Japan should not turn inward after ISIS beheadings

The brutal murder of a second Japanese hostage by ISIS shows that Japan cannot insulate itself from the world's problems even if it wants to. As a major liberal-democratic power Japan must engage further with the world, for its own sake and ours

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Michael Auslin
On 1 February 2015 10:45

With the reported beheading of hostage Haruna Yukawa, Japan has joined the list of countries scarred by the brutality of ISIS. While the country awaited the fate of second hostage Kenji Goto (now reportedly killed too), Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly announced that he would not pay the demanded $200 million ransom, the same amount Abe pledged in humanitarian aid to countries combatting ISIS.

What is clear is that ISIS will target the citizens even of nations that provide non-lethal aid to those fighting its virulent Islamic ideology.

There are stories that the Japanese public is divided on its views of Yukawa and Goto, with some blaming the men for putting themselves unnecessarily into danger. The plight of Goto, a freelance journalist, apparently garners more sympathy than that of Yukawa, a self-described military consultant and soldier of fortune.

Some go so far as to say that the fate of Yukawa and Goto prove that Japan should not get more involved in the world, and that Prime Minister Abe’s plans for a greater Japanese role abroad will only lead to more tragedy and crisis.

This is exactly the wrong lesson to take from the brutal murders Yes, they may have put themselves in harm’s way, but pulling back from the world will not make it, or the Japanese people, any safer.

An island nation mentality cannot work in the 21st century, just as it could not work at any time after 1868. Japan has vaulted to being Asia’s most modern and wealthy nation precisely because of its post-World War II global role.

Isolation is an impossibility in a globalized world, and calls for it to turn inward will only lead to a marginalized Japan. Japanese should not be expected to flood war zones for whatever reason; but to apply a mistaken notion about how to avoid risk in a world that is not self-correcting can only harm Japan’s interests.

Once the decision is made to avoid risk, then it will become increasingly easy to justify further pullback, maybe by giving up Tokyo’s budding cooperation with Southeast Asian nations, or possibly even by giving up its territorial control of islands in the East China Sea that are disputed by China.

The lesson of these deaths, rather, should be that liberal nations face a choice: whether to do what they can to battle growing disorder in the world, or to try and hide.

The Japanese public should think about what kind of global role will best serve their interests in the Middle East, as well as in Asia.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues. Before joining AEI, Auslin was an associate professor of history at Yale University. His articles can be read here. This article has been amended to incorporate reports of the murder of the second Japanese hostage

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