When Islamic State militants posted a video over the weekend showing the grisly killing of a Japanese journalist, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reacted with outrage, promising to make the terrorists pay the price.
Such vows of retribution may be common in the West when leaders face extremist violence, but they have been unheard of in confrontation-averse Japan — until now. The Prime Minister’s call for revenge after the killings of the journalist Kenji Goto and another hostage, Haruna Yukawa, raised eyebrows even in the military establishment, adding to a growing awareness that the crisis could be a watershed for this long pacifist country.
Some commentators said they were taken aback by the strength of Mr Abe’s remarks on making the hostage-takers pay for their actions, given the curbs on Japan’s military. Officials said there was no possibility of Japan cooperating with bombing campaigns against Islamic State (IS) or providing logistical support for such campaigns.
“He (Mr Abe) said he would not forgive,” said Mr Minoru Morita, an independent political analyst. “He used pretty strong language. This will be a great turning point for Japan’s foreign and defence policy.”
Yesterday, the Premier told a parliamentary panel that he wanted to debate the possibility of Japan’s military rescuing Japanese citizens abroad. Mr Abe reiterated his denunciation of the militants and said Japan was firmly committed to fulfilling its responsibility as a member of the global community in fighting terrorism and that it needed to be able to protect its citizens.
The killings are fanning calls for Japan’s long-constrained military to be allowed to conduct overseas rescue missions as part of Mr Abe’s push for a more muscular security posture.
Scope for the Japanese military to mount rescue missions is limited by law but the government already plans to submit revisions to Parliament to ease restrictions. Even some advocates of changes to make rescues possible, however, say Japan’s military faces difficulty in acquiring the capacity to conduct such missions. Critics say sending troops overseas would just increase the risk.
An internal briefing paper for top government officials, seen by Reuters last week, said cases such as the IS crisis did not meet proposed conditions for Japan to send troops to join allies in combat.
It dodged the question of whether planned legal changes would allow rescue missions in such cases, but a Japanese defence official said it would not.
As the 12-day hostage crisis came to a grim conclusion with the killing of Goto, the world has suddenly begun to look like a much more dangerous place to a peaceful and prosperous nation that had long seen itself as immune to the sorts of violence faced by the United States and its Western allies.
Some described a level of shock not unlike that experienced by the Americans after the 2001 terrorist attacks, or the French after last month’s assault on the newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the murders in a kosher supermarket.
“This is 9/11 for Japan,” said Mr Kunihiko Miyake, a former high-ranking Japanese diplomat who has advised Mr Abe on foreign affairs. “It is time for Japan to stop daydreaming that its goodwill and noble intentions would be enough to shield it from the dangerous world out there. Americans have faced this harsh reality, the French have faced it and now we are, too.”