Japan Should Stay Away From ISIS Conflict


On Sunday, Feb. 1, the Islamic State released a video showing the execution of the second Japanese hostage, Kenji Goto, a war correspondent whose work often focused on the suffering of families and children caught in conflicts. Joint efforts by Japan and Jordan to negotiate a prisoner swap with the jihadists ended in failure. Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has condemned the killings—vowing “to make the terrorists pay the price”—and has pledged to provide more humanitarian aid to the region, on top of the initially offered $200 million. The Islamic State had demanded this same sum after Japan offered it as non-lethal aid to countries fighting against them; the Japanese government refused to comply. This all comes a year after Japan revised its constitution to allow the deployment of its military overseas—for the first time since the U.S. occupation—but only to assist allies in war or to protect Japanese citizens abroad. The Japanese Parliament will be discussing legislation related to these constitutional changes later this month, and will undoubtedly be influenced by the recent murder of two of its citizens by Islamists.

This tragedy will be one of the most important policy tests for Japan in recent memory. If a country like the United States, Britain or France, were in the position that Japan now finds itself—and indeed we have been—the obvious answer for our leaders would be to bomb our enemies back to the stone age. This is not, however, the obvious answer in Japan, which only spends 1 percent of GDP on its military (about $50 billion) and whose army is literally called the Self-Defense Force (JSDF). The post-war constitution originally banned war as a form of foreign policy and forbade the maintenance of forces with “war potential.” After most U.S. troops left Japan during the Korean War, the archipelago was almost completely defenseless, something unacceptable to both Japan and the United States during the Cold War and which lead to the creation of the JSDF. The question now on many minds is whether or not Japan should take part in U.S.-led combat operations against the Islamic State, since the legal framework to do so now technically exists, as well as seemingly the moral justification.

I do not think that Japan should become militarily involved in the war with the Islamic State. First of all, the justification is insufficient, given the human and monetary costs that would be incurred. Two Japanese citizens travelled to Syria well after that country’s civil war had started and were taken hostage by Islamists. Those Islamists then demanded an absurd ransom of $100 million per person. Hostage-taking is classic terrorist/guerrilla/paramilitary form of rent-seeking; they kidnap wealthy persons from wealthy societies and then demand to be paid for their safe return. This is what paramilitaries do in warzones. It is a macabre form of fundraising. As tragic and as offensive as the murders of Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto are, this is not a proper reason for Japan to commit to war with the Islamic State. It is highly likely that the cost war with the Islamic State would exceed $200 million and more than two Japanese casualties or civilian deaths. Are these costs that Japan, a nation with an almost stagnant economy and strong political tradition of pacifism, would want to take on? The visceral and livid reaction to the Islamic State’s terrorism is, of course, exactly what they want. Brigands live off war and violence; without it they will starve.

The other main reason I think Japan should avoid war with the Islamic State is because it’s too irrelevant of a conflict. What horse do they have in this race? Humanitarian warfare is an oxymoron. War between a self-styled Caliphate that possesses none of the medieval Islamic capitals (Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba) and post-imperial Japan? Is this the world we are living in? American generals often speak about “mission creep,” when the scope of a military operation spirals out of control once it’s on the ground. You go from toppling dictators to nation-building to counter-insurgency. What we have here would be some kind of absurdist ally creep, where we go from having Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand assisting us in our war of the month to calling in Japan. If Japan were to get involved in military operations against the Islamic State, they would become party to the American quagmire in the Middle East, on which the Rising Sun would never be able to set. If Japan wants to send non-lethal aid to countries and refugees affected by the war, that’s great. Good for them. But unless military involvement will lead to the timely and guaranteed destruction of the Islamic State and the rebuilding of Syria and Iraq along stable and peaceful lines—good luck—the best option is to help those who are suffering and not to help spread suffering.