the Japanese parliament passed a law in 1992 that allowed it to dispatch troops and others to U.N. peacekeeping operations. A Japanese police officer was killed in Cambodia the following year.

While the police withdrew from peacekeeping for several years afterward, the Cambodia mission was completed, and the military has continued to join others in the years since, notes Okumura, the analyst.

The 2004 killing of one of the hostages in Iraq increased pressure on the government to pull out its troops, but that mission continued too, until 2006.

A decade later, Abe is trying to push the edge of the envelope a little further. He laid the groundwork when his Cabinet reinterpreted the constitution last year to allow Japan, in some situations, to defend allies that come under attack. He still needs lawmakers to approve legal changes necessary to empower the military to do that and more. Heated debate is expected, but with his party holding a solid majority in parliament, Abe may well get his way.

© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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The real question is why do Japanese people "feel" so isolated when their country and their lives are so integrated into the uneven and exploitative global political economy, with Japan importing huge amounts of food, energy and other resources from lands near and far and with Japanese businesses and investors wielding enormous financial clout?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact people write opinion pieces such as the one above that reinforce the image of Japanese isolation rather than revealing the truth of deep connectedness and influence.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Japan's non-aggression self-defense policy is noble to be sure, but it has made the country a victim time and again when it comes to those who will not forget its wartime aggression. If Japan is to stand on its own again, it must insist upon the removal of dozens of American bases across its country and restore its military standing to react to those who would do harm to the Japanese people. No more Chinese ships stealing corral. No more dithering over the Senkaku islands. No more threats from ISIS. If Japan wants to live in the world community, then it must stand on its own two feet and participate as an equal among nations.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

more amateurish reporting. Japan is not that safe. And the world is not so dangerous, the world of politics is though.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

Japan is not that safe..........

It's a damn sight safer than most most countries and if you are indeed an American then it's certainly safer than yours.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Japan is one of the very few countries in the world with no historical confrontations with Islamic countries. Most countries in Europe, Asia and Africa have had past confrontations with whatever Caliph in charge decided to invade yet again some nation to enslave and genocide whoever lived there. North Africa and the middle east up to turkey used to be the Byzantine empire until Islam invaded and genocide native north africans and enslaved the middle east. Persian countries were either forced into conversion and minority groups wiped out. Russia, China also have been hit numerous times where they border these regions, India was conquered and ruled for centuries by this violent culture. While no attacks on South America have occured, those countries are inherited the history of their former spanish and Portuguese colonizers. Even the philippines has a violent islamic group on one island constantly murdering and taking hostages. Japan though was been insulated from this particular culture probably to its benefit. However, Japan also should realize groups like ISIS or anyone who would use war and atrocity to establish a Caliphate, or a 3rd Reich or a soviet union will never stop. So japan should not close its country off because in the end, if the world loses to this violent culture, it will eventually come to Japan and genocide or enslave japan as they have done already in many places and would do to the world if unchecked and they win.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

"The Japanese, who inhabit one of the safest countries in the world... "

"In the decades after World War II, when Japan ventured out in a really big way with disastrous consequences, the country focused on economic growth and relied heavily on the United States, its vanquisher and new ally, for protection from global threats. It still does today"

And there you have it.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

@warispeace, Japan IS an island country with virtually NO immigration policy and a fairly nationalistic education policy. Intergrated into the world economy or not, these three simple factors trump everything else. Just selling your cars in the U.S. and buying bananas from Ecuador isn't going to make you feel "international" now, is it? And how much impact would articles about Ecuadorian bananas have on the average Japanese psyche? How many Japanese DON'T know that much of their produce and 90% of their household goods come from China? I'd venture to say very few that actually buy things. Doesn't change much, though, does it?

Be realistic. Japan is geographically isolated being an island, and its culture has a history of insularity. Ipso facto.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

@sourpuss I can't buy into the cynicism of your perspective. If it were the case that Japanese people would just turn a blind eye to the exploitative and violent conditions that underlie their standard of living, would there be a need for such concerted effort by those with wealth and power to hide the truth, to mask it with the seduction of day and night advertising or to create a culture of fear to overwhelm critical thought?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

...a culture of fear to overwhelm critical thought....

warispeace, incisive, and a situation clearly not isolated to Japan but more pronounced here. I got thumbed down my comment yesterday bemoaning what I see as an over-reaction bordering on hysteria to Goto's murder, only to wake up to the headline announcing government plans to consider forming some kind of rescue team. Remember, it's only been a tad over ten years since the Korean Kim Sun-Il was beheaded in Iraq, an act which received only mildly less hysteric media coverage, yet it seems that since then everyone has completely forgotten about it despite the number of people from other societies who have met the same fate. The proof is in the pudding: Japan only takes notice when it directly affects one of their citizens or perhaps one from Korea.

Still, it is simply hysteria. Japan is in no danger despite the fear-mongers, and I dare say everyone will forget about poor Goto's demise by cherry blossom season. Still, who's to blame them: Japan has enough problems of its own not to have to worry about those of the rest of the world.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

“We no longer live in a time when we can feel safe, just because we are Japanese.”

damn you selfish world!!!!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

OH the power of TV news!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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