Kidnap crisis poses a new risk
Japan's outrage toward the former hostages in Iraq could result in bad public policy
By Debito Arudou, May 11, 2004

When five Japanese were taken hostage in Iraq last month, huge public concern for their safe return quickly gave way to hostility and a campaign of vilification. A disastrous public appeal by the families of three of the hostages for the withdrawal of SDF troops from Iraq encouraged the government to take a tough line, and facilitated a media frenzy that sought to paint the hostages as reckless, naive and of dubious political affiliation.

However, a series of measures proposed by officials emboldened by the backlash and designed to prevent a repeat occurrence of the kidnap crisis may only have the effect of snuffing out Japan's nascent volunteer movement.

Public reaction to the repatriation of the hostages was shocking. Airport placards called them "self-centered" and "the shame of Japan." Public officials branded them "irresponsible," "reckless," even "antigovernment." Instead of a welcome, they were labeled troublemakers

Overseas observers searched for reasons why, digging deep into their concepts of Japanese culture. The New York Times unearthed a mysterious sociological artifact called "okami." After centuries of hierarchy, the reporter averred, the hostages' lack of deference to authority triggered a negative reflex in Japanese society. Ignoring a government advisory against traveling to Iraq was a "sin."

America's Nikkei View Web site was more inciteful (pardon the pun), bringing up the old chestnut about upstanding nails getting hammered down, the author depicted the "poor brave Japanese, who were just trying to make a difference," as victims of Japan's "deep-rooted cultural need to always put the welfare . . . of the group above the concerns of the individual."

This tendency to "listen absolutely to authority has maybe held back Japanese people in the great world scheme of things."

But this genre of observations -- which assumes something incomprehensible must be something cultural -- is facile and belittling.

Japanese people were hardly prisoners of culture. Street protests calling for the SDF's withdrawal in the first few days of the crisis demonstrate the diversity of public opinion.

So why the negative reaction? Essentially those in the spotlight undermined themselves with their own actions.

The first PR misstep was the families of the hostages immediately demanding SDF withdrawal -- not simply demanding their kin's rescue. Skirted was the issue of what kind of precedent Japan's appeasement might set for other kidnappable Japanese overseas.

Moreover, as their demands grew testier, things appeared more political than tragic. This appeared especially true after Internet jackals uncovered alleged communist ties.

Then the media scrutinized the hostages' motivations for being in Iraq. Reports on how three of them blithely blundered into their capture questioned their common sense. Didn't they know they were driving into a war zone?

What seemed to clinch the critics' side was that one of the hostages is only 18 -- not even an adult under Japanese law. Ostensibly, he went there to research the effects of depleted uranium. But what qualifications could a recent high school graduate possibly have?

Consensus: How could a parent let their child venture into this dangerous place, then howl angrily for his rescue and the SDF's return?

Finally, after the hostages were sprung, the three which attracted the most attention offered no immediate thanks or apologies. In fact, some stated they wanted to go right back to Iraq.

So let's be fair to the outrage. Forget theoretical bunkum about Japanese culture. I doubt public sentiment anywhere would have differed.

But what happened next goes beyond fair. Defenders of the hostages clammed up and the debate turned into a sport, a media frenzy.

Out popped the low blows: How these wealthy-looking lefties were wasting taxes in these economically-troubled times. The frumpiness of the female hostage. A torn-up high school diploma. Cannabis use. People even wondered if a video showing the hostages with knives to their throats was staged to get the SDF out.

Then in crept political opportunism. Diet members trial-ballooned making trips to unstable countries illegal. One politician even said he didn't want public funds used on people harboring "antigovernment" sentiments. And that's when things ventured into more dangerous territory -- public policy.

The public's impulse is understandable. Whenever a society weathers a great shock, people want to stop it happening again. But shocks habitually beget ill-considered legislation, even in societies with healthy debate arenas and checks and balances.

Dubious? Do some Internet searches: Britain's 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act. The Mann Act of 1910. Wilson's Espionage Act of 1917. McCarthyism and the McCarran Act of 1950. America's 2001 PATRIOT Act, passed just 45 days after Sept. 11.

In Japan's case, laws are being proposed to punish those entering designated "danger zones" without an official reason.

Victims -- or their families -- will foot the bill for their rescue, which will amount to airfare, if not more. "This is standard practice for mountain rescues," one line of reasoning goes.

But consider two things: One is that an aid mission to a danger zone is not a forest stroll gone astray. The very comparison indicates a misunderstanding of what aid missions do.

The second is policy overstretch and political abuse. This law would place a degree of government control over aid organizations, something many don't want. Particularly NGOs (by very the nature of their title) eschew government support, especially when they take on problems governments would rather avoid.

Under this law, they would effectively need official permission to work in some places overseas. Those "unsponsored" who get unlucky will face a "rescue fine" -- which could bankrupt the person or the organization. Thus this new system of rents will curtail Japanese volunteerism.

Far-fetched? Hark back to 2002, when ex-LDP kingpin Muneo Suzuki allegedly excluded NGO "Peace Winds Japan" from a Foreign Ministry meeting for personal reasons. If Suzuki could have gone further and withdrawn government sponsorship, PWJ probably could not have continued its work in Afghanistan.

As Colin Powell inferred in his appraisal of this hostage crisis, volunteerism is a positive development for a society. Japan, a country not well-known for its volunteer spirit, is only now understanding that the world's problems need more than just money thrown at them.

They need dedicated people with social consciousness, and we are seeing their works even domestically in the fight for foreigners' rights ( Zeit Gist: March 30, 2004 ).

Above all, a palpable undercurrent of the debate must not hold sway: "If you get into trouble overseas, it is your fault and your responsibility. So stay home in safe Japan and mind your own business. Volunteerism only leads to trouble for you and your family."

So what is to be done? While acknowledging that citizens of a country at home or abroad can and should expect at least a modicum of government representation, I suggest that people destined for "dangerous areas" sign a Foreign Ministry release indicating they go there on their own recognizance. If anything happens, they waive government assistance.

A bit cold-blooded. But it is better than the public blaming someone for getting hurt when trying to help others. Or perpetuating the image that volunteers are reckless and irresponsible, and enacting legislation to rein them in.

The Japan Times: May 11, 2004
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