In Japan “I am Kenji” has replaced “I am Charlie” as the rallying cry of choice. The Kenji in question is Kenji Goto, a respected freelance journalist captured by militants from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) in Syria. On Saturday, a video was released of Mr Goto wearing a now all-too-familiar orange jump suit. He was holding up a photograph of what appeared to be the body of another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa, who was almost certainly beheaded after Tokyo refused to pay a $200m ransom. Isis is demanding the release of an al-Qaeda militant being held in Jordan. If she is not freed, it has warned, Mr Goto will be the next to die.
Much more than the fate of Mr Goto hangs in the balance. Japan’s foreign policy, rooted in its pacifist constitution, stands at a tipping point. How the public reacts to the fate of Mr Goto could have a big influence on where things go from here.
Two related changes are under way. First Shinzo Abe, the conservative prime minister, is seeking to establish a more robust defence posture, one he has termed “proactive pacifism”. That doctrine has been used to justify everything from selling arms to allies — until recently strictly forbidden — to beefing up maritime defence around islands disputed with China. In particular, he wants to change a constitutional interpretation that bars Japan from helping allies if they come under attack. Ideally, he would also like to scrap article nine of Japan’s 1947 constitution, in which Tokyo forever renounces the right to wage war. In practice, that is likely to prove impossible because a strongly pacifist public would almost certainly reject such an amendment in an obligatory referendum.
Second, after years in which Tokyo sought to present itself as neutral on the world stage, Mr Abe is trying to nudge Japan towards taking a stand. Since the second world war, Japan has pursued what has been imaginatively called “omnidirectional diplomacy”. Crudely put, that has meant pretending to be everyone’s friend while pursuing its own economic interests. Meanwhile, the nasty business of defending Japan has been outsourced to the US.
Omnidirectional diplomacy has had its uses. In 1973, for example, faced with a ruinous oil embargo, Japanese diplomats distanced themselves from US support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war by presenting Tokyo as a friend to the Arab world. Oil flowed to Japan again. A decade ago, Tokyo played a similar card in Iran. By wooing Tehran, it won a concession to the huge Azadegan oilfield only for Washington to scupper the deal in the name of sanctions. The illusion of neutrality is becoming harder to pull off. Japan’s economic clout has waned, and geostrategic faultlines have widened with the rise of China and the 9/11 attacks on the US.
The hostage crisis could cut both ways for Mr Abe’s foreign policy ambitions. He will try to use the incident as evidence that Japan needs to stand up for itself more. Unlike many other nations, it has no commando unit ready to mount a rescue mission nor any constitutional leeway to take military action against foreign forces who seek to harm its nationals.
Yukio Okamoto, a defence expert and supporter of Mr Abe’s diplomatic agenda, says the kidnapping has exposed the Japanese public to the world’s uncomfortable realities. “We can no longer hide behind camouflaged neutrality,” he says.
Many in Japan will draw precisely the opposite conclusion. The incident, they will say, shows the perils of being sucked into foreign adventures. From the isolation and rarefied comfort of Japan, the rest of the world can seem like a blood-curdling place in which monotheistic religions vie for supremacy. Mr Abe has been criticised in parliament for offering $200m in humanitarian support to opponents of Isis. That, say critics, was a like a red rag to the fundamentalist bull.
“Many people are saying: ‘Why do we want to be America’s deputy sheriff? Do we really want to stick our necks out?’” says Jeff Kingston, a professor of international studies at Tokyo’s Temple University.
The outcome of the debate may well hinge on the fate of Mr Goto. Unlike the executed Yukawa, a fantasist who stumbled into the Middle East after claiming to be the reincarnation of a Manchu princess, Mr Goto elicits plenty of public sympathy. A humanitarian who has devoted much of his journalistic career to exposing the hardships of children in war zones, he went to Syria in a desperate attempt to rescue the hapless Yukawa. If he is released, as seemed possible on Wednesday, Mr Abe’s hand will be strengthened. His no-compromise diplomacy will be seen to have borne results, even if Mr Goto’s freedom is won through a Jordanian hostage exchange. If on the other hand, Mr Goto ends up dead, public support for foreign engagement could waver.
That could make it harder for Mr Abe to pass laws needed to bolster his constitutional reinterpretation. In the long run, however, any setback is likely to be temporary. The world is changing. China is pressing its territorial claims on Japan. The US is seen by many in Tokyo as an undependable ally, unlikely, if push comes to shove, to spill American blood in Japan’s defence. Meanwhile, the Middle East, on whose oil Japan remains dependent, has gone up in ideological flames. For Tokyo, the days of sitting on the fence are ending.