Japan's response to Islamic State hostage situation limited by constitution
January 21, 2015
YOKOHAMA, Japan — Japan may one day be able to mount a rescue attempt for hostages, like the two men captured and held ransom by the Islamic State militants, but its current laws and capabilities leave no room for a homegrown military operation.
Shortly after his party swept into power in December 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prioritized reinterpreting Japan’s 1947 constitution in a way that would allow the country to take limited action overseas and defend close allies in combat.
Abe’s vision of “collective self-defense” and his method of reinterpreting — rather than amending — Japan’s pacifist constitution, drew deep public opposition amid concerns that an ever-broadening criteria could draw Japan into foreign wars. However, the concept would allow rescues of Japanese hostages, assuming Japanese Self-Defense Forces troops train for such high-risk missions and were able to acquire the logistical and intelligence help necessary for success.
This week, Islamic State militants released a video of two Japanese men being held by the terrorist group. A militant in the video says that the two men will be executed in the next 72 hours unless Japan pays $200 million.
Speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Abe condemned the attacks. But even if he wanted to, he couldn’t order a military operation to attempt a rescue.
If ending the ban on collective self-defense were just about rescues, there would be far less controversy.
A 2013 Kyodo News poll showed 70 percent approval for aiding Japanese hostages. That same year, 10 Japanese were among 36 people taken hostage and killed by militants at a natural gas plant in Algeria.
A Cabinet resolution in 2014 made the government’s opinions on ending the ban clear but left the laws authorizing overseas actions unchanged. National security laws are slated to be debated in the Diet this year; several Japanese media sources suggest that won’t happen until after a round of local elections this spring.
So for now, Japan will have to rely on its allies if it chooses to pursue a military option.
Yuichi Hosoya, a member of a panel that made recommendations to Abe on how to implement collective self-defense, explained Japan’s legal constraints this way in 2013:
“There is no separate rule of engagement for the JSDF overseas. The penal code will be applicable to an act by a member of the JSDF, if and when he or she shoots the terrorist outside Japan, as if he or she had shot down a Japanese citizen in Japan.”