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Islamic State beheadings frame a new debate about Japan’s military restraints

TOKYO » As the shock from the beheadings of two Japanese hostages by the Islamic State faded Tuesday, a battle to gain political advantage from their deaths began.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for the unshackling of Japan’s military, while the opposition accused him of having provoked the crisis.

The political maneuvering came as the Islamic State caused new revulsion, posting a video of a captive Jordanian pilot being burned to death.

Speaking in Parliament, Abe said that he wanted to ease the tight legal restrictions currently placed on Japan’s purely defensive military to allow it to engage in what he called police actions overseas, such as freeing hostages.

He also used the crisis to suggest that Japan might need an even bigger change to protect citizens abroad: amending Article 9 of its constitution, which forbids the use of armed force to settle disputes.

"We should consider revision in order to fulfill our duty of protecting the lives and property of our citizens," Abe told an upper house budget committee hearing. It was one of the clearest expressions of a desire to change the constitution that Abe has made since becoming prime minister two years ago.

The constitution was written by U.S. occupiers after World War II to prevent Japan from ever again following its wartime path of militarist expansion. Before becoming prime minister, Abe was a leading voice in calling for rewriting the constitution to allow Japan a bigger role in global affairs; since taking office, however, he has toned down his comments, apparently out of concern the public may not support so big a change.

Abe’s voicing of support for constitutional revision is one example of how the deadly end of the 12-day hostage crisis has led liberals and conservatives alike to stake out clearly opposing positions in a suddenly pitched battle to woo Japanese voters, still numb from the beheadings of their countrymen.

The reinvigorated political debate has heated up just two days after the release of a video showing the execution of Kenji Goto, 47, a veteran journalist who has been widely eulogized here. A photo showing the decapitated body of the other hostage, Haruna Yukawa, 42, was posted online a week earlier.

The killings have left Japan feeling a lot less secure, especially after the video showing Goto’s execution threatened Japan with "carnage wherever your people are found."

On Tuesday, the top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, called for stronger efforts to protect against terrorist attacks, such as stepping up security at airports, train stations and the U.S. Embassy and military bases in Japan. He also called for preparing robust countermeasures to ensure the safety of the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo.

"The threat of terrorism has become more realistic for our country," Suga told reporters.

While Japan had drawn together to hope for the safe release of the hostages, that unity crumbled after the news of Goto’s death. In Parliament on Tuesday, the opposition pressed Abe on why he had offered $200 million in humanitarian aid to nations battling the Islamic State when the government knew the two had been captured. Critics pointed out that this was the same sum demanded as ransom by the Islamic State, which criticized Japan for supporting nations aligned against it.

This has led to accusations that Abe caused the crisis by needlessly provoking the militant group, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq. During one heated exchange, a Communist Party lawmaker, Akira Koike, suggested that Abe bore at least some responsibility for the men’s deaths.

"Didn’t you consider that this could be dangerous to the detained Japanese?" Koike asked.

Abe responded, "While we need to avoid gratuitous provocations, there is no need to be excessively attentive to terrorists."

He added, "Your question makes it sound like we cannot criticize terrorists."

For their part, conservatives like Abe have used the killings to pursue their long-held goal of lifting restraints on Japan’s military, the Self-Defense Forces. On Tuesday, they argued that the country needed to acquire a viable military option that could strengthen its hand in future hostage situations.

Speaking in Parliament, Abe said he would pursue new legislation to allow the use of Japan’s armed forces to rescue Japanese abroad if certain conditions were met, such as the consent of the nation where hostages were held. He also said he wanted to bolster Japan’s intelligence capabilities by stationing more military attaches at its embassies abroad.

However, it is unclear how realistic these efforts are. While Japan did create a 600-member special operations unit in 2004, experts have expressed doubts about whether the nation could undertake such a rescue operation, citing such shortcomings as inexperience and limited intelligence-gathering capabilities.

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