Hostage crisis reminds Japan it is a target for militants, too: Analysts

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's hostage crisis is a stark reminder that Tokyo's deep pockets and alliance with the United States make it a target for Islamist militants, analysts say, even if the nation considers itself far removed from Middle Eastern conflicts.

Japan has been rocked by a video in which a black-clad militant from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) demands US$200 million (S$266 million) for the lives of freelance journalist Kenji Goto and self-employed contractor Haruna Yukawa.

With a 72-hour deadline due to expire on Friday around 6am GMT, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged it was a "race against time", but vowed his government will do everything possible to secure their release.

The case has come as a huge jolt to Japan, whose inhabitants regard their country as a diplomatic bit-player that smilingly lavishes aid money around the world. "Japanese people are unsure of what course of action should be taken," said Mr Kazuo Takahashi, Middle East expert at the Open University of Japan.

The militants have linked their ransom demand to Mr Abe's pledge of financial support for countries dealing with the influx of refugees fleeing ISIS militants fighting in Syria and Iraq.

"What Japan has to do is to stress the humanitarian nature of the aid money and to say it is to help refugees and people who are in great pain," said Ms Takahashi.

Tokyo's reputation for always having its chequebook handy may have played into the militants' hands, analysts said.

The parading of prisoners while Mr Abe was in the region was opportunistic, rather than specifically ideological, they said - Mr Yukawa has been missing since last summer, while Mr Goto disappeared in October - noting that people from relatively wealthy Japan have long been easy prey for kidnappers seeking large ransoms.

But, perhaps more valuable, said Ms Misa Kanaya, research fellow at the Middle East Institute of Japan, is the publicity the militant group will garner.

"Money is likely their secondary objective. First and foremost, they wanted to use it as an opportunity to attract the world's attention," she said.

"The Islamic State used (Mr Abe's trip) to issue the message that it regarded Japan as a member of the US-led bloc taking measures against it," she said.

Mr Toshiyuki Shikata, a defence expert at Teikyo University, agreed, pointing out that the ISIS group's world view is binary.

"This is not an issue of the West and the non-Western world. The ISIS regards anyone who is against their interest as their enemy," he said.

The crisis emerged as Mr Abe, Tokyo's most powerful leader in a decade, tries to bolster the country's diplomatic punch.

He has moved to loosen some of restrictions the pacifist constitution places on Japan's well-equipped military, reinterpreting a clause that barred it from coming to the aid of an ally on the battlefield.

He has also led a vigorous diplomatic push to forge tighter defence and economic ties with friendly nations, particularly regional heavyweights Australia and India.

Under the slogan "proactive pacifism" he has sought to boost Japan's profile in what he sees as an effort to become a more normal member of the international community, instead of the timid, post-World War II creature created by US occupiers.

The Open University's Mr Takahashi cautioned against joining up the dots to say Mr Abe's brand of more active diplomacy has heightened the risk to Japan and its citizens abroad.

The Premier's US$200 million aid pledge was in many ways typical of previous Japanese behaviour, and the kind of vital relationship-building Tokyo must continue.

As a resource-poor country, Japan must engage with the Middle East, a huge source of energy to power the world's third largest economy, especially at a time that near neighbour and global competitor China is pushing its influence there, he said.

In the immediate crisis, Tokyo needs to leverage some of the goodwill it has built over years of dolling out cash, and needs to call on friends in the Middle East like Turkey, he said.

"The case has thrown a bit of cold water on Abe, who wanted to use his Middle East tour as another diplomatic high point," Mr Takahashi said.

But Tokyo cannot cave in and hand over the ransom money, said Teikyo's Mr Shikata - "At least not openly".

"Japan has no choice but to vow to fight against terrorism," he said.