TIME Japan

Japan Says It Can’t Reach ISIS to Resolve Hostage Standoff

Japanese journalist Kenji Goto delivering a lecture during a symposium in Tokyo on Oct. 27, 2010.
Japanese journalist Kenji Goto delivering a lecture during a symposium in Tokyo on Oct. 27, 2010. Japan Commitee For The UNICEF/AFP/Getty Images

"We are exploring every possibility available to save their lives," a top official says

Japanese officials said Thursday that they have so far failed to make contact with militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) who have threatened to kill two Japanese hostages.

In a video released Tuesday, a masked ISIS fighter said Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa would be killed unless the militant group received $200 million within 72 hours. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan has yet to hear directly from the group and hasn’t been able to confirm the safety of the two men, the New York Times reports.

“We are exploring every possibility available to save their lives,” he said.

The ransom demanded by ISIS is the same amount Japan had pledged in non-military aid for countries fighting the group. In the video, the ISIS militant accused Japan of donating the money “to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of Muslims.”

[NYT]

TIME Japan

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

Before the reporter set off on his rescue mission, he said: "Whatever happens, this is my responsibility"

When an online video surfaced Tuesday showing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threatening to kill two Japanese hostages, relatively little was known about the relationship between the two prisoners. But Reuters revealed Wednesday that war correspondent Kenji Goto had in fact returned to Syria in late October to rescue his friend Haruna Yukawa, who was captured by ISIS a few months earlier.

Yukawa reportedly went to Syria as part of an attempt to get his life back on track after dealing with bankruptcy, the loss of his wife to cancer, and an attempted suicide. Goto, 47, a respected Japanese freelance journalist, went to Syria to cover the civil war.

After the pair first met in April, Yukawa asked Goto, who had years of experience of war zones, to take him to Iraq. Yukawa returned to Syria in July, while Goto went back to Japan. But when Yukawa was captured in August outside Aleppo, Goto was troubled by his disappearance and decided to go back in October to try and help.

Friends say Goto traveled from Tokyo to Istanbul and that he sent a message on Oct. 25 to say he had safely crossed the border. In a short clip recorded before he set out for the ISIS-held city of Raqqa, he told the camera: “Whatever happens, this is my responsibility.” That was the last he was heard of until this week’s ISIS video.

[Reuters]

TIME Japan

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

PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-JAPAN-DIPLOMACY-ABE
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. Abbas Momani—AFP/Getty Images

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

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Japan

Worker Dies at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Plant Amid a Rise in Accidents

Japan Nuclear Worker Death
This photo taken Monday, Jan. 19, 2015 and provided by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) shows a water storage tank, center, which a worker fell into, at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan Tokyo Electric Power Co./AP

The death is the second in under a year at the stricken nuclear power station

A Japanese laborer in his 50s died Tuesday while inspecting a water storage tank at the defunct Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of a March 2011 nuclear meltdown following a catastrophic tsunami.

The man, an employee of one of Japan’s largest construction firms, Hazama Ando Co., died at a hospital in Tokyo after plunging into the 33 ft.-deep tank. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator, was already under fire from labor inspectors for a recent uptick in accidents. This is the plant’s second death in under a year, reports Reuters.

“We promise to implement measures to ensure that such tragedy does not occur again,” said plant manager Akira Ono in a statement to the media.

Although Tokyo Electric increased its workforce and initiated a cleanup campaign this year, there were 55 accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi plant during the current fiscal year, almost double last year’s rate. On Tuesday, Tokyo Electric also reported an injured worker at another nuclear plant, Fukushima Daini.

“It’s not just the number of accidents that has been on the rise. It’s the serious cases, including deaths and serious injuries that have risen so we asked Tokyo Electric to improve the situation,” labor inspector Katsuyoshi Ito told Reuters.

Read TIME Magazine’s story on Fukushima: ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Room’

[Reuters]

TIME isis

New ISIS Video Purportedly Shows Two Japanese Hostages

ISIS is demanding a $200 million ransom.

(CAIRO, Egypt) — An online video released Tuesday purported to show the Islamic State group threatening to kill two Japanese hostages unless they receive a $200 million ransom in the next 72 hours.

The video, identified as being made by the Islamic State group’s al-Furqan media arm and posted on militant websites associated with the extremist group, mirrored other hostage threats it has made. The militant in it also directly addresses Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now on a six-day visit to the Middle East with more than 100 government officials and presidents of Japanese companies.

“To the prime minister of Japan: Although you are more than 8,000 and 500 kilometers (5,280 miles) from the Islamic State, you willingly have volunteered to take part in this crusade,” says the knife-brandishing militant in the video, who resembles and sounds like a British militant involved in other filmed beheadings by the Islamic State group. “You have proudly donated $100 million to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of the Muslims.”

The video shows two hostages in orange jumpsuits that the militants identify as Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa. Japan’s Foreign Ministry’s anti-terrorism section has seen the video and analysts are assessing it, a ministry official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of department rules.

Abe was to appear at a news conference later Tuesday in Jerusalem.

Speaking in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to say whether Japan would pay the ransom.

“If true, the act of threat in exchange of people’s lives is unforgivable and we feel strong indignation,” Suga told journalists. “We will make our utmost effort to win their release as soon as possible.”

In August, a Japanese citizen believed to be Yukawa, a private military company operator in his early 40s, was kidnapped in Syria after going there to train with militants, according to a post on a blog kept. Pictures on his Facebook page show him in Iraq and Syria in July. One video on his page showed him holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle with the caption: “Syria war in Aleppo 2014.”

Goto is a respected Japanese freelance journalist who went to report on Syria’s civil war last year and knew of Yukawa.

“I’m in Syria for reporting,” he wrote in an email to an Associated Press journalist in October. “I hope I can convey the atmosphere from where I am and share it.”

The Islamic State group has beheaded and shot dead hundreds of captives — mainly Syrian and Iraqi soldiers — during its sweep across the two countries, and has celebrated its mass killings in extremely graphic videos. A British-accented jihadi also has appeared in the beheading videos of slain American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and with British hostages David Haines and Alan Henning.

The group also holds British photojournalist John Cantlie, who has appeared in other extremist propaganda videos, and a 26-year-old American woman captured last year in Syria while working for aid groups. U.S. officials have asked that the woman not be identified out of fears for her safety.

Tuesday’s video marks the first time the Islamic State group specifically has demanded cash for hostages. Though the militant in the video links it to the Japanese funding efforts to counter the Islamic State group, it comes amid recent losses for the extremists targeted in airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition. Its militants also recently released some 200 mostly elderly Yazidi hostages in Iraq, fueling speculation by Iraqi officials that the group couldn’t support them.

Read next: The U.S. Military Will Send 400 Troops to Train Syrian Rebels Battling ISIS

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Japan

Japan Cabinet Okays Record Military Budget With Eye on China

Shinzo Abe
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, stands in front of a mock-up of the F-35 fighter jet during the annual Self-Defense Forces Commencement of Air Review at Hyakuri Air Base, north of Tokyo, on Oct. 26, 2014 Eugene Hoshiko—AP

Some $42 billion will be spent on defense

(TOKYO) — Japan’s Cabinet approved the country’s largest ever defense budget on Wednesday, including plans to buy surveillance aircraft, drones and F-35 fighter jets to help counter China’s rising assertiveness in the region.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet endorsed a nearly 5 trillion yen ($42 billion) defense budget for the year beginning in April as part of a record 96.3 trillion yen ($814 billion) total budget.

The budget must still be approved by parliament, but Abe’s coalition holds majorities in both houses.

The 2 percent rise in defense spending is the third annual increase under Abe, who took office in December 2012 and ended 11 straight years of defense budget cuts.

The increase mainly covers new equipment, including P-1 surveillance aircraft, F-35 fighter jets and amphibious vehicles for a new unit similar to the U.S. Marine Corps. The aim is to boost Japan’s capacity to defend uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that it controls but which are also claimed by China.

The 2015 budget also covers the cost of purchasing parts of “Global Hawk” drones, planned for deployment in 2019, two Aegis radar-equipped destroyers and missile defense system development with Washington.

Abe favors a stronger role for Japan’s military, despite a commitment to pacifism enshrined in the U.S.-inspired constitution drawn up after the country’s defeat in World War II. Japan’s defense guidelines were revised in December 2013 as tensions rose over the East China Sea islands.

Chinese patrol boats often visit waters near the islands, which are known as the Senkakus in Japan and as the Diaoyu islands in China.

The defense budget is designed to achieve “seamless and mobile” defense capability that can respond to various contingencies, the ministry said in the Cabinet-approved budget plan. It will provide effective deterrence and contribute to stability in the Asia-Pacific region and improvement of the global security environment, the ministry said.

Abe’s government must tread a fine line between spending enough to support economic growth and defense and slowing the rise in Japan’s debt, which is the highest, proportionately, among industrialized countries.

As Japan’s population quickly ages, welfare costs are soaring. Social security spending will account for about a third of the budget. The economy is in recession but the government has forecast growth at 1.5 percent this year, after an estimated 0.5 percent contraction in 2014.

To balance his conflicting priorities, Abe is increasing outlays targeting families and other households that are struggling as wages lag behind price increases. But he also intends to cut corporate income taxes by 2.5 percentage points in the fiscal year that begins April 1, to 32.11 percent. Further cuts are planned.

The government is also tweaking tax rules to encourage elderly Japanese, who hold about 60 percent of the country’s 1.6 quadrillion yen ($13.6 trillion) in private savings, to spend more on their children and grandchildren.

TIME Sports

Somersaulting Into America

male-gymnast-parallel-bars
Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

As a top Japanese gymnast, my dad’s future was laid out for him. He opted for adventure in the U.S. instead

The letter that would change my father’s life—and eventually lead to his recent induction into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame—arrived in 1964, at his high school in Nara, Japan. Addressed to Yoshi Hayasaki, it was from an American.

My father, 17 at the time, could not make out a single sentence typed by Eric Hughes, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. He asked a campus English teacher to translate. “It sounds like he is trying to invite you to come to America,” the teacher told my father.

Hughes, as it turned out, had started a men’s gymnastics team at the University of Washington in 1956, a time when the sport in the U.S. lagged behind Japan and the Soviet Union. While on sabbatical in Japan 1964, Hughes scouted for talent. That was when he first spotted my dad, a 5-foot-3 city and regional champion, ranked as one of the top five gymnasts in Japan.

The letter stated that if my dad earned admittance to the University of Washington, he would be guaranteed a scholarship to the school, and could compete on its team.

All my father really knew of America at the time came from watching translated episodes of Rawhide, an American Western TV series. His mother, on the other hand, had memories of U.S. mortars reducing her Osaka home to ashes, and racing to shelters with her oldest child in her arms as enemy bombs fell. But the family spoke little about these war stories.

Coaches and teammates could not understand why my dad would even consider competing in another country—in the U.S. of all places—when Japan was already the gymnastics superpower. Everybody was against the idea, including his father.

Still, the thought of America electrified my dad. He had been offered scholarships to Japanese universities, and saw that many former champions became physical education teachers, while others became foot soldiers for corporations. “I saw my future,” he told me. “It was like a blueprint.”

There is a Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.” It is a saying I’ve thought about throughout my own life, as someone who feels like I’ve at times stuck out, even in America. Here, however, it is possible to find your own way, and embrace the road less taken. Back then, in Japan, my dad could practically see the hammer’s face.

For him, America was uncharted territory that seemed to offer an escape, or at least an adventure. Grudgingly, my grandfather assented, telling Dad: “Do not come back until you have accomplished something.”

Sending him on a plane would cost too much; my grandfather had lost his plastics company in bankruptcy when my father was in sixth grade, and the family of six was forced to move into my great-grandparents’ two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. My grandmother sold hairpins on the street. My grandfather never worked full-time again.

The family hunted around for a cargo ship. On July 30, 1965, shortly after graduating from high school, my father boarded the S.S. Idaho, which was transporting logs from Yokohama to Longview, Washington. The trip cost $300.

My father packed a week’s worth of clothes, jump ropes, a training bar, and one suit—a gift from his father. No one aboard spoke Japanese. When he could no longer see Japan, Dad wrote: “Should I really be doing this? I almost feel like jumping into the water and swimming back to shore.”

He slept in a cabin in the lowest bowels of the ship, where the rocking was most violent. By day three, the sky turned gray and stormy. Seasick, he vomited liquid for four days, as his body turned nearly skeletal. The pages of his diary went blank.

By the eighth day, he could drink water again. He ate a hotdog. “I’m living again,” he wrote.

Twelve days later, he rushed out to the deck and saw land.

He would attend high school again, this time for a year in Issaquah, Washington, to learn English, before taking the tests to gain acceptance into the university. He was one of three foreign exchange students in an all-white school. It took a while to realize that kids were making fun of him when they called him a “Jap” or a “chink,” but he tried not to care. He had a mission: to make it into college, and become a champion.

Once, while going through the cabinets of his host family’s home, he found an aluminum can, but could not read the label. He opened it, chewing its contents, stomaching the odd taste. He later found out it was dog food.

At night, my father practiced English words in front of a mirror. Still, he failed the admissions test twice. He began to fret, hearing his father’s words: “Don’t come back until...”

On the third try, he passed.

He enrolled at the University of Washington in 1966. His first competition in the national championships took place the following summer. To his devastation, he placed at the bottom.

The next year, “I went nuts training,” he said. He came back to the national championships in 1967 and took first place, becoming the USA Gymnastics all-around champion. He did it again in 1968, winning individual titles on rings, parallel bars, and high bar.

Then, he set another goal: to compete on the U.S. Olympic team.

Dad applied for American citizenship in 1968, knowing this was no small step: A few weeks later, a letter from the U.S. government required his appearance at a physical examination. He was being drafted for the Vietnam War.

Was what happened next luck or misfortune? He will never know. One day, while practicing a back handspring twist, he punched the floor with his legs hard, tearing his right Achilles tendon. He received 24 stitches. He failed the military physical. He also missed his shot at making the 1968 Olympic team.

Two years later, he recovered enough to win back-to-back NCAA all-around titles. But in another stroke of fate, he tore his left Achilles tendon.

He continued to train, but his body was never the same. His Olympic dreams over, he contemplated whether he should return to Japan, become the businessman that others expected of him. His father could be proud now; his son had accomplished something. Beyond athletics, Dad could also speak English. He had a cadre of American friends. He bought a 1957 Volkswagen, and began dating an American woman (who would become my mother). When an offer to become the head coach of the University of Illinois men’s gymnastics team arrived, he did not think twice. It was an opportunity to stay, build a community his way, and raise a multiracial family.

The program had been on a losing streak for a decade, so he reached into lessons from his own journey to turn it around: with the best U.S. athletes already spoken for, he could look abroad to revitalize his Illinois team.

He began traveling to Brazil, Finland, and Portugal to recruit, sharing his own story of making it in the U.S. and convincing athletes from far-off countries to compete for Illinois. Their wins soon attracted more local talent, developing top athletes from within the U.S. In 1980, they won the Big Ten title, and five more after that. He was named Big Ten Coach of the Year four times. In his 33 seasons, he coached 14 individual NCAA champions, 89 All-Americans, and three Olympians.

At 67 years old, my father continues to teach gymnastics at the private gym he started, The Hayasaki Gymnastics Center in Champaign, Illinois. For him, it’s not about working with the “stars.” He has most enjoyed teaching the hundreds of gymnasts who trained because they simply wanted to see where the journey would lead.

The ideals my father developed in America are now embedded within his gymnasts, and also within me: Growth comes from taking risks. Reinventing yourself is sometimes necessary. Fear of failure can be a powerful muscle. And sticking out? It might be the most underestimated strength of all.

Erika Hayasaki is the author of The Death Class: A True Story About Life (Simon and Schuster) and an assistant professor in the literary journalism program at UC Irvine. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME risks

These Are the Geopolitical Risks You Won’t Have to Fear in 2015

Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014.
Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province in Syria, June 30, 2014. Reuters

TIME's foreign affairs columnist lists the global threats that everyone is scared of—but that you shouldn't be

Sometimes, the future can be easy to predict. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) will continue to terrorize the Middle East and North Africa. Vladimir Putin’s Russia won’t back down in Ukraine or quit lashing out against the West. And of course, there will also be plenty of geopolitical risks that will come out of nowhere, like the sudden volatility in global oil markets.

Yet sometimes the biggest surprises are the false alarms—the overrated risks that end up nowhere near as disastrous as everyone assumed. They’re what I call a ‘red herrings’: risks that are largely expected to materialize, but that I predict it won’t pan out in 2015.

In a world where we get whipsawed by headlines and hyperbole, risks both real and overblown, it’s important to make bold predictions for some of the so-called major threats that won’t disrupt the world—at least not the way we think. I’ve outlined the biggest four.

1. The Islamic State

In 2015, the influence of ISIS will continue to grow. It has become the most powerful terrorist group in the world, eclipsing al-Qaeda, with funds and fresh recruits flowing in rapidly. As a brand, as a terrorist organization and as a regional menace, ISIS is on the rise.

But as a sovereign state, ISIS will not achieve similar success in 2015. The group will fail to expand the territory under its direct control, and it’s even likely to cede ground in Iraq and Syria. The U.S., potent Shia militias, Kurdish peshmerga forces, the Iraqi army and Sunni tribal forces will combine to contain the Islamic State’s power over the next year. Even though its influence will prove long-lasting, ISIS will not replicate the stunning military successes it demonstrated in the summer of 2014, nor create a caliphate that can be sustained over the long term.

2. Asia Nationalism

In Asia, strong, nationalistic leaders can seem like a geopolitical disaster waiting to happen. Take Japan and China, with their conflicting claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. The animosities run deep: in a recent Pew Research poll, only 7% of Japanese held a favorable view of China, while just 8% of Chinese viewed Japan positively.

At least for 2015, however, pragmatic restraint should prevail. Stronger, more popular leaders in four of Asia’s key economies—China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe and even Indonesia’s new President Joko Widodo—all have their hands full with long-overdue economic reforms. With their focus turned to home, they have good reason to avoid foreign distractions, improve their regional economic ties, keep security relations in balance and contain any inevitable flare-ups. There will be scuffles, but don’t expect soaring tensions between the economic powerhouses of Asia.

3. Petrostates

There’s no way to ignore the relentless slide in oil prices, which have fallen by more than half since June. For consumers enjoying cheaper gasoline, it’s a welcome relif. For countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran—authoritarian petrostates that rely on oil exports as an economic lifeline—there’s a growing expectation that both their geopolitical weight and even their internal stability could be severely compromised in 2015.

It’s unlikely to happen. We’ll probably see a modest recovery in oil prices, but even if we don’t, massive cash reserves give many of these countries a lot of room for maneuver in the short-term. After all, Saudi Arabia has contributed to the oil price collapse by opting against a production cut. Nor will their foreign policies budge much: cheaper oil won’t make Russia pull out of Ukraine or Iran accept worse terms in nuclear negotiations. The notable exception is Venezuela, which may very well default if oil prices remain low. Yet in 2015, don’t expect petrostates to die out.

4. Mexico

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has his hands full. He’s fighting off accusations of financial impropriety involving his wife and his finance minister. Economic growth has been anemic. Many Mexicans, outraged by the murder of 43 college students who were handed over to drug lords by a local mayor, feel that the government hasn’t lived up to its commitments to improve security.

Despite the storm clouds, though, it should be a reasonably positive year for Mexico. Pena Nieto still has the popularity and the determination to push forward with economic reforms in the telecom and energy sectors. The President’s weakness has mainly benefited the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN), which generally supports his agenda. If he can make progress on his reforms, it will have a huge impact on Mexico’s productivity and competitiveness, which will help attract large-scale investment from abroad. Combine that with an economic rebound in the U.S. as well as improving cross-border trade, inbound investment and tourism numbers, and Mexico could be a bright spot for 2015.

* * *

Of course, for every false alarm, there are plenty of real and underappreciated threats. If pessimism suits you better, my last column focuses on the ten biggest risks of 2015.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 6

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. China is the key to solving the problem of North Korea.

By Christopher Hill in Project Syndicate

2. Squeezing cells to make their walls temporarily permeable could open the door to new cancer and HIV treatments.

By Kevin Bullis at MIT Technology Review

3. Survivors of domestic violence are getting immediate protection from their abusers via videoconference with a court officer from their hospital beds.

By Laura Starecheski at National Public Radio

4. Japan is testing underwater turbines to harness the power of ocean currents for clean energy.

By Brian Merchant in Motherboard from Vice

5. Drones are the new tool of choice for biologists and ecologists studying endangered species.

By Aviva Rutkin in New Scientist

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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