THE BLOG
01/28/2015 02:31 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2015

Hostage Crisis Shows How Japan Fails to Protect Its Citizens -- And What It's Doing About It

KAZUHIRO NOGI via Getty Images

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on a six-day tour of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, when the Islamic State posted a video online threatening to murder two Japanese hostages, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, if his government did not pay $200 million within 72 hours. Abe had no good options. Indeed, when it comes to protecting its citizens overseas, Japan never does.

When Abe failed to bow to its demands, ISIS released a second video claiming that Yukawa, who was seized last August in Syria while reportedly preparing to establish a Japan-based private security company, had been beheaded. Goto, a journalist who traveled to Syria last October to try to secure Yukawa's release, will supposedly be spared if Japan secures Jordan's release of a convicted terrorist.

In fact, Goto's wife had received an email demanding a ransom of ¥2 billion ($17 million) in December. But it seems that Abe's Middle East tour presented a greater opportunity for ISIS to make the most of its Japanese hostages.

ISIS's ransom demand was not just a bid for cash; it sent a powerful message. Just three days before the demand was made, Abe pledged to provide $200 million in non-military humanitarian aid to frontline countries in the fight against ISIS, including Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, all of which have taken in large numbers of refugees.

ISIS explicitly directed the video to both Japan's government and its citizens, evidently hoping that the largely pacifist Japanese would press their leaders to back down. And, to some extent, their expectation was met; some opposition members of Japan's Diet tweeted that Abe should cancel the promised aid. Needless to say, Abe's government ignored their advice.

When the ransom demand did not work, ISIS shifted its approach, but not its goal. The prisoner whose release it has demanded in exchange for Goto is Sajida al-Rishawi, who faces the death penalty in Jordan for her role in hotel bombings in Amman in 2005. The group seems to believe that forcing Japan and Jordan to negotiate such a trade could undermine the countries' longstanding relationship.

ISIS probably knows that Japan has historically placed the safety of its own citizens above all other considerations -- even if it meant bowing to terrorists' demands. When the Japanese Red Army hijacked a Japan Airlines flight to Dhaka Airport in Bangladesh in 1977, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda not only paid the $6 million ransom; he also resorted to the "extralegal measure" of handing over imprisoned members of the faction. "The weight of a human life," he declared, "is heavier than the earth itself."

This response stands in stark contrast to Israel's behavior a year earlier, when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France flight with 256 passengers. Instead of giving the group what they wanted -- the release of 53 militants imprisoned in Israel and four other countries -- the Israeli Army launched Operation Thunderbolt, rescuing the hostages at Uganda's Entebbe Airport. Only three hostages and one Israeli commando -- Yonatan Netanyahu, the elder brother of current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu -- were killed in the operation.

But Fukuda's response was not entirely a matter of choice. Under Japan's constitution, neither the country's self-defense forces nor the police would have had legal grounds to travel overseas to rescue endangered Japanese citizens. In any case, neither force would have had the training necessary to pull off something like Operation Thunderbolt.

The Dhaka episode was hardly the first time that threats against Japanese citizens had exposed this shortcoming. Seven years earlier, a forerunner to the Japanese Red Army hijacked another Japan Airlines flight -- the "Yodogo" -- and demanded to be taken to North Korea. The Japanese authorities got lucky: When the pilot landed first in South Korea, the hijackers released their 129 hostages in exchange for permission to continue to Pyongyang, where they gained asylum.

Two years later, three members of the Japanese Red Army, recruited by the PFLP, attacked Tel Aviv's Lod Airport, killing 26 people and injuring 80 others. And, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the wives of the Yodogo hijackers went to Europe, where they are suspected of abducting young Japanese students and taking them to North Korea.

As ISIS' actions demonstrate, Japanese are still at risk -- and their government still lacks adequate tools to protect them. Fortunately, Abe -- whose efforts to rescue Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea fueled his political rise -- seems to recognize the need for change.

Since World War II, military considerations have barely factored into Japanese policy, and official development assistance, which began as war reparations, has placed international imperatives above domestic concerns. But, after playing benefactor to the world for 60 years, Japan's diplomatic and crisis management capabilities have been severely weakened.

It is unacceptable for a government to be unable to protect its own citizens. That is why Abe is determined to amend, or at least reinterpret, Japan's constitution to allow for the kinds of defense maneuvers that other countries, from Israel to India, employ when their people are threatened. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once put it, a constitution is not a suicide pact.

© Project Syndicate