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Will Abe's hostage crisis polarize Japan? PM fights time. (+video)

Japanese leader will work to stand against terror while doing everything possible to free two citizens. His views are shaped by the 2013 slaying of 10 Japanese working at an Algerian gas plant by an Al Qaeda-linked group.

Saying he is "fighting against time," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned home early today from the Middle East to address an ugly hostage crisis that he vowed to do "all we can" to solve.

On Tuesday Japan was served grim notice of the risks involved in allying itself to US-led efforts to combat terrorism when the self-described jihadist group  Islamic State released a video showing a shrouded militant flanked by two Japanese men dressed in orange jumpsuits. The knife-wielding captor addressed Mr. Abe, who was on a humanitarian and diplomatic visit to the Middle East, demanding a ransom of $200 million within 72 hours to spare the men’s lives.

Abe now finds himself in a delicate moment where he must stand tall against terror while showing great sympathy with the hostages – and address the concerns of a public with conflicted feelings about a higher Japanese profile in world affairs.

In the two years since he became leader, Abe has carved out a reputation as a hardliner: against Chinese maritime aggression, South Korean grievances related to World War II, and North Korean nuclear threats. He has boosted military spending after more than a decade of cuts, and moved to loosen the legal constraints on Japanese military involvement in conflicts overseas.

Now, with 48 hours left on the IS deadline, it is still too early to gauge whether an act of terrorism involving Japanese citizens thousands of miles away will make Abe flinch. The sight of Japanese citizens meeting a bloody end could temper enthusiasm for his push to align Japan more closely with Washington’s agenda in the Middle East, with US President Barack Obama calling in the State of the Union for more action against IS.

“If the two men are executed, then immediate anger will probably strengthen Abe's argument in the short-term that Japan needs to be more mindful of the international nature of threats to its security and the need to cooperate with the US and its allies,” says Corey Wallace, a specialist in Japanese security and defense policy at the Australia-Japan Research Center in Canberra.

Abe met with his team today to help save the men – freelance journalist Kenji Goto and security consultant Haruna Yukawa. But he must surmount what seem to be limited options to get them released. As tempting as it may be in Tokyo to offer a ransom payment, doing so would drive a deep wedge between Japan and its main ally, the US. 

In the longer term, a grotesque outcome could make Abe's drive to raise Japan's profile in the global security stage less certain if public opinion flares against the more aggressive path the prime minister has taken. What is called here Abe’s “proactive pacifism” has divided public opinion; the nightmare unfolding in Syria could polarize it.

Much has been said about Japan’s lack of experience in dealing with terrorists. But to suggest that this is its first go-round with the messy business of Islamist militancy is not true. Japanese citizens have been abducted before: three were freed from captivity in Iraq in 2004 after an appeal by Islamic clerics. The same year followers of the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheaded Shosei Koda, a Japanese backpacker.

At that time, Japan‘s crime in the eyes of its tormentors had been to send troops to do humanitarian work in southern Iraq.

The catalyst this time is Japan's decision to ally itself with the campaign against the Islamic State. The preposterously high ransom is the exact equivalent to a pledge of non-military aid Abe made in Cairo days ago to countries fighting IS.

“The very public and outlandish demand … is largely symbolic and is intended [by the Islamic State] to put the Japanese government on notice for its most recent high-profile diplomatic and humanitarian initiative,” in the Middle East, says Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs in Tokyo.

Sources close to the prime minister say the tipping point in his thinking came with the 2013 slaying of 10 Japanese citizens during an attack on an Algerian natural gas plant by a group connected to Al Qaeda. Abe was convinced that Japan was punching below its weight, and putting its citizens’ safety at risk.

The Constitution ruled out any rescue attempt by Japanese troops on Algerian soil; that was followed by the ignominy of being unable to send soldiers or military aircraft to bring the victims home.

Japan’s government has capitulated to terrorists in the past – notably to the homegrown Red Army after the hijacking of an airliner in 1977. But that is unlikely to be repeated. 

Mr. Wallace notes that, “Those who are already inclined to see any Japanese coordination with foreign armies as a negative will see this as evidence of why Japan should continue to be circumspect about taking on a higher military profile." 

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