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May 1, 2004 7:02 am


Japanese Hostage Reflections



The editor of H-US-Japan forwarded this article in Japanese, with the commentary"Mr. Takasaki hit the nail right on the head." I was intrigued, and my Japanese can always use practice, so I checked it out. I don't think he was praising to the aptness of Takasaki's argument, but rather associating the article with the Japanese proverb deru kugi o utsu [Strike the nail that sticks up], referring to Japan's well-known culture of enforced conformity (actually slightly overblown, but only slightly). There were two articles on the page, representing two powerful threads of the debate running through Japan in response to this national crisis.

Mr. Ryuji TAKASAKI -- arguing that the aid workers should have known better than to go into a war zone and risk not only their own lives but also a potential backlash against the people they were trying to help -- certainly seems to represent some kind of consensus within Japan (the NY Times has been reporting on it consistently, including the rebuttal by the now-free aid workers).

But was it so unwise for Japanese reporters and aid workers to go? Remember that they went at the beginning of April, when it seemed more like the US claims of pacification were credible, when Saddam Hussein was arrested and the Baath-based insurgency seemed likely to dissolve quickly, when predictions of civil war within Iraq seemed more like sour grapes carping from the anti-war camp. The Fallujah atrocities had not yet happened. The Shi'a-Sunni alliance was not yet common knowledge. The US government was not yet having to defend its mid-summer sovereignty restoration plan. The Japanese government was considering sending its own peacekeeper mission. This was a pretty good time for internationally minded folks to join in, not a total"hot zone."

The first article on the page, Mr. Miki KASE's argument in favor of Japan developing Special Forces type capability and a willingness to use it in situations like this or the case of the Japanese Ambassador to Peru, is more interesting. The New York Times is also reporting a slight majority of Japanese surveyed in favor of modifying the Peace Constitution [here's the Japanese language version] to permit non-combat peacekeeping (though the share favoring modifications to Article IX remains below 1/3).

Kase's argument is that, in the absence of independent capacity to respond, Japan either has to let its citizens suffer, acceed to terrorists demands, or rely on third parties. None of these are particularly viable, Kase says, long-term options for a nation which is becoming more involved in international affairs. Kase does not address the question of the Constitution, but there are two options that I could forsee: either modify the Constitution to permit overseas rescues, or declare those operations"police actions" rather than"acts of war." If that doesn't work ("threat of force" seems to preclude it) they could declare hostage-takers"non-state actors" with whom it is impossible to enter a state of war or have"international affairs" in a meaningful fashion, so that the use of force against them would not violate the article. The latter options would be more consistent, I suppose, with the consitutionally anomalous position of the Self Defense Forces themselves.


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Jonathan Dresner - 5/2/2004

I agree: if Japan is going to be an internationally engaged society, its citizens cannot be driven away from doing good work under less-than-ideal conditions.

I was in Japan for the Kobe-Hanshin Earthquake, and I well remember the lack of NGO activity (though yakuza were very helpful, apparently) and the subsequent discussion about Japan's lack of volunteerism and service. I also remember the ease with which my wife and I gave blood the next day: we expected long lines, but breezed right through (aside from the usual odd looks).


Konrad M Lawson - 5/2/2004

sorry, I left out an important "not" in my last statement.


Konrad M Lawson - 5/2/2004

The consensus you mention, as representative of Takasaki is certainly wide spread. As I pointed out in a comment responding to Joi Ito's thoughts on this issue (joi.ito.com/archives/2004/04/30/reaction_of_japan_to_the_japanese_hostages_in_iraq.html) where I noted that the hostages were "welcomed" at the airport with signs saying jigou jitoku (you reap what you sow).

Joi, on the other hand, argues that the lack of apology is central in explaining things.

On my own blog, (http://www.muninn.net/blog/archives/000179.html) I refer to an article by Kikichiyo on his blog where he makes an interesting connection between jizo statues and the current crisis.

What I often feel is left out in all the crazy media coverage about this here in Japan, including the hanseifu hannichitekibunshi (anti-gov anti-Japanese elements) call by one politician - is that Japan has many admirable young people all over the world as JICA volunteers, NHK journalists and others. How does Japan want to divide the legitimate from the illegitimate citizens in dangerous regions?

All countries warn their citizens not to travel to dangerous areas. But many of us feel deep pride when our friends go to work for the United Nations in places like Laos, East Timor, or for countless other, less "legitimate" organizations or purposes (including missionaries) in places like Iraq.

I agree with Dresner here that the criticism that they were not necessarily so unwise in going because it was not a total hot zone. However, I fear that even debating this issue allows the debate to be focused on the wrong question, which assumes, "If it was really a dangerous place, they shouldn't have gone."

That is an issue as far as I'm concerned. If they were in Iraq for sightseeing or to water ski on the Tigris, I would welcome the signs which claim jigou jitoku. However, these people, like thousands of others all over the world, accept dangerous conditions for humanitarian causes. Whether this is under the auspices of the UN, in the service of a governments "self-defence" forces, or another organization, they are something for Japan to feel pride and not shame in.