Japan Gains a Vicarious Victory - and Likes the Taste of It

Despite months of cautioning against an armed rescue, Japan is displaying unmistakable satisfaction with Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's bold and largely successful raid.

Tuesday's resolution of the hostage crisis at the Japanese Embassy in Lima has given Japan a vicarious sense of how it feels to stand up to a bad guy and win. For a country whose Constitution renounces even the threat of force in resolving international disputes, the experience is a rare one.

The satisfaction may be another indication that Japan is becoming slightly more comfortable with taking a stronger, more assertive role in the world. For years some politicians and commentators have talked of the need to revise the Constitution so that Japan can exercise political power in addition to its economic might.

Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has complained that Mr. Fujimori did not first notify Japan of his intention to order his military into action, but by far the dominant reactions expressed in Japan yesterday were relief and gratitude. Mr. Hashimoto himself praised a "perfectly timed, spectacular rescue operation."

Only one of the 72 hostages - a Peruvian judge - died in the raid, a result that Japanese government officials and commentators alike label "miraculous." Also killed were two Peruvian soldiers and the 14 rebel hostage takers who took over the residence Dec. 17 demanding that hundreds of imprisoned comrades be freed.

The end of the ordeal and the release of the 24 Japanese citizens involved were not the only sources of relief. There was also a sense of gratification that Japan had not bought its way out of the crisis. "The Japanese government should be commended because it hasn't given in to terrorism," says Koichi Oizumi, a professor at Nihon University near Tokyo. He notes Japan was not itself involved in the rescue, but says at least "there was no backstage deal as in the past."

The Lima crisis put Japan in difficult position. Fujimori refused to consider acceding to the Tpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement's (MRTA) demand that fellow rebels be released from Peruvian jails. He is also known as an impulsive leader, and at least on one occasion Hashimoto warned him "not to go too far" in applying pressure on the hostage-takers.

Again and again, Japanese officials discouraged an armed rescue attempt and argued their permission was necessary since the ambassador's residence is considered Japanese territory under diplomatic rules.

The Japanese government repeatedly encouraged Fujimori and the MRTA to talk, but months of on-and-off discussion produced no tangible results. Yesterday Morihisa Aoki, Japan's ambassador to Peru and one of the newly released hostages, praised the way the crisis was resolved.

Hisahiko Okazaki, a former Japanese diplomat, recalls a not-so-proud moment in Japan's history of dealing with terrorists. In 1977 Japan paid $6 million in ransom and freed prisoners in order to win release of an airliner hijacked by the Japanese Red Army, a radical Communist group. "There is a gradual change in the way of thinking in Japan," he says. "No one openly supported the use of force [to resolve the Lima crisis], but somehow it was understood" that such a response might be necessary.

It's not just the Constitution that binds Japan from considering the use of force in its dealings overseas or maintaining a military capable of aggressive action. Many Japanese insist that their country stay pacifist to prevent a revival of militarism.

But the public response has so far been overwhelmingly positive. If the sense of approval continues, Okazaki says, it may be a sign of a "slight change in psychology." It isn't that Japanese are becoming tougher, he adds, "but less extremely pacifist."

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