| Takehiko Kambayashi |
Tokyo (dpa) – Even as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the killing of one of two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State militant group, critics have pointed the finger at the Japanese premier for his more robust foreign policy and in particular a recent trip to the Middle East.
Central to their accusations is a speech Abe made in the Jordanian capital Amman on January 18, just two days before the Islamic State demanded a ransom for the two hostages, journalist Kenji Goto and private security contractor Haruna Yukawa.
Abe announced that Japan would give 200 million dollars to countries in the region “for their fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).”
“Your [Abe’s] speech in the Middle East was a trigger without any doubt,” Ukeru Magosaki, a former Foreign Ministry official who taught at the National Defence Academy of Japan, wrote on Twitter.
“The terrorist act should be condemned. But Prime Minister Abe has a grave responsibility for provoking [the hostage crisis],” said Magosaki, who also served as ambassador to Iran.
An online video released Saturday shows Goto holding the photo of the lifeless remains of Haruna Yukawa, along with an audio message in which Goto said the Islamic State group was demanding the release of a prisoner in exchange for his freedom.
The timing of Abe’s visit to the Middle East was ill-advised, said Akikazu Hashimoto, professor of political science at JF Oberlin University in Tokyo.
He made the trip even though the Foreign Ministry had apparently already learned that at least one of the two hostages was being held by Islamic State, Hashimoto told dpa.
Yukawa was captured by the militant group in the summer. Goto’s wife told the Foreign Ministry that she had received emails demanding a ransom for her husband as early as November, according to local media reports that were not denied by the government.
“I question the Foreign Ministry’s policy towards the Middle East,” Hashimoto said.
Others criticised Abe’s strong rhetoric during his Middle East tour.
Soon after the first video was posted online a week ago, Abe said at a news conference in Jerusalem, “We are prioritising human life above all … At any rate, I believe that the international community must never yield to terrorism.”
Abe has been pushing for Japan’s military to take a more assertive role abroad, reinterpreting the country’s so-called “pacifist” constitution to allow its armed forces to possibly intervene in conflicts abroad.
Osamu Miyata, director of the Centre for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan, said in a column in the major daily Asahi that the premier “used the word terrorism without careful consideration and overemphasised good relations with Israel.”
The hostage crisis prompted Abe to start emphasising the aid announced was provided to the Middle East “for non-military purposes” – a familiar phrase in Japan, which sent troops to Iraq in 2004 but only for non-combat activities in “safe” areas.
Japanese politicians often fail to consider how their words will be interpreted in other countries, according to Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former defence ministry official who also served as assistant chief cabinet secretary.
“Japan’s foreign policy is to see the world through the eye of the United States,” Yanagisawa told the Independent Web Journal (IWJ). Japan “could have responded [to the crisis] more carefully if the country had been able to see the Middle East with its own eyes.”
Critical voices, which have been downplayed by Japan’s major media, have not damaged Abe’s popularity nationwide, according to a recent poll.
The government’s handling of the ongoing crisis was supported by 60.6 per cent of people polled by Kyodo News agency on Sunday, while some 31 per cent opposed the government’s response.
The numbers may reflect approval of Abe’s uncompromising rhetoric more than the actual response, as the government has released almost no details of its strategy to save the hostages, beyond saying it is “cooperating” with other countries and “using all possible means.”
The approval rating for Abe’s cabinet has stayed much the same compared the last month, the poll showed.