Japan awoke Sunday morning to the news that ISIS had beheaded its remaining Japanese hostage, 47 year-old freelance journalist Kenji Goto. Early in the morning, an upset Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Japanese journalists that the Government considered genuine an ISIS video depicting Goto's final moments alive and a subsequent scene of his decapitated body. Abe vowed not to give in to terrorism and pledged to continue increasing aid to those countries in the Middle East contending with Islamic State.
The video was in the now too-familiar ISIS genre of declarative executions: Goto is shown kneeling in an orange jumpsuit against a desert background. Standing over him is his hooded killer, dressed all in black and speaking to the camera as he readies to slay the Japanese victim. The voice too is familiar. With a British accent, it appears to be the reputed 'Jihadi John' of earlier theatrical beheadings, lending a perverse authority to the video.
The ISIS intent to intimidate Japan into neutrality was clear from Goto's slaughter and accompanying narrative: 'Abe, because of your decision to take part in an unwinnable war, this knife will not only slaughter Kenji but will carry on and also cause carnage wherever your people are found. So let the nightmare for Japan begin.'
Public conversations in Japan about Kenji Goto's life, death, and state action will now start in earnest. One strand of thought, already being described by some domestic and foreign observers as distinctively Japanese, is critical of adventurers abroad who burden their nation by getting into trouble. This reflects a strong cultural imperative to not impose a burden (a meiwaku) on others and to publicly apologise for doing so if one ends up being rescued from misadventure.
The suggestion by one celebrity, a Japanese wife of late Indonesian president Sukarno, that Goto and Yukawa had been such a burden has been a lightning rod for this sentiment. That, in turn, has prompted debate about the cruelty of criticism sometimes directed at those who are perceived to have been irresponsible. A 2005 Japanese film called Bashing explored these issues, based loosely on the experience back home of Japanese volunteers once taken hostage in Iraq.
The fragile shared sense of decorum that prevailed during the hostage crisis is breaking down. Prior to Goto's killing, a junior Communist Party Diet member had retracted criticism of Abe for endangering the lives of Japanese, under pressure from a party leadership normally implacably critical. Only a hotheaded Diet member and former actor and TV celebrity had been openly critical. There is now more criticism of Abe for his opposition to ISIS and his funding initiative for neighbouring states during his recent Middle East trip. Jeff Kingston of Temple University in Tokyo expresses in English the argument made by by some Japanese 'Arabists' that Abe shouldn't have broken with a model of not taking sides in the Middle East, a model that has supposedly served Japan well for decades.
Yet this notion of a dangerous, grandstanding Abe downplays a long, gradual but fundamental shift in Japan’s policy, reflected in past Japanese financial support for the first Iraq war and the Koizumi Government’s proactive support of the US after 9/11. It ignores Japan’s problematic track record of cooperating with the Arab boycott on Israel . Moreover, it neglects the sobering fact that Japan historically is a net exporter of terrorism to the Middle East. The Japanese Red Army (JRA) attack at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel of 30 May 1972, and hijackings involving JRA members, provide key points of reference for Japanese authorities dealing with terrorism. Also, much discussed during the ISIS hostage crisis was the decision of Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda in 1977 to pay a $6 million ransom and release six JRA prisoners in return for the release of hostages held by JRA hijackers of a Paris-Tokyo flight diverted to Dhaka.
As Japanese struggle to come to grips with the calculated brutality of Islamic State towards two fellow citizens, media reporting and public discourse still shows the strong regard of Japanese audiences for individual responsibility to one's community, and the unintended consequences of personal choices.
This cultural proclivity has had particular salience in the case of the ISIS hostages, and not only because most Japanese would consider it wildly reckless to choose to go to Syria these days. There was a third Japanese death associated with the hostage crisis. Istanbul-based Kazumi Takaya, serving as local coordinator for visiting Fuji Television journalists who were covering the hostage story, was killed in a traffic accident near the Syrian border. While her death attracted media attention, it had none of the high drama of the ritual slaughter of Goto and Yukawa. Her personal tragedy was perhaps all the more so for appearing mundane, a side effect of brutal death by ISIS design.