An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Critics Say Abe's 'Interventionism' Made Japan A Target For ISIS


Over the weekend, the group calling itself the Islamic State or ISIS circulated a video of the beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. He's the second Japanese hostage to be killed by ISIS. The pair had been held for a ransom of $200 million, the same amount pledged by the Japanese government to help Middle Eastern nations fight ISIS. Now, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is facing criticism back home from those who say that his interventionism has made Japan a target. Roland Kelts is a contributing writer for The New Yorker and Japan Times. He divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ROLAND KELTS: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: So, how are people reacting to the way that Shinzo Abe handled this episode?

KELTS: Well, there are two reactions, really. On the one hand, Abe is receiving some criticism for having spoken imprudently when he went to Egypt to announce $200 million in aid for Syrian refugees. So he made it sound as if Japan was sort of entering into the fray, and he's being criticized for that now.

On the other hand, this could embolden the Abe administration to seek further efforts to revise the Constitution, Article 9 in particular, which prohibits Japan from having standing army. You know, the government looked - frankly, looked quite impotent for the past two weeks. It didn't have any representatives in Syria and, of course, it couldn't execute any kind of Navy SEALs-type rescue mission without have a standing military. So the government's hands were effectively tied. And this could strengthen Abe's hand in seeking more military measures.

CORNISH: Remind us of the background here. What exactly is the Japanese defense force in terms of size or training?

KELTS: They are actually quite technologically advanced. In fact, a lot of assessments point out that the Self-Defense Forces in Japan are the second or third highest tech military on the planet, but it's a small number of troops, and they are mostly involved in security and safety measures inside Japan. For example, after the tsunami and earthquake in 2011, the Self-Defense Forces were a very prominent part of the rescue and rebuilding efforts in northern Japan.

CORNISH: This is not the first time that Japan has lost citizens in a hostage crisis, right?

KELTS: That's right.

CORNISH: I mean, that happened fairly recently, I believe, in Algeria with an attack on a gas complex. And that prompted some changes by the government. But what kind of changes are we talking about here? Is it arming up more? Is it just extending the authority - sort of how far the military can go?

KELTS: Yeah. It's a very, very complex issue and one that I can say the government hasn't really clarified themselves. Japan sent a group of, I think, 50 volunteers to help dig ditches at the beginning of the Iraq war, and that enabled George Bush to say that Japan was - had joined the coalition. But these guys were standing around digging ditches far, far south of the action. So Japan had not engaged in any military activity for roughly 70 years. And, really, a lot of Japanese are proud of that. They point to the decades of pacifism as decades during which Japan rose to become the second-largest economy in the world. And certainly, Japanese of a certain generation - what we would call the baby boomer generation - most of them stridently oppose any kind of militarization in Japan.

CORNISH: In the end, what, to you, makes this look like a potential turning point for Japanese foreign policy?

KELTS: Well, I think the shock of seeing two Japanese men and then knowing that they had been beheaded really sent shockwaves through the Japanese public and the Japanese government and really turned this debate over what Japan should be doing in the 21st century into a - very much a hot-button issue.

CORNISH: That Roland Kelts. He's a contributing writer for The New Yorker magazine and The Japan Times and also author of the book, "Japanamerica." Thank so much for speaking with us.

KELTS: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.