JAPANESE HOSTAGES IN IRAQ: ASSERTIVE FOREIGN POLICY CREATES NEW DILEMMA FOR JAPAN

Public Reaction to Further Violence Uncertain

HONOLULU (April 8) -- The capture of three young Japanese civilians in Iraq is the first time Japanese political choices have been subject to this type of violence, said an East-West Center specialist, and this creates a new dilemma for the government.

Sheila Smith, a research fellow who focuses on U.S.-Japan security issues, said Japanese public reaction to further violence connected to the hostages could go two ways: outrage at the kidnappers, or anger at the Koizumi government for causing Japan to be singled out because of its support of the U.S. war in Iraq. Or it could be a combination of both, hampering future decision-making on Iraq policy.

The kidnappers are demanding that Japan pull its troops out of Iraq or they have threatened to kill their hostages. "This is perhaps the most difficult test for the Koizumi cabinet, which is committed to a more assertive foreign policy," Smith said. "The Koizumi support of the war in Iraq has been a very risky diplomatic strategy, but it has also been a fundamental departure from Japan's past policy on the use of its military. Today Japanese troops are in a theater of conflict, the most dangerous situation they have faced since the end of World War II."

In the past, kidnappings of Japanese usually involved businessmen who were subject to cash ransom, as in the Philippines and Colombia, and Japan negotiated and paid off. A notable exception was the takeover of the Japanese embassy in Peru in 1996, a protest directed less at the Japanese government than at the treatment of political prisoners by the Peruvian government.

The kidnappings in Iraq also point out Japan's "conspicuous vulnerabilities," Smith said. "There are 550 Japanese troops on the ground but they're not able to do anything about this (kidnapping)," Smith said. "Japan is dependent on the United States for any rescue attempt or military response."

Despite Japan's efforts to characterize its military in Iraq as part of its contribution to humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts, Tokyo is now confronting its worst-case scenario, Smith said. Civilians have become targets of attack, and the Japanese troops based in Samawah, thought to be a safe area, have been confined to their base as possible attacks against them have been reported. This week's violence in Iraq, and the outcome of the threat against the three Japanese kidnap victims, will challenge the Koizumi administration's policy of support for the United States.

It will also likely undermine Japanese public support for the reconstruction mission in Iraq, Smith said. Japan is the largest donor of reconstruction funding there, and yet the video made by the kidnappers depicted Japan's cooperation with the United States as a "betrayal" of the Iraqi people.

Sheila Smith can be reached at (808) 944-7427 or smiths@eastwestcenter.org.

The East-West Wire is a news service provided by the East-West Center in Honolulu. Any or all of this report may be used with attribution to the East-West Center or to the person quoted.

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