A purported Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threat to kill two Japanese captives unless it gets $200 million in ransom could harden Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's resolve to break with Japan's pacifism and boost Tokyo's global security role - even as it intensifies debate over his polarizing policy.
In an online video released on Tuesday near the end of a tour by Abe to the Middle East, a black-clad figure holding a knife and standing between two kneeling men in orange clothes, gave Japan 72 hours to respond to the ransom demand, which he linked to Abe's Jan. 17 pledge of $200 million in non-military aid for countries battling the ISIS.
Abe has denounced the threat. While stressing the humanitarian nature of the aid and promising to do the utmost for the captives' release, he has also insisted that Japan's diplomatic policies will not change.
"I don't think there will be any impact at all on Japan's diplomacy from this hostage, terror incident," ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yoshiaki Harada told Reuters. "This sort of terror can occur any time. But given Abe's character, I am sure he will not flinch or weaken his fundamental policies."
Abe surged to power for a rare second term in 2012, pledging to bolster Japan's defenses and carve a bigger role for Tokyo on the global diplomatic and security stage.
He has visited over 50 countries to promote that policy, which includes easing a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense, or militarily aiding an ally under attack.
That change, a reinterpretation of the pacifist constitution that must now be passed into law, was the most dramatic policy shift since Japan set up its post-war armed forces 60 years ago. Abe has made clear he would like to go further by eventually revising the charter itself, a politically tougher step.
Back in Tokyo on Wednesday, a grim-faced Abe repeated the government was doing all it could to secure the captives' release, but added: "Japan will never give into terrorism".
Abe's handling of the hostage crisis - he must look firm but not callous - will be a big test for the 61-year-old, but in fact he appears to have few options.
Under the constitution, Japan's military cannot attempt a rescue even if it were feasible. Offering to pay ransom would put Tokyo at odds with its close ally Washington, whose policy is to refuse to pay for the release of captives.
An earlier crisis - the killing of 10 Japanese hostages by Islamic militants in a siege at a gas complex in Algeria in January 2013 shortly after Abe returned to office - gave impetus to demands by conservatives to loosen limits on the military's actions overseas.
Part of the narrative
Few Japanese are likely to blame Abe if the two captives are killed, but there could be questions raised over why he singled out countries battling the ISIS for the aid when it was known the group was holding at least one Japanese national.
"Certainly, there are people who think at this point it would have been better to go a bit more softly," parliamentarian Harada said. "But I think he thought it was important to take a strong stance at this very stage."
The incident, however, will drive home to the Japanese public the risks of a more assertive diplomatic and security stance, however much Tokyo stresses its peaceful intent abroad and pitches the policy as making Japanese citizens safer.
That could further polarize public opinion, already split over Abe's policies including his long-term goal of revising the constitution's pacifist Article 9.
"Critics will likely use it to say 'See, this is what happens when you meddle in other people's wars because the Americans want you to be on their side," said Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano.
"More conservative people might say this is the reason we have to be more forcefully engaged in the war on terrorism."
Abe wants to pass laws in a session of parliament that starts next week to implement the decision to drop the ban on collective self-defense, though the government doesn't plan to submit bills until after a spate of local elections in April.
"I don't think people will fault Abe ... because these people are fundamentalists and violence is their calling card," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus. "But when they start debating collective self-defense, this will be part of the narrative."
Those who have watched Abe throughout his career say is likely to respond by forging ahead. "Some will argue Japan should not get involved in dangerous situations and should stick to its pacifist path, but they will be a minority," said independent political analyst Morita Minoru.
"I think Abe will harden his stance."SHOW MORE