Risky Business

Japan’s Prime Minister Knew He Was Putting Hostage Lives at Risk

Japan’s media kept quiet about the kidnapping in Syria after being asked to show concern for the lives of the hostages. Why couldn’t their prime minister do the same?

02.01.15 8:00 PM ET

TOKYO—The Japanese government knew as early as mid-November that both Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa were hostages of ISIS, but its efforts to negotiate for their safe return were conducted in secret.

Japan’s media were warned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to keep silent or risk the captives’ lives. Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ignored that same explicit advice from his ministry and, in what some described as a “giddy” mood, he embarked last month on a long-planned Middle East tour.

The tragic results for Goto and Yukawa are now all too well known. And Prime Minister Abe declared himself “speechless” on Sunday, after video of Goto’s murder was posted by the so-called Islamic State. He insisted on his “indignation over this immoral and heinous act of terrorism.” But at the same time he has used the hostage crisis to serve his long-standing goal: making formally pacifist Japan once again a military power to be reckoned with on the world stage.

The January 26 issue of the weekly magazine Shukan Post details how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked the editors in November 2014 not to write about Goto’s capture. The article has a provocative headline: “Prime Minister Abe Laughs, ‘Terrorism? I’m Lucky.’”

Members of the Shukan Post staff tell The Daily Beast that when they approached foreign ministry officials in mid-November with their story, which said Goto, a well-known freelance journalist, was being held hostage by ISIS, they were told ransom negotiations were already taking place and were warned, “If you reveal Kenji Goto’s name, they’ll cut off his head. For the sake of his life, don’t report it.”

So the magazine, considering the risk to the hostages, spiked the story but continued to follow it closely. The ministry later told the reporters negotiations had become more difficult, as Goto and Yukawa were now being offered as a package deal, with a higher ransom being demanded.

Japan has a history of paying ransom to terrorists, dating back to the $6 million given to the Japanese Red Army after an airplane hijacking in 1977. ISIS must have felt it had won the lottery when Japan began talking with it via a third party, but things did not proceed smoothly in negotiations.

The foreign ministry did not have a direct channel of communications with ISIS, and the two Japanese people who might have helped establish one, ostensible ISIS sympathizers, had their homes raided and were placed under surveillance October 6, before Goto left on his fateful trip to Syria. So they were not available.

When Shukan Post went back to the ministry to request official comment on December 1, the ministry refused.

Abe’s trip to the Middle East had been scheduled months in advance. Then, just before it was about to begin, the world watched in horror the jihadist killing spree in Paris that began at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7 and only ended after the murder of Jewish shoppers at a kosher grocery on January 9. Given the circumstances, Japanese foreign ministry officials concluded, as one put it, the timing for Abe’s trip the following week was “not good.”

But on January 11, one of the biggest marches in the history of postwar France brought millions of people into the streets, along with more than 40 heads of government and heads of state showing their solidarity in the fight against the jihadist threat to freedom and to reason. Japan sent only its ambassador to Paris, and Abe may have regretted (as President Obama did) that he did not attend.

Sources close to the Abe cabinet say that after that international spectacle the prime minister dismissed the foreign ministry’s concerns about the coincidental Mideast trip, telling a fellow Liberal Democratic Party member, “I’m lucky to be going there now. The whole world is focused on the Middle East after the Paris massacre.” Others described his mood as “giddy.” Foreign ministry officials passed on their concerns to the cabinet ministers but were ignored. Negotiations continued behind rapidly closing doors.

At a meeting in Cairo on January 17, aware that ISIS held two Japanese citizens hostage, Abe pledged that Japan, in order to “reduce” the ISIS threat, would “provide $200 million in aid to those countries fighting ISIS” (our emphasis). The speech seemed to declare war on the self-styled Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL. Or maybe something got “lost in translation.” The official English-language version of the speech softens the language somewhat as Abe says, “I will pledge assistance of a total of about 200 million U.S. dollars for those countries contending with ISIL, to help build their human capacities, infrastructure, and so on” (again, our emphasis). But such nuances are lost on the headsmen of ISIS.

The self-anointed “caliphate” did not take the speech well, and its direct response was the release of a video of Goto and Yukawa that was both a warning and retaliation for perceived attempts to block the group’s activities in the Middle East.

Japan had now made its way onto the ISIS blacklist, and what slim hopes there might have been for the two hostages’ safe return diminished dramatically. On or before Jan. 24, Yukawa was beheaded.

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Abe stumbled at first in his response, but within a few days later was on talk shows, using the ransom demands as a means of pushing his idea of “collective-self defense,” which would allow Japan to fight in wars alongside its allies. Abe also wants to change the article of Japan’s constitution that forever renounces war and to restore the pre-war Imperial Constitution; he has made it a major part of his agenda since his party’s December election victories.

On January 27, the opposition camp, during a session of the Diet, had the audacity to question Abe over his announcement of millions of dollars in aid to countries battling ISIS, despite his knowledge that the group was holding Japanese citizens captive.

Seiji Maehara, former president of the Democratic Party of Japan, asked Abe whether he had fully assessed the risks before making his announcement. He pointed out, “In Cairo, [Abe] promised to provide a total of $200 million in aid to countries in the region battling [ISIS], and as a result this was repeated in its criminal declaration.”

Maehara, after getting Abe to acknowledge that the government was aware of the hostage situation, asked him, “How did you assess the risks of announcing Japan’s support at such a time?”

Abe did not answer the question directly. Instead he restated his position: “We will not give in to terrorist threats. If we give in to threats by terrorists for fear of taking risks, we can never provide humanitarian support to countries in that region.”

Abe still hasn’t answered Maehara’s question.

It’s not clear whether ISIS really believed that Abe’s initial promise of $200 million to states in the region was a declaration of war or simply interpreted it that way for its own political purposes. Maybe it didn’t matter what Abe did. Maybe the hostages would have been killed either way.

But one thing is certain: Shukan Post, which often matches scandalous headlines with solid reporting, took the threats to the lives of the hostages seriously enough to kill its story at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Abe neither paid attention nor seemed to care about what the ministry had to say.

The tragic irony at the center of all this maneuvering is that Kenji Goto, who devoted his life as a journalist to shedding light on the tragedies of war, will now be used by the Abe administration to expand the powers of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and make it possible for Japan to wage new wars of its own.