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Commentary (April 19, 2004)

Iraq hostage crises give nation opportunity to review intl role

Weston S. Konishi (Senior Research and Program Officer at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation)

The excitement at the news that three Japanese hostages taken captive by Iraqi insurgents last week have been released has been somewhat dampened by reports that two more Japanese hostages were abducted Wednesday. The spate of kidnappings in Iraq represents a milestone in Japan's recent forays into the dangerous world of foreign interventions. More is at stake, though, than just Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government. How the incidents play out in the court of Japanese public opinion may well determine the extent of future Japanese contributions to international engagements.

The Iraqi kidnapping incidents have elicited at least three mainstream responses from the Japanese public, each of which will have a profound impact on Japanese foreign policy if it becomes the predominant public sentiment.

The first response harkens to the nation's deep-rooted pacifism. According to this line of thought, Japan should not have deployed the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq in the first place, and should have immediately withdrawn the SDF personnel to spare the lives of the hostages. The families of the first group of hostages have become outspoken proponents of Japan's withdrawal from Iraq.

Support for this point of view is not hard to find in Japan, where about 75 percent of the population opposed the SDF dispatch to Iraq in December. Indeed, immediately after the kidnappings were reported, about 600 protesters marched on the prime minister's residence demanding the SDF withdraw from Iraq. The Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party followed by making similar demands to the Koizumi government.

A second, somewhat related response is the inclination to see the entire nation as an extended victim of the kidnappings. Much like the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea, the kidnappings in Iraq have struck an emotional nerve throughout the country, which limits any rational response to the crisis.

An incident in which the lives of innocent people are at stake should not be minimized, but there is a tendency in Japan to maximize such crises so that the fate of a handful of individuals takes on the same proportions as the fate of the nation. Thus many Japanese, including the families of the first three captives, saw no fault in calling for their nation to break its commitments in Iraq for the sake of the three hostages.

In many respects, the cult of victimization is now a stronger force in Japan than pacifism, which is becoming increasingly archaic. The Koizumi government is well aware of the political consequences of emotional public opinion and the need for a balanced response to the kidnappings.

On one hand, Koizumi must show resolve in the face of the insurgents' demands to withdraw the SDF. On the other hand, Koizumi must go out of his way to ensure the families of the hostages that he is doing everything in his power to bring the captives home safely. Above all, the government must avoid emphasizing the obvious--that it warned civilians to stay out of Iraq and should ultimately not be held accountable for their fate.

The third response is a relative newcomer to Japanese public opinion. It is a realistic, albeit fatalistic, assessment that the nation must stay the course in Iraq even if the worst befalls the hostages. So far, there are no public opinion polls showing whether this view is prevalent.

However, a Yomiuri Shimbun editorial professing this viewpoint, soon after the first group of hostages was abducted, is an indication that it has entered the mainstream debate. In addition, the fact that demonstrations against the SDF deployment in Iraq have not sparked a groundswell of public outrage suggests that there is a significant counterbalancing force at work.

Which of these three sentiments will emerge as the predominant mood of the nation remains an open question. In the short term though, much hinges on Koizumi's ability to keep the public focused on staying the course in Iraq rather than emphasizing the nationwide grief over the series of kidnappings. If Koizumi is unsuccessful in this endeavor, he may suffer a Spanish-style defeat in the July House of Councillors elections, as voters punish him for the hostage crises and the nation's involvement in Iraq.

Such a scenario would have far-reaching implications for the nation, signaling the public's rejection of realism and a swing back toward pacifism. In the absence of domestic political support, the government likely would withdraw the SDF personnel from Iraq, causing a serious schism in its alliance with the United States. But beyond the Iraq operation, these events also would present a major setback in Japan's progress toward playing a more active role in international security contingencies.

If, on the other hand, Koizumi is able to contain the emotional reaction to the kidnappings, it might allow the nascent realism in the nation to evolve further. This could, in turn, lead to a new paradigm for Japanese involvement in overseas missions--one in which the SDF is not beholden to an impossible standard of absolute security in areas of deployment. The nation could therefore begin to weigh international operations with a more rational assessment of the dangers versus national interests.

The hostage crises in Iraq present a crossroads that the Japanese people have rarely encountered since the end of World War II. Both roads point to perilous journeys--one toward renewed involvement in the dangerous world of international security, and the other toward a retreat from international commitments that would leave the nation vulnerable and isolated. The choice is not easy, but it is one that has been delayed far too long.

(This commentary first appeared in The Daily Yomiuri on April 16, 2004)

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