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

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

Japan Nuclear Worker Death
Tokyo Electric Power Co./AP 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

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 Sports

Somersaulting Into America

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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.
Reuters 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.

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.

TIME Japan

Japan’s PM Abe to Express Remorse on 70th Anniversary of WWII Surrender

Jiji Press—AFP/Getty Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and his Cabinet members visit the Ise shrine in Ise, in central Japan, on Jan. 5, 2015

The 60-year-old vowed to emphasize Japan's efforts toward future world peace

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will express remorse for his country’s role in World War II in a statement on the 70th anniversary of his nation’s surrender in August.

“I would like to write of Japan’s remorse over the war, its postwar history as a pacifist nation and how it will contribute to the Asia-Pacific region and the world,” Abe said at a press conference on Monday, reports Kyodo news agency.

Japan’s relations with South Korea and China have long been deeply impacted by the country’s attitude toward its wartime actions. The East Asian neighbors will pay particularly close attention to whether Abe will uphold his predecessor Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 apology for the “tremendous damage and suffering” Japan caused to people across Asia during the Pacific war.

Asked about Murayama’s statement, Abe said that he “has and will uphold statements issued by past administrations.”

[Kyodo]

TIME

Go Inside the Quirky World of a Tumblr Photo Star

Tumblr star Izumi Miyazaki has a highly personal approach to photography, which she shares on Tumblr

In the summer of 2012, Izumi Miyazaki – a photography student then in her first year at Musashino Art University in Tokyo – had the foresight to start a Tumblr blog to share her work with others. Initially, the blog can be seen as a way to articulate a visual language in photography: everyday street scenes in suburban Tokyo are shown next to self-portraits in which Miyazaki positions herself in public as well as private spaces. Looking at the chronology of her blog, though, it becomes clear that within weeks of starting it, Miyazaki developed a highly personal approach to photography where she purposefully mixes notions of absurdity and humor with an element of realness more commonly associated with street photography. Rarely, if ever, is anyone else visible in her work making Miyazaki the sole star in this fictitious world.

Miyazaki uses photography experimentally as well as playfully: one manipulated image depicts an egg cracked open above her head. Taken in autumn 2012 and shared and liked on Tumblr over 27,000 times, Miyazaki accredits this image for rapidly drawing national as well as international attention to her work. A little more than a year later, one of her quirky self-portraits was on the front cover of Phat Photo – one of Japan’s most prominent photography magazines, read mostly by a younger demographic. Miyazaki’s rapid rise is a reflection of the power of an image-economy hungry for the next new trend – an economy that favors creativity, individuality and also wittiness.

Many of Miyazaki’s photographs feature food: one image depicts her about to bite into a rice ball, another shows her lying on the kitchen floor eating a pack of cookies. And since no one else are featured in her images, these scenes allude to a form of alienation, which is further emphasized by other photographs were Miyazaki inserts multiple versions of herself into the image. Asked about why she tends to do that in her self-portraits, Miyazaki explains that she grew up as a lonely child: “I don’t feel lonely when I make and watch photos of a double me.”

Unlike the work of Hiromix or Yurie Nagashima however, whose provocative self-portraits from the 1990s questioned notions about gender and sexuality, Miyazaki seems more concerned with depicting herself as an individual trapped in a highly advanced consumer society. Next to Miyazaki’s body, depictions of billboards, advertisements or posters of politicians become empty and meaningless signs.

While promoting her work on the art fair circuit in Tokyo (a culturally specific phenomenon where individual artists pay to represent themselves in small booths), and perhaps as a way to appropriate the economy of signs described above, Miyazaki has started to sell merchandise such as tote bags and buttons of her images. Miyazaki is keen to use her clients as means to ‘exhibit’ her work on the street. The implication of this methodology is clear: similar to the way her Tumblr followers share her photographs, Miyazaki is bypassing the regimented structures of the gallery system by opening up her work to new audiences.

Izumi Miyazaki is an artist and photographer based in Japan

Marco Bohr is a photographer and writer based in the United Kingdom. He runs the Visual Culture Blog and can be found on Twitter @MarcoBohr.

TIME Japan

This Traditional New Year’s Delicacy Killed Nine People in Japan

The Art of Making Traditional Japanese Sweets Wagashi
Buddhika Weerasinghe—Getty Images Mochi at Amaneya sweet shop in Himeji, Japan, on Jan. 23, 2014

Another 13 were hospitalized

Mochi, a traditional New Year’s food in Japan, has made headlines again this year after it apparently led nine people to die from choking.

A chewy cake made from pounded rice, mochi is eaten year-round in Japan, though is traditionally food for New Year, devoured in large quantities in a vegetable broth, or roasted and coated with sugar and soy flour.

The glutinous texture of mochi means it can become lodged in people’s throats and lead to suffocation. This New Year, local media reported nine people died from accidental choking, up from two deaths the previous year; 13 others remain in a serious condition.

Each year before the New Year’s festivities, Japan’s fire and police departments advise people, particularly children and the elderly, to divide the rice cakes into very small chunks before eating them and to do so in the presence of others.

According to the Guardian, one company in the city of Osaka is using an enzyme to make mochi less sticky and easier to swallow. The country’s food-safety commission found in 2010 that mochi was the food most often involved in choking incidents, with over 80% of victims ages 65 or above.

TIME Japan

Japan’s Aging Population Woes Worsen with New Record Low Birth-Rate in 2014

The number of births fell to a record low for the fourth straight year

The estimated number of Japanese newborns fell to just 1.001 million in 2014 compared with 1.269 million registered deaths, the lowest birth-rate ever recorded and one that exacerbates the East Asian nation’s ongoing struggles with an aging and shrinking population.

“The number of reproductive-age women is on the decline,” an official at Japan’s health, labour and welfare ministry told Kyodo News, leading to a subsequent drop in the number of children, AFP reports.

The government has warned that by 2060, nearly 40% of the population will be aged 65 or over. Data released last April shows it is already difficult for the East Asian nation of to support the elderly and pensioners who currently make up 25% of its population.

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