After hostage-taking, Japan ponders role

Ally: The capture of three civilians is likely to intensify debate about Japan's humanitarian efforts in Iraq and about its military.

April 09, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TOKYO - Already conflicted about the deployment of troops to Iraq, Japan was roiled yesterday after three Japanese civilians were taken hostage by an Iraqi militant group that threatened to kill them unless Japan withdrew its forces within three days.

According to Japanese television, the militants issued a statement asserting that because of Japan's support for U.S. action, "Japanese deserve to suffer as Iraqis have."

Eight South Korean missionaries, two Arabs, a Canadian aid worker and a Briton were taken hostage in separate incidents in Iraq. Seven South Koreans were released after one of them escaped.

The hostage-taking is sure to intensify debate about Japan's role in Iraq and about its military. Japan has long had a fragile psyche about its military, in part because the country's post-World War II constitution expressly forbids having a military. Japan formed the Self Defense Forces with the blessing of the United States in 1954, but its role was defined as purely defensive.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda called for the immediate release of the hostages, noting that Japanese Self Defense Forces are in Iraq solely to provide humanitarian and reconstruction aid.

"There is no reason to withdraw," he said.

The three hostages are civilians - a humanitarian activist, a photographer and an 18-year- old who just graduated from high school. In videotape provided yesterday to the Arab television network Al-Jazeera and rebroadcast on Japanese television, the hostages are shown blindfolded.

Associated Press Television News obtained a copy of the full video, in which four masked men point knives and swords at the blindfolded captives. At one point, a gunman holds a knife to the throat of one man, whose blindfold has been removed; his eyes widen and he struggles to get free. The woman screams and weeps.

The militants are apparently determined to punish U.S. allies for their support of the Iraq occupation.

It is a nightmare scenario for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose administration knew it was risking public criticism by dispatching troops, which opponents said was a violation of Japan's Constitution. But Koizumi has long pushed for a more flexible security role for Japan, and the government has been under pressure from the United States to support the Iraq reconstruction effort.

The coming days could test the government's resolve and influence the debate over the role of the Japanese military in international security.

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi repeated a government warning for civilians to stay out of Iraq. "In order to prevent similar incidents from happening, I strongly urge Japanese citizens, including journalists, in Iraq to leave the country as soon as possible," she said.

The Japanese government had dispatched about 550 troops to Samawah in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq to provide clean water, medical care and other noncombat services. Japan has emphasized the humanitarian nature of the mission, and the troops' relatively modest activities in Iraq have been front-page news here.

But it is the threat of violence that continually grips the Japanese public. News of the kidnapping came a day after explosions were reported near Samawah, which had prompted Koizumi to remark that terrorists were trying to drive Japan's soldiers out of Iraq.

The three hostages were identified as Noriaki Imai, 18, who graduated from high school last month and reportedly was interested in the effects of depleted uranium shells; Nahoko Takato, 34, a female volunteer activist interested in helping street children in Iraq; and Soichiro Koriyama, 32, a free-lance journalist. The militant group that kidnapped them was identified as the previously unknown Saraya al-Mujahedeen.

The civilians were in Iraq despite warnings from Japan's government that Japanese citizens could be targeted. Television news programs here last night quoted a male friend of Takato's as saying, "I think it was her fault that she got caught." The reports described Imai's mother as being upset that her son had put the country in a difficult position.

"I should have not let him go to Iraq, but he had a strong desire to go there," Imai's mother said.

The hostage-taking also reminded the public of the killing last June of two Japanese diplomats in Iraq.

After the deaths, surveys in Japan indicated public support for sending a small contingent of troops to Iraq to be as low as 10 percent. Support had increased by the end of January, when soldiers were already deployed in Iraq, with one opinion poll showing as many respondents in favor of the deployment, 47 percent, as were opposed.

But the hostage-taking could buckle public support, intensify calls for a withdrawal of troops and damage Koizumi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party in elections this year.

The Japanese Defense Agency now has an annual budget of nearly $40 billion, but its forces have a distinctly defensive character.

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