Japanese PM's ‘Triple Disaster’ Response to ISIS Ransom Demands

"Abe completely clueless." - Nikkan Gendai; video screenshot courtesy of YouTube user Railgunmani.

“Abe completely clueless.” – Nikkan Gendai; video screenshot courtesy of YouTube user Railgunmani.

After efforts to free two hostages captured by ISIS failed, questions are being raised about the Japanese government's approach to the crisis.

One journalist and academic wonders if a speech by Japanese Prime Minister Abe in Cairo on January 18 may have set the crisis in motion. 

On January 21, 2014, militant group ISIS gave Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a 72 hour deadline to pay a $200 million ransom for the two hostages.

On the same day, ISIS released a video that showed two kneeling men dressed in orange clothing being threatened by a masked, knife-wielding man. In the video, their captor warned the two they would be killed unless the Japanese government paid a ransom of $200 million within 72 hours.

When the deadline expired on Friday, January 23 with no ransom paid to free Japanese nationals Kenji Goto, 47, and Haruna Yukawa, 42, ISIS then said it would release a statement about its intentions “soon”, according to Japanese state broadcaster NHK. NHK had in fact been in direct contact with ISIS early Friday after the deadline passed.

With the passing of the deadline on Friday and uncertainty whether or not the two hostages would live or die, increasing attention was being paid in the Japanese press about the Abe government's missteps during the crisis.

“Japanese Prime Minister Abe committed a triple fiasco” when responding to the crisis, claimed a widely read article by tabloid daily Nikkan Gendai.

What did Abe do wrong, according to Nikkan Gendai?

1) Abe dispatched a notably pro-Israel Japanese lawmaker to Jordan to deal with the crisis.

Strike 1, according to Nikkan Gendai‘s analysis, was Prime Minister Abe's decision to send Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy Minister of Foreign affairs, to Jordan to coordinate Japan's response to the crisis.

Nakayama has long been seen as being close to Israel, something problematic when dealing ISIS, which as a nominally Islamic organization, according to Nikkan Gendai, naturally holds antipathy towards Israel.

And sending someone known to be aligned with Israel to coordinate with Arab countries to release the hostages was a misstep as well, Nikkan Gendai asserts. 

2) Abe delivered his response to ISIS's demands standing in front of an Israeli flag.

According to Nikkan Gendai's analysis, Strike 2 was Abe's decision to “resolutely condemn” ISIS's ransom demands as “despicable acts of terrorism” while standing in front of an Israeli flag in Jerusalem.

Unfortunately for Prime Minister Abe, ISIS released its video of the hostages and its ransom demands during his state visit to Israel. Presumably, the emergency media briefing was held in the very same space where hours earlier Abe and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had held a joint press conference promising greater collaboration between the two countries.

But that was no excuse for Abe to respond to ISIS in front of an Israeli flag, which Nikkan Gendai calls “clueless”, guaranteeing little support for Japan from the rest of the Arab world.

3) By immediately stating Japan would never pay a ransom, Abe effectively delivered a death sentence to the two men.

On January 21, the day ISIS released its ransom demands, Masahiko Komura, a senior member of Japan's governing party, stated that Japan would never pay. This effectively signed the death sentence for the two hostages, says Nikkan Gendai.

The Nikkan Gendai article's term “triple fiasco” (3大失態) is a reference to the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in March 2011 that devastated Japan. By the end of Friday January 23, the term 3大失態 had already generated dozens of online discussions on the Japanese internet.

More mistakes

Others have identified other strategic blunders made by Prime Minister Abe over the past week as he tried to resolve the crisis.

Several Japanese journalists familiar with the Middle East were critical of Abe's performance when interviewed by the Japan Times.

Besides responding to ISIS in Israel, other errors include deciding to coordinate the negotiation effort from Jordan which practically speaking has no ability to help end the crisis. Abe also chose to reach out to British Prime Minister David Cameron for help, rather than to seek assistance from Turkey.

While Turkey has much better track record negotiating with ISIS and other militant groups, Britain has always refused to meet ransom demands (and thereby ensuring the death of British hostages). There is also the possibility that Britain and its partner the US may pressure Japan to reject meeting ISIS's ransom demands.

Japanese journalist and academic Kimio Haruna speculates about yet another fiasco dating back to January 18 that may have precipitated the entire hostage crisis.

Abe's trip to Israel was part of a longer six-day visit to the several countries in the Middle East, accompanied by more than 100 government officials and presidents of Japanese companies.

On January 18, Abe visited Egypt, where, says Haruna, he made a what in some contexts may have been interpreted as a pugnacious speech that may have prompted ISIS to respond with its demands for a massive ransom of $200 million.

In his January 18 speech in Egypt, Abe pledged $200 million dollars for “those countries contending with ISIL”, the same dollar figure ISIS would demand from Japan three days later.

What's more interesting, Haruna points out (as does Nikkan Gendai), is that the text of the Japanese version of the speech that is posted on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website differs in several ways from the official English translation, which adopts a softer tone towards ISIS — potentially the blunder that set off the hostage crisis in the first place.

Haruna compares the official Japanese text and English translation of Abe's speech in Cairo, starting with the Japanese version:


We are also going to support Turkey and Lebanon. All that, we shall do to help curb the threat ISIL poses. I will pledge assistance of a total of about 200 million U.S. dollars for those countries contending with ISIL, to help build their human capacities, infrastructure, and so on.

Haruna then carefully compares and analyzes the statements word by word, noting that the acronym ISIL is short for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” He explains that while the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs uses the term ISIL, the Japanese media does not, opting for ISIS instead when referring to the militant group that is threatening to execute two Japanese citizens.

Haruna continues:

まず、援助の提供先は、日本語で「ISILと闘う周辺各国」、英語ではthose countries contending with ISIL としているところが気になる。書面だと「闘う」だが、首相が読むと「戦う」とは区別が付かない。英語はcontending。contendは「闘う」場合も「戦う」場合も「論争する」場合も使う。ボクシングの対戦相手はcontenderという。とすれば、「イスラム国」と闘っている国への援助だから、必ずしも軍事援助か、人道援助か明確にされていないことになる。
援助の目的は、日本語ではイラク、シリアの難民・避難民に向けて「ISILがもたらす脅威を少しでも食い止めるため」、英語ではto help curb the threat ISIL poses となっている。英語の方がやや強く、逐語的には、ISIL がもたらす脅威を抑制するのを助けるため、と訳せる。


In the Japanese version of the speech, the $200 million in aid is promised to “those countries combating ISIL.” I noticed this becomes “those countries contending with ISIL” in the English version of the speech. While if you read the actual speech, you would realize Abe is actually saying 闘う (“tatakau”) rather than 戦う (also pronounced “tatakau”), but the two words are homonyms. So if you heard the speech without reading the text, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

In English the verb 闘うcan mean “to contend with”, and it can mean to fight or battle someone or something. It can also mean to have a dispute with someone. One's opponent in a boxing match is called a “contender.” And so, thanks to this ambiguity it's totally unclear if the $200 million in humanitarian aid is being promised to countries that are dealing ISIS, or instead $200 million in military aid is being promised to countries combating ISIS…

…According the Japanese version of the speech, the purpose of the aid is “check” the threat ISIS poses. In the English version, it's to “curb” the threat ISIS poses. The English version is slightly more forceful in tone. Taken verbatim, it could mean the aid will be used to help actively neutralize the threat of ISIS.

In any case. the promised aid is provided with the intention of somehow countering ISIS in the region.

As of Friday, January 23, the fate of the hostages remained unknown, but according to some commentators, the Abe government's response has been a triple disaster of haplessness. And the entire crisis may have been ignited by a speech Abe made in Cairo in the first place.


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