TIME Military

The New Head of the U.S. Pacific Command Talks to TIME About the Pivot to Asia and His Asian Roots

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Roslan Rahman—AFP/Getty Images U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Harry Harris, left, speaks to journalists during his visit to U.S.S. Spruance (DDG 111), Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer, docking in Sembawang wharves in Singapore on Jan. 22, 2014

Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. sees his background as an Asian American as useful in helping the U.S. forge better relationships with its allies and other powers

On May 27 Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. becomes the U.S. Navy’s highest-ranking Asian American ever when he assumes leadership of the U.S. Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Harris will be responsible for all military operations in a region stretching from California to the Indian Ocean, and from the Arctic Sea to Antarctica. He takes over at a critical time, as the U.S. “rebalances” to Asia and confronts an erratic and nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly powerful and assertive China.

It’s a job that takes Harris, 59, full circle. He was born in Japan to a Navy-enlisted man and Japanese mother, and raised on a subsistence farm in Tennessee. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Harris did postgraduate studies at Harvard, Georgetown and Oxford and spent much of his career as a naval flight officer aboard P-3 patrol planes, including three tours in Japan. Affable, direct and with a confessed weakness for “both kinds of music — country and western,” Harris talks to TIME contributor Kirk Spitzer about taking on one of the most challenging jobs in the U.S. military.

You’ve said that the most important event in your life was World War II, yet you weren’t even born then. What do you mean by that?
My dad had four brothers and all of them served in World War II, mostly in the Navy, in the Pacific theater. In fact, my dad was on the aircraft carrier Lexington just a couple of days before Pearl Harbor. They pulled out O.K., but the Lexington was sunk at the Battle of Coral Sea. Growing up in Tennessee, where he and all his brothers lived, they told sea stories about the war throughout my whole life. So I just knew that I was going to serve in the military.

The other thing is, in this job and living in Hawaii, World War II is all around you. I live in the Nimitz House, which was built for Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. He was in charge on Dec. 7, 1941. So not a day goes by that I don’t remember that one of the primary lessons of World War II is to be ready to fight and win the nation’s wars — and to be ready to fight tonight.

You’ve said that your mother had a great influence on your life. She was born into a wealthy family in Kobe, Japan, but ended up living on a small farm in America. How did that happen, and how much of an influence did she have on you?
I learned a lot from her. She lost her home, her school, members of her family and friends to bombing raids. After surviving that, she had nothing and she went to live with an aunt in Yokohama who helped her get a job on the big American naval base in Yokosuka. My dad was posted in Japan and Korea from 1946 until he retired in 1958. They met sometime in the early 1950s and got married and then I came along and they moved to Tennessee.

My dad bought a subsistence farm, with no running water or electricity. So that was pretty rough. But she adapted, and she adapted with a lot of grace. She became an American citizen in the mid-1970s and she always told me that her proudest moments were voting and jury duty. She was really thrilled that I went to the Naval Academy, of course. She never taught me the Japanese language because we had moved to a tiny town in the South, and she didn’t want me to be any more different than I already was. She wanted me to focus on being an American. But she taught me to be proud of both my Japanese roots and my Southern roots. And she taught me about the Japanese concept of giri, which means duty. I carry this with me to this very day.

You are the first Asian American to reach four-star rank in the Navy and the first to head U.S. Pacific Command. Did you have role models when you were young?
I can tell you that being a Japanese-American kid in Tennessee in the late 1950s and early ’60s, there weren’t a lot of role models out there. So that’s when my mother started telling me about the American nisei soldiers during World War II. They left a segregated nation — to fight for a segregated nation. They had no guarantee that when they got back home the things they had fought for would be returned to them. We’ve come a long way in the past six or seven decades because of them and folks like them who fought for what’s right. Their courage made a great difference in the lives of a whole bunch of people at that time, and even today. I’ve always said that I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I mean it.

Before being named commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in 2013, you worked as a military representative to two Secretaries of State: Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. What did you learn in that job?
I got to visit and meet with leaders from about 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific region and that’s really important to me in my present job and even more so in my next job. It reinforced something that I already knew, and that is that American leadership matters and it matters greatly to our friends, partners, allies and competitors abroad.

Your appointment as commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and more recently as head of Pacific Command, was met with great approval in Japan, but perhaps not so much in China, where there still seems suspicion of all things Japanese. Will it be difficult for you to manage expectations, on both sides?
People know when they look at me that I’m an American first, last and everything in between. I’m only ethnically [Eurasian] or ethnically [half-]Japanese. Protecting American interests is my focus. No doubt, Japan is a great ally of the United States and I do hope that my personal background has helped me enhance our relationship. But I think my background has also helped me forge critical relationships with South Korea, another important ally. My father served in the Korean War and I grew up with a deep appreciation for Korean culture.

And I can tell you that I was warmly received in China when I went there last year to finalize a new agreement among navies of the region to help communications at sea during unplanned encounters. This was an important step forward to help reduce tensions at sea and help avoid miscalculations. I’ve always tried to give China credit when they act in responsible ways that adhere to international law and norms, and enhance stability.

The Obama Administration has talked about an economic, diplomatic and military “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region. Some skeptics wonder if it’s real, or just rhetoric.
Not only is the rebalance real, but the military part is well on its way. We’ve strengthened our security alliances and partnerships throughout the region. The Navy has already brought our newest and most capable platforms to the area, like the P-8 surveillance airplane, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Virginia-class submarine and new amphibious ships like the U.S.S. America. The Marine Corps has brought the V-22 Osprey out here to great effect and we’ll have the Joint Strike Fighter out here soon. The Navy has set a goal of moving 60% of the Navy out here by 2020 and we’re at about 55% in terms of surface ships now. So I can tell you the rebalance is real.

In your new job you’ll be responsible for an immense and diverse region: “From Bollywood to Hollywood, from polar bears to penguins,” as Pacific Command puts it. What are your priorities?
Our war-fighting readiness, our ability to fight tonight, will always be my top priority. We have to be ready for the unexpected. We have to be ready to prevent strategic surprises. When you are responsible for an area that covers half the worlds’ surface, you need friends. So building stronger relationships and working with our allies and partners, to foster a collective to the security challenges — that’s important.

You’ve expressed deep concern about recent Chinese actions, including construction of a string of artificial islands in the South China Sea — a “great wall of sand,” as you put it. Why should the U.S. be concerned?
I have been critical of China for a pattern of provocative actions that they’ve begun in the recent past. Like unilaterally declaring an air-defense identification zone over the East China Sea, parking a mobile oil platform off the Vietnam coast, and their lack of clarity on their outrageous claim — preposterous claim, really — to 90% of the South China Sea. All these examples, I think, are inconsistent with international laws and norms. They make China’s neighbors nervous, it increases tensions in the region, and I think they are destabilizing for peace in the region.

More than $5 trillion — that’s trillion with a t — of shipborne trade passes through the South China Sea annually. Freedom of navigation is critical. That’s why what China is doing in the South China Sea is troubling. They have manufactured land there at a staggering pace just in the last months. They’ve created about 2,000 acres of these man-made islands. That’s equivalent to about 1,500 football fields, if I get my math right, and they’re still going. They’ve also made massive construction projects on artificial islands for what are clearly, in my point of view, military purposes, including large airstrips and ports.

What do you worry about most? What keeps you awake at night?
The greatest threat we face is North Korea. They have an unpredictable leader who is poised, in my view, to attack our allies in South Korea and Japan. He is on a quest for nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them intercontinentally. He kills people around him who disagree with him, and that’s something we should always keep in mind. North Korea keeps me up at night.

TIME Japan

Don’t Even Think About Going to Syria, Japan Tells Its Journalists

Freelance photographer Yuichi Sugimoto speaks to media reporters a day after his passport was confiscated by the Foreign Ministry at his home on Feb. 8, 2015 in Niigata, Japan.
The Asahi Shimbun/ Getty Imag Freelance photographer Yuichi Sugimoto speaks to media reporters a day after his passport was confiscated by the Foreign Ministry at his home on Feb. 8, 2015 in Niigata, Japan.

Cameraman planning a trip has his passport revoked by Foreign Ministry officials

How badly does the Abe administration want to avoid another hostage crisis in Syria? Badly enough to seize the passport of a Japanese journalist for even thinking about going there.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) took the unprecedented step of ordering a freelance journalist to surrender his passport after learning last week that he planned to travel to Syria later this month. The action was based on an obscure law that allows the government to take a citizen’s passport if preventing that person from traveling would protect his or her life.

The action also comes just weeks after Islamic militants brutally murdered two Japanese hostages in Syria and promised further attacks “wherever [Japanese] people are found.”

The murders shocked Japanese leaders and public alike and intensified debate over Abe’s plans to ease long-standing restraints on Japan’s military. Under Japan’s pacifist constitution, troops are not permitted to use force overseas, except in cases of strict self-defense, and cannot possess weapons deemed “offensive” in nature.

However, the passport seizure has brought sharp criticism from journalists and free-speech advocates.

“It is a dangerous precedent for the government to unilaterally decide where journalists can go and what they can report on. Revoking the passport is a form of censorship and an encroachment on civil liberties,” said Jeff Kingston, director of the Asian Studies program at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

“Although I realize the Japanese government is balancing many difficult concerns at this time, the right of journalists to cover stories and the principle of freedom of the press must remain an inalienable right,” said Lucy Birmingham, president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. She said the group was considering filing a formal protest.

A ministry spokesperson said officials initially tried to dissuade Yuichi Sugimoto, 58, a little-known freelance cameraman from western Japan, from following through on plans to travel to Syria.

“[Sugimoto] had expressed in public, including through media, his intention to go to Syria via a neighboring country. MOFA, together with the National Police Agency, strongly persuaded him to refrain from the planned visit, but the man’s intention to go to Syria was not changed,” said spokesperson Takako Ito.

She said Article 19 of Japan’s passport law allows the government to order citizens to surrender their passports “in cases where there is a need to cancel a trip abroad in order to protect the life, body and assets of the passport holder.”

She said it was the first time that Article 19 had been used in a case involving a journalist.

Japan is still reeling from last month’s hostage drama, in which a troubled adventurer and a respected freelance journalist were beheaded by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militants. The murders came after weeks of shifting demands and the release of chilling videos that had fixated the public and dominated the government agenda.

Although the hostages had been kidnapped months earlier, militants cited Abe’s pledge of financial aid to ISIS opponents as a pretext for the murders. Abe announced a $200 million humanitarian-aid package in a speech in Cairo as part of a six-day trip to the Middle East; he cut short the visit after the crisis erupted.

Officials said last week that they had repeatedly tried to dissuade one of the hostages, journalist Kenji Goto, from traveling to Syria in October, but that he ignored their warnings. He was kidnapped shortly after entering the country.

Goto told associates earlier that he wanted to travel to Syria to negotiate the release of Haruna Yukawa, a friend and would-be private military contractor who had been kidnapped in August.

Sugimoto told local media this weekend that he had planned to travel to Syria via Turkey later this month to cover the plight of refugees. He said he had not planned to enter territory controlled by ISIS. He said he did not know when his passport would be returned.

The response to Abe’s handling of the hostage crisis has been generally favorable. The approval rating for the Abe Cabinet rose to 58% in early February from 53% a month earlier, while the disapproval rate dropped four percentage points to 34%, according to a survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

Following the crisis, Abe told members of Japan’s parliament that he planned to introduce legislation in the current session that would expand the use of Japan’s armed forces overseas, including the enabling of rescue missions for Japanese citizens and logistical support for multinational forces.

TIME Japan

Japan Isn’t Going to Take the Next Hostage Crisis Lying Down

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KAZUHIRO NOGI—AFP/Getty Images Japan's Self-Defense Force honor guards prepare for a welcoming ceremony of new Defense Minister Gen Nakatani in Tokyo on Dec. 25, 2014

Tokyo wants to end 70 years of strict pacifism so that it can help its nationals overseas

When Islamist fanatics threatened to murder two Japanese hostages in Syria last month, a rescue mission was one option that Tokyo did not have.

Under the country’s war-renouncing constitution, Japanese troops are not permitted to use force overseas. But if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has his way, that could change soon. And with it, Japan’s 70-year commitment to strict pacifism.

Abe said last week that he plans to introduce legislation to end restrictions limiting Japanese troops to overseas missions that don’t require the use of weapons (such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and limited types of peacekeeping).

Those restrictions effectively took away the option of using elite military forces to try to free the two captives — troubled adventurer Haruna Yukawa and experienced freelance journalist Kenji Goto. Videotapes purporting to show the men’s beheaded bodies were released by ISIS after attempts to negotiate their release failed.

The apparent killings and threats of further violence shocked Japanese leaders and public alike, and renewed debate over Abe’s plans to boost defense spending and free up Japan’s armed forces.

Abe issued a statement shortly after the videotapes that seemed remarkably bellicose by Japanese standards. Although a government spokesperson said that Japan would not send in troops to join the fight against ISIS “at this time,” Abe promised to hold the hostage takers “responsible for their deplorable acts.” That was according to an official translation. Many Western news organizations rendered Abe’s words as the more aggressive-sounding “to make the terrorists pay the price.” But either way, the Prime Minister’s intentions were plain.

Despite its pacifist constitution, Japan maintains a large and highly capable military. More than 250,000 men and women are in uniform, and the defense budget ranks among the six largest it the world.

Japan’s armed forces includes two special-operations units of about 300 soldiers or sailors each. Their missions are similar to those of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEALs, with whom they have trained. The troops are currently restricted to operating within Japanese territory and would require long-range aircraft, improved intelligence capabilities and other assets if sent overseas.

Nonetheless, experts say that if given legal authority, they could be ready in as little as a year.

“Japan would have no trouble forming up a small, capable unit focused on overseas hostage rescue and counterterrorism. They are first rate now in terms of combat skills, and with practice they could be in the same league as U.S. and British special forces,” says Grant Newsham, senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, in Tokyo.

Abe said during parliamentary debate last week that he plans to introduce legislation in the current session that would expand the type of missions that Japan’s Self Defense Forces are allowed to perform overseas, including logistical support for friendly armed forces and rescuing Japanese citizens under duress.

The legislation would not be an open ticket, however. Abe said hostage rescues would be limited to countries that agree to the presence of Japanese troops, or where no state or state-equivalent organizations would oppose them.

The new law seems likely to pass. With a two-thirds majority in the powerful lower house, Abe’s ruling coalition can approve legislation even without upper-house agreement.

Whether the Japanese public is ready for the dispatch of even a small group of armed soldiers — locked and loaded and looking for hostages — remains to be seen, however. Japanese troops have not fired a shot in anger since World War II, although coast-guard cutters sank a suspected North Korean spy ship off Japanese waters in 2001.

Polls show that a majority of the public remains opposed to revising the constitution. But opposition to Abe’s defense agenda has been declining in the face of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s growing military spending and territorial demands.

A Kyodo News poll reported over the weekend showed that 61% of Japanese supported Abe’s handling of the Syria incident.

During the crisis, a masked militant appeared on a videotape accusing Abe by name of taking sides by pledging aid — nonmilitary — for countries in conflict with ISIS and threatening “carnage wherever your people are found. So let the nightmare for Japan begin.”

Given the traumatic episode in Syria, the public is likely to accept the use of force the next time, says Lully Miura, a JSPS research fellow at the University of Tokyo.

“Obviously, there will be a huge debate and a lot of fuss, but if the circumstances are close to what happened in the recent [hostage crisis], I think it would be perceived as acceptable.”

TIME Japan

Hostage Crisis Deepens Debate Over How to Defend Japan

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Kimimasa Mayama—AFP/Getty Images Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talks during a ministerial meeting on an online video purportedly showing a Japanese hostage being killed by the Islamic State at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on Feb. 1, 2015.

The deaths of two Japanese men at the hands of ISIS could be trouble for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

The presumed deaths in Syria of a gentle children’s advocate and a troubled adventurer bring to a close a crisis that riveted Japan and brought much of the Japanese government to a standstill for more than a week.

But the fallout from the crisis could be far-reaching.

Japan already was facing a polarizing national debate over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ambitious security agenda. And the hostage crisis — which ended Saturday with video of an execution at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — seems likely to weaken support among the public, while hardening attitudes among government leaders.

“Initially, there will be a boost for Abe as people rally around the flag. But down the road, he faces tougher questions,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “The public is still digesting the horrific events, but certainly there are doubts that Abe’s security agenda is making Japan safer.”

Since taking office for a second time 25 months ago, Abe has worked to boost defense spending, ease restraints on Japan’s military and develop a more assertive foreign policy. At least some of that agenda is in response to China’s rapidly growing military and aggressive territorial claims.

But Abe’s program of “proactive contributions to peace” failed badly during his six-day visit to the Middle East last month. Islamist extremists accused Abe of taking sides in the grisly conflict in Syria and Iraq by pledging $200 million in aid to countries opposing ISIS.

ISIS threatened to kill two Japanese men taken hostage earlier unless Abe met their demands, which initially called for a ransom equal to the aid package that Abe announced in a high-profile speech in Cairo.

The killers apparently followed through on those threats, releasing videos that purportedly show the murders of Haruna Yukawa, 42, a failed businessman and would-be private military contractor, and Kenji Goto, 47, a respected freelance journalist who chronicled the suffering of children in war zones around the world.

Goto was kidnapped after entering Syria in October in a failed attempt to aid Yukawa, whom he described as a friend. Yukawa had been taken hostage while traveling with a Syrian rebel group in August.

Abe has argued that Japan, as a democratic nation and a major economic power, has a “responsibility” to play a more active role in world affairs. But the hostage crisis is likely to weaken public support for that view, says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.

“There has always been a powerful ‘disengagement mentality’ in postwar Japanese thinking, and I worry that [the hostage crisis] will reinforce that,” Glosserman says. “It will feed the popular inclination to stay out of entangling affairs.”

Even before the hostage crisis, Japan was being forced to do some hard thinking about its place in the world. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Abe, who has strong nationalist leanings, already had begun the contentious process of writing an official commemoration statement that critics worry will backtrack on previous apologies.

In a meeting with international reporters in Tokyo on Friday, the U.S. State Department’s fourth-highest-ranking official, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, pointedly said that the U.S. expects Abe’s statement to “promote reconciliation.”

Abe is expected to submit legislation to Japan’s parliament this spring that would allow the country’s military to fight alongside the U.S. and other friendly forces under circumstances currently forbidden by Japan’s pacifist, postwar constitution.

The hostage crisis revealed that even if Japanese law had permitted it, Japan’s military lacked the hardware, training or organization to attempt a rescue halfway around the world (though in truth, few countries have such capabilities). The lonely deaths of Yukawa and Goto might change that, says Grant Newsham, senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.

“They could make some practical improvements in capabilities, but most importantly they could become psychologically willing to operate overseas and with a range of partners and allies,” says Newsham, a former Marine Corps liaison with the Japan Ground Self Defense Force. “The psychological aspect is key. Overcome that hurdle and Japan starts to look and act like a regular country.”

The hostage crisis is certain to deepen the debate over what kind of country Japan wants to be, says Nancy Snow, a visiting research professor and specialist in international affairs at Keio University in Tokyo.

“This is not a passing event,” says Snow. “The lesson for Japan is that no one is immune anywhere from the troubles of the world.”

TIME

Why Japan Lacks Sympathy for the Hostages Held by ISIS

People in Tokyo watch news on the Japanese ISIS hostages, Jan. 23, 2015.
Nicolas Datiche—Sipa People in Tokyo watch news on the Japanese ISIS hostages, Jan. 23, 2015.

While the clock ticks down for two Japanese hostages held by ISIS, their countrymen think they've brought the problem on themselves

Japanese government officials continued to press for the release of two Japanese citizens being held by Islamist militants in Syria late Friday, even as a presumed deadline for paying the $200 million ransom expired.

The hostage drama has dominated the news cycle since ISIS released a video showing two Japanese men being threatened by a masked militant with a knife. But in very Japanese fashion, much of the anger has focused on the hostages themselves, who are seen by many as having acted recklessly. “The public thinks these guys put themselves in harm’s way, and that it is their problem — not the government’s or the taxpayers problem,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

Haruna Yukawa, 42, a failed businessman who hoped to re-invent himself as a private military contractor, was kidnapped in August after entering ISIS-controlled territory. Kenji Goto, 47, an experienced freelance journalist, was captured in October after entering Syria in what he told friends was a quest to free Yukawa, whom he had met there earlier.

MORE Mother of Japanese Journalist Held Captive by ISIS Pleads for His Release

In the video released Tuesday, the militant accuses Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of taking sides in the Mideast conflict by pledging $200 million in aid to countries fighting against ISIS, which controls vast territory in both Syria and Iraq. The militant said the hostages would be killed if an equal amount was not paid within 72 hours – a deadline that Japanese officials presume expired Friday afternoon.

Abe has stressed that the aid money—which he pledged during a six-day trip to the Middle East that was interrupted by the hostage crisis—is for humanitarian purposes only and said his government is doing all that it can to secure the hostage’s release. But he has vowed not to “give in” to terrorists, and most analysts believe he will not authorize payment of the ransom—either openly or otherwise.

Comments on Japanese-language social media have been largely unsympathetic toward the two hostages—particularly Yukawa, who told associates that he once tried to commit suicide by cutting off his genitals and later changed his given name to Haruna, typically used for women. Goto is given credit for at least attempting to help someone in need.

MORE Japanese War Reporter Was Abducted by ISIS After Trying to Save His Friend

“They needed to know the possible results before going to that region, especially now. They’re responsible,” said a Twitter post that was re-tweeted more than 1,000 times.

“Neither Mr. Goto nor Mr. Yukawa went to Syria upon request from the Japanese government,” says another. “Maybe I’m heartless, but we cannot give in to the Islamic State group’s terrorist acts.

Japan withdrew all its diplomats from Syria in March 2012 as the civil war escalated, and warned all Japanese citizens against traveling there. The lack of an embassy hasn’t helped Tokyo as it tries to sort through the myriad government, rebel and ISIS forces fighting in the region. The advisory was in effect when Yukawa and Goto entered the country last year.

This is not the first time that Japanese hostages in the Middle East have drawn condemnation from their countrymen, rather than sympathy. Three aid workers and peace activists were pilloried in the press and nascent social media after they were kidnapped in Iraq in 2004. The government refused demands that they withdraw Japanese peacekeepers from southern Iraq and the hostages were released unharmed a week later. Nonetheless, the criticism in Japan was so severe that the former hostages were forced to go into voluntary seclusion.

“The public thought that because those citizens were working independently, and making independent comments critical (of the Iraq War), they were disloyal troublemakers putting Japan into world news for all the wrong reasons,” says Marie Thorsten, professor of international politics and media studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

The stakes could be high for Abe, who just won a commanding victory in a snap election held in December. A staunch conservative and nationalist, Abe promised to focus on Japan’s flagging economy, but increasingly has pressed for bigger defense spending, the easing of long-standing restraints on Japan’s military and the promotion of a policy of “proactive contributions to peace” overseas.

“This is the first time the public has seen Abe’s “proactive pacifism” at work and this is deeply unsettling,” says Kingston. “Until now, Islamic extremism was something that happened to other countries. People may get cold feet about Japan assuming a higher profile on global stage.”

Read next: ISIS Say Countdown for Japan’s Hostages Has Begun

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TIME Japan

Japan’s Abe Faces Great Risk, Little Reward in ISIS Hostage Crisis

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Abbas Momani—AFP/Getty Images Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks on during a press conference with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Jan. 20, 2015, in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Japanese prime minister has few options to act after ISIS holds two citizens to $200 million ransom

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to do all he can to secure the safe release of two Japanese citizens facing death threats at the hands of Islamist extremists in Syria. But experts say there’s little he can do — and he faces great risks in doing it.

Abe was winding up a six-day trip to the Middle East when militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) released a video Tuesday threatening to kill two Japanese men captured last year unless the government pays $200 million in ransom.

Militants said the demands were in retaliation for $200 million in aid that Abe had pledged just days earlier to countries opposing ISIS forces fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Abe likes to present himself as strong on defense, having taken office two years ago promising to boost military spending, ease long-standing restraints on Japan’s military and promote “proactive contributions to peace” overseas. Even before the Syria crisis, his administration was reportedly considering plans to beef up a Japanese anti-piracy base in Djibouti for rescue and other military missions in the Middle East region.

But polls show that Japanese remain deeply divided by Abe’s defense agenda. The hostage drama presents Abe with “a rather tricky balancing act,” says Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“Abe needs to appear to be both tough on terrorist intimidation and deeply concerned about the plight of the hostages,” says Nakano. “If he appears soft and unable to cope with the pressure, he might start losing support. But if he appears uninterested in the lives of the Japanese hostages, he might also fall out of favor.”

Abe emphasized that his government would work to secure the hostages’ safety at a press conference late Tuesday in Jerusalem. “The international community needs to cooperate and take action without yielding to terrorism,” he said.

Even so, the crisis is certain to polarize the Japanese public. Polls show a majority remain deeply committed to Japan’s pacifist Constitution, despite a swing to the right by political leaders. Conservative rhetoric about patriotism is unlikely to sway them, says Nakano. “Their reaction is more likely to be that postwar pacifism provides a better means to protect the Japanese from such threats than Abe’s ‘pro-active’ approach.”

Perhaps ironically, Abe’s move towards a more robust defense agenda was inspired, in part, by a similar hostage crisis in the Middle East in January 2013 when ten Japanese nationals were killed by Islamist militants at a gas complex in Algeria.

In that crisis, Japan was forbidden by law from attempting a rescue operation, or even sending troops to escort survivors or bodies of the deceased out of the country. That rankled Abe – a staunch nationalist who had been in office less than a month — and almost certainly contributed to a more aggressive defense policy than he had signaled during his election campaign.

Since then, Abe has overseen three consecutive increases in annual defense spending – after 10 straight years of decline – and has unilaterally dropped a ban on collective self-defense.

He has also established a new National Security Council, which concentrates decision-making in the Prime Minister’s office, and has authorized Japan’s armed forces to form a new amphibious warfare unit to help defend Japan’s thousands of remote islands.

But for all that, Abe has precisely no military options in Syria, says Grant Newsham, senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, in Tokyo.

“Japan lacks the necessary forces for an overseas rescue. They aren’t organized or equipped or trained for such missions, even if they were ordered to undertake them. That requires a lot resources in terms of manpower, equipment, transportation and intelligence resources. It’s not that easy,” says Newsham, a former U.S. Marine Corps liaison to Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force.

Nakano says it is almost certain that Abe will not pay the ransom for the freelance journalist and self-styled mercenary who were captured separately by ISIS last year. With few options remaining and time running out, the odds of the prime minister being able to keep his pledge seem low indeed.

Read next: Japan Cabinet Okays Record Military Budget With Eye on China

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TIME Japan

The Resignation of Two Ministers Spells Trouble for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Japan minister resigns
Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images Japanese Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi resigned on Oct. 20 amid allegations of misusing election funds

More ministers could fall as Japan faces political instability at the worst time

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed five women to his Cabinet last month in a major shakeup designed to show support for female empowerment and help smooth the way for an unpopular political agenda. But all that unraveled Monday with the abrupt resignation of two of those appointees—Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi and Justice Minister Midori Matsushima—for campaign spending violations.

The controversies could not have come at a worse time for Abe. His economic policies are faltering and his Cabinet approval ratings had dropped below 50 percent even before the spending scandal broke last week. Abe faces tough decisions within the next few months on policy issues ranging from restarting nuclear reactors to imposing a second round of tax hikes. He’s also struggling to repair relations with China and South Korea over historical issues and territorial disputes, even as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing next month looms.

“Abe no longer seems the invincible Superman that some had imagined, and that weakens him both domestically and in Japan’s diplomatic dealings,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan. “On all of his signature policies — ranging from nuclear reactor re-starts to arms exports, collective self defense and state secrecy legislation—a majority of the public is opposed.”

Trade Minister Obuchi and Justice Minister Matsushima submitted their resignations Monday. They were the first Cabinet members to step down since Abe took office in December 2012—a remarkable period of stability in Japanese politics, where ministers not infrequently are called upon to fall on their sword. It was also a reminder of Abe’s scandal-plagued and inefficient first term in 2006-7, which ended after barely a year. A pension records scandal and the suicide of his agriculture minister during an expense-spending probe, along with poor health for the Prime Minister himself, helped doom Abe’s first go-around.

Obuchi, 40, was accused of funneling campaign money to her sister and brother-in-law and to improperly subsidizing entertainment junkets for supporters. Matsushima stepped down for improperly distributing more than $100,000 worth of paper fans to constituents. Obuchi’s resignation in particular could be a major loss for Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. A telegenic mother of two, Obuchi had been expected to help Abe with the controversial restart of Japan’s nuclear power plants—a wide majority of the public remains opposed to atomic energy—shut down since the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Obuchi’s portfolio includes authority over the nation’s nuclear power plants and her softer image—a young mother, after all—was expected to soothe public anxiety over plans to restart the reactors. Obuchi is the daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who ran Japan from July 1998 to April 2000, and had even been touted as a possible successor to Abe somewhere down the road. But the close scrutiny that comes with a Cabinet appointment exposed her as a political lightweight and a product of the LDP machine, says Michael Cucek, a researcher and author of a respected political blog in Tokyo. “She represents someone who vaulted into prominence by the death of a sitting prime minister, taking over the family business without ever knowing much about how the whole machine works,” he said.

And that may not be the end of it. The remaining three female appointees have drawn heavy criticism, or worse, for alleged connections to neo-Nazi or right-wing fringe organizations, or for visiting the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine. A 2011 photo of Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi posing with the leader of the National Socialist Japanese Workers Party was discovered on the group’s website shortly after Takaichi’s appointment last month. Postings on Yamada’s blog seem to profess admiration for Adolf Hitler, and videos posted on the website show Yamada and group members wearing stylized swastikas. Takaichi said she was unaware of Yamada’s affiliation when the photo was taken and that it had been posted to the group’s website without her knowledge. She said she asked for the photo to be removed as soon as she learned of it, and that the group complied.

Similarly, a 2009 photo of National Public Safety Commission chief Eriko Yamatani posing with the members of the far- as Zaitokukai group, which has mounted virulent street demonstrations and hate speeches against ethnic Koreans and other foreigners living in Japan. Yamatani also said she was unaware that her photo had been taken with members of the group or that it had been posted online. She said it was taken down at her request after she learned of it.

On Saturday, all the three of the remaining female Cabinet appointees made formal visits to Yasukuni, where 14 convicted “Class A” war criminals—leaders of wartime Japan—are enshrined. That drew a rebuke from China, which remains deeply skeptical of Abe’s revisionist views of history. That visit will complicate Abe’s efforts to repair relations with Japan’s neighbors—and maybe its citizens, says Kingston. “I think there is a great wave of schadenfreude sweeping across East Asia as Abe’s gathering woes weaken his political standing. The Japanese public, too, are happy to see the Abe juggernaut sputtering as Abenomics fizzles and his culture war to redefine national identity backfires.”

Read next: Japan Court Orders Google to Remove Search Results

TIME Japan

U.S. and Japanese Forces Lock and Load With One Eye on China

Japan-U.S. Joint Drill Begins
The Asahi Shimbun U.S. Marines and members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force line up before a joint exercise at the JGSDF's Aibano facility in Takashima, Japan, on Oct. 8, 2013

And China's leaders have, in turn, become increasingly wary

When U.S. Marines stormed ashore during a beach-landing exercise in Okinawa recently, they weren’t alone. Charging alongside them was a group of Japanese soldiers assigned to live and train with the Marines and learn the basics of amphibious warfare.

“When they landed on the beach, it was difficult to tell who was who, which was an impressive feat,” said Colonel Romin Dasmalchi, a Marine commander.

The beach drill was just the latest in a dramatic increase in joint training activities between U.S. and Japanese forces. The goal is to broaden Japan’s military capabilities, weave U.S. and Japanese forces ever closer together and solidify the U.S. “pivot” to Asia.

On almost any day, U.S. and Japanese ground troops, sailors or aircrews can be found practicing combat skills side by side or preparing for major training operations throughout the Japanese archipelago, and across the Pacific.

Day-to-day coordination is up as well. U.S. Marines now have full-time liaison officers with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) in Tokyo and southern Japan. And JGSDF officers are assigned to Marine headquarters in Okinawa, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., and Quantico, Va.

That’s a deep sea change from even a few years ago, when most U.S. and Japanese forces had little direct contact, says Grant Newsham, senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo and former liaison officer between U.S. Marines and the JGSDF.

“There is both a qualitative and quantitative difference in training these days. We are beginning to train together jointly, instead of the traditional parallel arrangement,” Newsham says.

U.S. and Japanese officials agreed during talks in Tokyo in 2012 to boost joint training and improve interoperability. That was due in part to lessons learned from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan — where there were communication and coordination breakdowns — as well as concerns over China’s rapid military buildup and aggressive territorial demands.

Much of the new training is focused on improving Japan’s ability to defend its sprawling southwest islands chain.

That has not gone unnoticed in China, which claims historical ownership of some of those islands. Chinese leaders are increasingly wary of both the U.S. pivot and the Abe administration’s efforts to boost defense spending and ease restrictions on Japan’s powerful but low-profile military.

“The PLA [People’s Liberation Army], as well as the mass media, are certainly very sensitive to these joint training and exercise programs between the U.S. and Japan, especially the increasing amphibious war-fighting capability,” says Yu Tiejun, deputy director of Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies, in Beijing.

“These joint training activities will not only intensify the security dilemma that’s already there, but also trigger the escalation of the arms race in this region,” Yu says.

With a defense budget only about a third of China’s and with just a modest spending increases planned for the coming years, it is not clear that Japan is bent on an arms race.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Japan is boosting the size, scope and frequency with which it trains with, and learns from, the powerful Americans.

In 2006, for example, the JGSDF sent just a couple dozen soldiers to take part in the Marines’ annual Iron Fist exercise in Southern California. Those soldiers took part in only a few phases of the weeks-long drill.

Now, more than 300 troops take part in the full exercise each year, including live-fire training and force-on-force drills against the battle-tested Americans.

Last year, the JGSDF launched a new exercise with the Marines in California, called Dawn Blitz. Tokyo sent a flotilla of warships packed with ground troops, landing craft, helicopters, vehicles and other heavy equipment all the way across the Pacific for two weeks of hard training with the Marines.

For the next edition of Dawn Blitz, in spring 2015, the Japanese have said they hope to send fighter planes as well. Close air support is essential element of amphibious warfare, but one that requires sophisticated skills.

Less noticeable but perhaps equally significant is a program launched in 2013, in which a platoon (about 30 soldiers) of JGSDF is assigned to the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Those troops live and train with the Marines for a period of up to three months. That includes, in most cases, clambering aboard U.S. Navy assault ships to cruise the Asia-Pacific region alongside the Marines (if the Marines are called into combat, however, Japan’s pacifist constitution requires that the Japanese troops off-load at the nearest location and return to Japan).

Colonel Takayasu Iwakami, training and exercise director for the JGSDF, says the overall goal is to develop both tactical skill and the ability to operate seamlessly with the Marines in wartime conditions — should that become necessary.

“We are trying to develop an amphibious warfare capability, but we don’t have the knowledge yet. The Marines have the experience of real war so they know much more about it, and we can learn from them,” Iwakami says. “But it’s not just a matter of how frequently we train together, or even the type of training that we do. It’s also about developing a deep sense of understanding and trust for each other.”

That also has benefits for the Marines. With land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all but over, thousands of Marines have returned to their bases in Okinawa. Training opportunities are limited there, however, and the Marines have begun training more frequently at JGSDF at bases on the main islands.

“Even though we were in Japan and trained in Japan, we didn’t put as much effort into training with the Japanese as we should have,” says Major Eric Mattson, who heads the Marines’ joint training program in Japan.

“Now it’s ‘Let’s do some real training. Put them on our ships. Let them see how we live, see how we train. Do all that right along with them.’ And then we go up to their ranges, stay on their bases, fire their weapons. So it has tangible benefits for us,” says Mattson.

Even the U.S. Navy, which has long had a close relationship with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), is upping the frequency and sophistication with which it trains with its counterpart.

Earlier this year, for example, U.S. warships completed a complex live-fire exercise off the coast of Guam with eight JMSDF ships, including naval gunnery, antisubmarine warfare, tactical maneuvering and communication drills.

Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the Yokosuka-based U.S. Seventh Fleet, says U.S. and Japanese ships now work together “virtually every day.”

“Our operations with the JMSDF are focused on high-end interoperability, so often the quality of the training is even more important than quantity,” Thomas says.

Both the frequency and scope of U.S.-Japan training is almost certain to increase.

Japan plans to field a 3,000-man amphibious warfare unit, based in southern Japan, no later than 2018. They will use the same amphibious assault vehicles, V-22 Osprey aircraft and other equipment used by the Marines and Navy. That will require close coordination with Americans.

That’s not a bad thing, says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a think tank in Honolulu.

The Chinese are likely to complain no matter how much or how little U.S. forces train with the Japanese, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to ease restrictions on Japan’s military are likely to remain tempered by public opinion, Glosserman says.

“I like the idea of our armed forces training so much with other countries’ militaries. It increases familiarity, reminds our military that all armies don’t fight alike, and the better that we understand those differences among our partners, the smarter we can be. What’s not to like?”

TIME World War Two

The American POWs Still Waiting for an Apology From Japan 70 Years Later

American and Filipino prisoners of war during the Bataan Death march when the Japanese force-marched them across the Philippines, May 1942.
MPI/Getty Images American and Filipino prisoners of war during the Bataan Death march when the Japanese force-marched them across the Philippines, May 1942.

More than 60 Japanese companies used American POW labor in World War II. Only one has apologized

Kathy Holcomb put her hand on the wall of a crumbling factory building in the central Japanese city of Yokkaichi and envisioned her father touching the same spot during his years as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II.

Like thousands of American POWs, her father was made to labor under slave-like conditions in Japan’s war industry. Four of every 10 American prisoners died of starvation, illness or abuse.

Now, the survivors, their families and supporters are demanding an apology from the companies that operated those camps and profited from POW labor. Those include some of Japan’s best-known corporate giants.

“My father never really forgave the Japanese. He never understood the cruelty or the constant physical abuse,” said Holcomb. Her father, Harold Vick, was a tank crewman who was captured in the Philippines in the early days of World War II. He died several years ago.

“If he could have come here himself—if he could have heard them apologize and acknowledge what was done to him—it might have helped give him a sense of closure,” she said.

The campaign for an apology comes as Japan’s political leadership is pushing a revisionist view of wartime history. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this year sent a message of support to a memorial service that honored convicted war criminals—including some who were executed by the Allies for abuse of POWs.

Kirk SpitzerKathy Holcomb touching the wall of one of the original buildings at the Ishihara Sangyo plant where her father labored as a POW in World War II

The treatment of American and allied prisoners by the Japanese is one of the abiding horrors of World War II. Prisoners were routinely beaten, starved and abused and forced to work in mines and war-related factories in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. Of the 27,000 Americans taken prisoner by the Japanese, a shocking 40 percent died in captivity, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service. That compares with just one percent of American prisoners who died in German POW camps.

The Japanese government issued a formal apology to American POWs in 2009 and started a “POW Friendship and Remembrance” program a year later. That program brings a small group of American POWs and family members to Japan each year to meet with officials and private citizens and, in some cases, visit the sites where POWs were held.

More than 60 companies used POW labor during the war, usually paying Japan’s Imperial Army a fee for the privilege, and using company employees as supplemental guards and jailers, according to the US-Japan Dialogue on POWs, a non-profit support organization based in California.

Surviving POWs and advocates have been pressing for apologies from more than a dozen companies, including some of Japan’s largest. But so far, only one—a chemical manufacturer based in Yokkaichi, near Nagoya—has done so.

Akira Kobayashi, managing executive officer of Ishihara Sangyo, said using POW labor was “one of the dark episodes” in the company’s past. Issuing an apology in 2010 was “the right thing to do,” he said.

“What we are doing here today is not only to honor your father, but it’s also for future generations, to try to bring our two countries closer together,” Kobayashi told Holcomb during an emotional meeting at the company headquarters this week.

The 1952 Treaty of Peace with Japan provided for modest compensation payments to former POWs. That money came from Japanese assets seized in the United States and elsewhere outside Japan. But U.S. and Japanese courts have ruled that the treaty explicitly prevents American POWs from seeking additional damages from either the Japanese government or private citizens. A handful of lawsuits filed in California against Mitsubishi Corp., Nippon Steel and other companies that used POW labor during the war were dismissed by federal courts in 2004.

The U.S. government is at least partly at fault for failing to ensure that POWs abused by the Japanese were treated the same as those by the Germans, said Linda Goetz Holmes. She is a former member of the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Records Interagency Working Group, and author of Unjust Enrichment: American POWs Under the Rising Sun.

“German companies long ago apologized to those who worked as slave laborers, and additional compensation was paid either by the companies or the German government, “ she said. “But when it came to Japan, our State Department said ‘Oh no, this will interfere with our foreign relations.’”

But financial compensation is not the point, said 94-year-old Lester Tenney, a former POW and head of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, a POW support group.

“Our legal fight has never been about money. It has been about honor, dignity and responsibility,” Tenney said in an email interview from his home near San Diego.

“The companies that enslaved thousands of Americans, and failed to provide them with the very basic necessities of life should, once and for all, come forward and apologize for the cruelties that were handed out,” said Tenney. He was taken prisoner in the Philippines and spent more than two years laboring in a coalmine in southern Japan.

Advocates have asked more than a dozen Japanese companies that used POW labor during the war to apologize. But so far, only Ishihara Sangyo has responded, said Kinue Tokudome, founder and executive director of the US-Japan Dialogue. Given the political climate in Japan, that may not be surprising.

Abe is a staunch conservative who in the past has questioned Japan’s war responsibility. In April, he provided a message that was read aloud during a memorial service honoring about 1,180 convicted war criminals. Those include more than 130 Japanese who were tried and executed for crimes related to the abuse of American POWs, according to Tokudome.

In the message, Abe referred to the war criminals as “martyrs who staked their souls to become the foundation of their nation.”

Tenney said Abe’s message is “disgraceful” and ignores the truth.

The treatment of POWs is not widely discussed in Japan. But that could change later this year, when the film Unbroken is scheduled for release in the United States.

That film, directed A-lister Angelina Jolie, traces the brutal treatment of Louis Zamperini in Japanese prison camps and his fight for survival. A star of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, Zamperini was captured after his Army Air Force bomber crashed in the Pacific Ocean in May 1943.

The movie is based on the best-selling book of the same name. That book, released in 2010, was denounced on right-wing websites here as anti-Japanese propaganda. A release date for the film in Japan has not been fixed.

The issue of POW treatment by the Japanese is unlikely to go away, says Holcomb. She said her father was haunted by his prison experience and suffered daily from injuries he received while working at what was then a copper refinery—injuries that were never properly treated.

Holcomb said she decided to visit the Ishihara Sangyo plant after moving to South Korea earlier this year. The facility still has some of the same roads, buildings and dock facilities as when her father was held here; officials allowed her to tour the plant and to visit a small shrine dedicated to the POWs and others who died during the war. She said the visit helped bring closure for her, but that others are still suffering.

“This isn’t going to end even when all of the former POWs pass away. Their children and grandchildren have heard the stories, and have lived with the stories, and they haven’t forgotten. This isn’t about money. It’s about acknowledging what was done to these men.”

TIME Japan

Science Scandal Triggers Suicide, Soul-Searching in Japan

Sasai, deputy director of the Riken's Center for Developmental Biology, poses for a photo with Haruko Obokata in front of a screen showing STAP cells, in Kobe
Kyodo/Reuters Yoshiki Sasai, right, deputy director of the Riken's Center for Developmental Biology, poses for a photo with Haruko Obokata on Jan. 28, 2014.

Yoshiki Sasai’s death has generated mixed emotions among Japan's scientific community

It was a success story that Japan sorely needed: a young, talented and beautiful researcher developed a cheap and simple way to grow versatile stem cells.

The discovery promised to usher in a new age of regenerative medicine, validated Japan as a leader in scientific research and demonstrated that even in a male-dominated society, women could excel when given a chance.

Alas, it may have been too good to be true.

Intrigued by researcher Haruko Obokata’s breakthrough, other scientists tried but failed to replicate her results. Peer-review websites accused her of falsifying data and doctoring images, and supervisors were accused of lax management. Obokata, 30, was forced to retract her scientific papers, and the government-sponsored research center where she worked launched a formal investigation.

The matter took a darker turn this week when Obokata’s supervisor and mentor, Yoshiki Sasai, a noted scientist in his own right, was found hanging from a stairway railing at his office.

In farewell letters found at his desk, Sasai reportedly apologized for the turmoil, but urged Obokata to continue her work and to prove her detractors wrong.

Sasai’s death cast a pall over the controversy. But in a nation where suicide does not carry the same stigma as in some Western countries, there has been a certain degree of sympathy — if not outright approval.

“This is seen in some respects as an honorable way out of a shameful and devastating turn of events: ‘A highflyer brought low by an underling’s mistakes, seeking to atone for and expunge the shame,’” says Jeffrey Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Tokyo’s Temple University-Japan. “This touches a chord of sympathy and understanding in Japan.”

Sasai was a noted stem-cell scientist and deputy director of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, in Kobe — part of a national research system that receives roughly $1 billion a year in government support and is part of an ambitious effort to boost scientific research throughout Japan.

The 52-year-old was not directly involved in Obokata’s research, but had helped recruit her and supervised the research papers that were published in the British journal Nature in January.

But whether Sasai’s death generates sympathy for Obokata or the rest of Japan’s scientific community remains to be seen.

Obokata burst onto the scene in late January with the publication of the Nature papers, of which she was the lead author. Those studies claimed to have found a new way of creating stem cells, dubbed stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. Such cells could be used to create new tissue, with potential for treating illnesses like Alzheimer’s, heart disease and stroke.

Poised and photogenic, Obokata was an instant hit with Japan’s frenetic media —mainstream and social, alike. Here, after all, was a different kind of scientist. Even in the lab, Obokata flashed stylish clothes, false eyelashes and fashionable hairstyles. She eschewed the usual white lab coat in favor of a traditional housewife’s kappogi (a gift from her grandmother, she explained) and had the walls of her lab painted pink and yellow and decorated with cartoon characters.

Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has made “womenomics” a key plinth of his economic revival package, noticed. He commended Obokata’s apparent achievement from the floor of Japan’s Parliament and vowed to build “a country where the women are the brightest in the world.”

But it didn’t take long for doubts to surface. Peer-review websites noticed oddities and discrepancies in Obokata’s research. Attempts to replicate her findings failed.

By mid-February, RIKEN had launched an internal investigation. In April, officials charged Obokata with fabricating data, doctoring images and borrowing descriptions from other research papers.

Meanwhile, discrepancies were found in the research of other leading scientists, though none with the public profile of Obokata.

In an excruciating, four-hour press conference televised live by many of Japan’s major networks, a tearful Obokata struggled to maintain her composure. She admitted errors in her research papers, but maintained they were innocent mistakes that did not affect the final results. STAP cells were real, she insisted.

She has remained on the staff at RIKEN but has maintained a low profile, refusing interviews. In July, RIKEN officials announced that she would be allowed to take part in a five-month experiment designed to discover once and for all whether her initial findings were real. Other researchers and video cameras would monitor her work, officials said.

The RIKEN affair has been watched closely by Japan’s scientific community, which has produced its share of Nobel Prizes but is often viewed as insular and underperforming.

“One thing that should not be lost in all this is that Japan produces outstanding science,” says Jonathan Dorfan, a former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, at Stanford University, and now president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan.

“People in the scientific community here are paying attention to this, and hopefully that will lead to the kind of training that will avoid an outcome like this happening again.”

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