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Inside Japan's New War With the Islamic State

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly challenged the Islamic State while secretly negotiating for two citizens being held hostage. How and why did it happen — and what will come next?
Photo by Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

Early on the morning of February 1, the Islamic State released video of the execution of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. Titled "A Message to the Government of Japan," the video appeared to feature the masked executioner known to the West as Jihadi John addressing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by name.

"Abe, because of your reckless decision to take part in an unwinnable war, this knife will not only slaughter Kenji, but will also carry on and cause carnage wherever your people are found," Jihadi John said. "So let the nightmare for Japan begin."


The video emerged a week after the release of a recording that indicated another Japanese hostage, 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, had been beheaded by the militants.

Japan had been secretly negotiating for the return of the prisoners for months after both men were abducted in Syria last year. Then, on January 17, Abe delivered a speech in Cairo. According to insiders at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), Abe went off-script from the speech MOFA had helped prepare, adding two sentences in particular that attracted a great deal of attention: "In order to help reduce the threat ISIL [the Islamic State] poses, we will offer our support to Turkey and Lebanon and also provide aid to the refugees and displaced persons of Iraq and Syria. To those nations battling with ISIL, we pledge a total of $200 million to aid in the development of human resources and infrastructure."

Two days later, the Islamic State released a video featuring Jihadi John standing between the two hostages, who were on their knees and wearing orange jumpsuits. He demanded a ransom from Japan — for, not coincidentally, $200 million. Negotiations broke down, and both men were murdered. Japan's former ambassador to Lebanon, Naoto Amaki, told the Nikkan Gendai newspaper that the speech was "an unprecedented mistake in diplomatic judgment."

The Abe administration has seemingly used the deaths of the men to further his longstanding military agenda, calling for not only the expanded use of Japan's Self Defense Forces to "protect Japanese lives," but to also justify the use of military force against Japan's economic enemies. It's unclear whether the legislation's expansive wording would technically prohibit Japan from attacking South Korea if Samsung were to rip off Sony technology.


In his official statement following the release of the Goto video, Abe said, "I am infuriated by these inhumane and despicable acts…. I will never forgive these terrorists. I will work with the international community to hold them responsible for their deplorable acts."

Those are unusually fierce words from a prime minister of Japan. According to Nikkei Newspaper, Abe added that provocative language to his prepared speech while traveling from his home to his office.

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Bringing up the issue of possible government mishandling of the crisis is in large part taboo in Japan; the mainstream Japanese press hasn't questioned it. The Asahi, Japan's second largest newspaper, did admit in a story that "some voices say that the government's handling of the crisis should be debated." But the paper didn't include any of that debate.

Asahi Television's program Hodo Station reported on February 2 that the prime minister and cabinet office hijacked the Cairo speech from MOFA, and that Abe ignored MOFA requests to "reconsider" the Middle East trip altogether. MOFA protested, saying that the report gave the impression that the diplomatic core opposed the trip. The network refused to retract the story.

The Abe administration has attacked what criticism there has been by equating it with "giving in to terrorists." During a February 2 press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga used the phrase "not give into terrorism" four times. "Not paying financial support to the Middle East," he said, "would be giving into terrorism and playing right into the hands of the terrorists."


'Even a first-year bureaucrat would know Abe's words could constitute a declaration of war to radicals like ISIL.'

Shigeaki Koga, a whistleblower formerly at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry — and author of The Runaway Nation: How The Abe Administration Manipulates Public Opinion — points out that Abe has long had an agenda that includes re-arming Japan, reviving the Imperial Constitution, creating a standing army, and initiating a peace-time draft.

That is essentially what Abe has pushed since the deaths of the hostages, labeling it "collective self-defense." As Abe told a Diet budget committee on February 3, "[My party] has already presented a draft amendment to Article 9 [the part of the post-war Japanese constitution that renounces warfare] and is amending it to carry out our duty of protecting the lives and assets of Japanese citizens."

The Abe government has denied any responsibility for the outcome of the negotiations, saying "we took all the appropriate measures and did everything we could" — and reminding people that discussing the issue is equivalent to giving into terrorism. Seij Maehara, former president of the opposition party, pointed out that the government knew the Islamic State held Japanese hostages at the time of the Cairo speech "How did you assess the risk of announcing support to countries [battling the Islamic State] at such a time?" he asked Abe.


Abe did not directly answer the question, instead repeating what has been his mantra since the crisis became public: "We will not give in to terrorists," he said. "If we give in to threats by terrorists for fear of taking risks, we can never provide humanitarian support to countries in the region."

Members of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have in turn criticized Goto and Yukawa "for not listening to warnings [to stay away from Syria]." Yukawa was captured last August, and Goto was captured in late October. By mid-November, the government of Japan knew the Islamic State held both men. MOFA told media outlets that wanted to report on the kidnappings to wait, fearing that publicizing them would result in the deaths of the hostages. They complied.

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A high-ranking MOFA official, who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation, likened the Cairo speech to "a diplomatic IED."

"The lines about 'In order to minimize the threat of ISIS' and 'Japan pledges $200 million in support to those countries battling ISIS' — none of that was in the original speech that our ministry had checked," the MOFA official told VICE News. "Even a first-year bureaucrat at MOFA would know those words could constitute a declaration of war to radicals like ISIL."

'The Islamic State.' Watch the award-winning VICE News documentary here.

A spokesperson at Abe's office told VICE News, "We won't comment on the process in which the final speech was completed and delivered, or what was the in the original manuscript."


After the speech, copies of the prepared statement were reportedly trashed, and work began on a transcript reflecting the additional lines. MOFA insiders said that there was internal debate about which Japanese character to use for a key word: tatakau, which can be written with two different characters that sound the same but have slightly different meanings. The first character connotes an abstract struggle — a battle with cancer, for instance — while the second is used to discuss warfare. MOFA decided to use the more abstract character in the Japanese transcript.

Similarly, in the English translation they used "contending with ISIL" rather than "warring with ISIL" or "fighting with ISIL." Special attention was reportedly paid by MOFA to soften the words in English as much as possible. On February 2, MOFA representatives were called to LDP headquarters and told that they had failed to ensure Abe's speeches were properly communicated to the foreign press.

'We get blamed for the crappy English translation, but we were doing damage control. He didn't read his lines.'

"We get blamed for the crappy English translation, but we were doing damage control," the MOFA source told VICE News. "He didn't read his lines."

That may sound like an odd thing for a bureaucrat to say about a prime minister's speech, but in Japan even Q&A portions of press conferences are scripted. The press club submits questions to politicians in advance, who then read their prepared answers. Some follow-up questions are allowed.


The outcome of Q&A sessions at the National Diet, Japan's legislature, are so scripted that news services sometimes report the content of the answers before they are given in session. Government ministries often write answers for Diet members — and sometimes write questions for the press. In 2006, when the governor of Nagoya decided to hold a committee meeting without scripted questions and answers, that fact was considered newsworthy.

And so when Abe gave his speech, MOFA was caught off guard. In addition, the $200 million Abe promised had not yet been approved by the Diet. MOFA later clarified that Abe meant in the Cairo speech that he was going to allocate $200 million "with the approval of the Diet."

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Regardless, the Islamic State appears to have regarded Abe's speech as a declaration of war. It was only when they responded with death threats that the Japanese government dispatched additional personnel to the embassy in Jordan, where negotiations with the Islamic State had been underway. More than two months of hostage talks had already passed.

"We wanted to set up the emergency hostage crisis headquarters in Turkey," a source close to Japan's National Police Agency who has had previous experience with international hostage situations told VICE News. "Turkey has successfully negotiated with ISIL to free hostages. They were the logical choice and the best choice… not Jordan. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry; MOFA; and the Cabinet office opposed our advice on the grounds it could negatively affect Japan's $22 billion deal with Turkey to build a nuclear power plant along the Black Sea. If things went wrong with Japan during the negotiations, Turkey might be reluctant to have new Japanese-built nuclear facilities on their soil for ISIL terrorists to attack."

The same source said there was reliable intelligence showing that Goto had been moved closer to the border with Turkey in the days before his execution, but that he was moved further into Syria when the deal fell through. "The Cairo speech put Japan on ISIL radar," he said. "We are now going to have to step up security here and abroad."

The Islamic State is burying children alive and crucifying them, says UN. Read more here.

Some politicians are timidly raising questions about the government's handling of the crisis. Grilled during sessions of the Diet this week, Abe finally admitted knowing of the hostage situation when he made his speech, but said he decided that he would never give in to terror.

"While knowing that Syria held two Japanese nationals as hostages, to declare support for 'countries battling ISIS' and his whole speech in Cairo seems… naive at best," said Nancy Snow, an Abe Fellow at Keio University in Tokyo. "There are some conspiracy theorists who assert he deliberately used such provocative language to goad ISIS into killing the hostages and advance his remilitarization plans for Japan. Looking back at what he's said over the years and his obsession with altering Japan's pacifist constitution, it is a very dark possibility that can't be completely ruled out. I'd like to think that is not the case, and if so, Abe better make that case to the Japanese people."

Follow Jake Adelstein (@jakeadelstein) and Nathalie-Kyoko Stucky (@NathalieStucky) on Twitter.