The Cable

A Top Japanese General on ISIS: ‘Terrorism Is Never Tolerated’

Japan isn’t the first country that comes to mind when discussing the growing phenomenon of foreign fighters flocking to Syria to join the Islamic State militant group. But for top officials in Tokyo, the spread of Islamic State propaganda is a growing concern despite the country’s exceedingly small contribution of jihadist fighters to Iraq and ...

Getty Images
Getty Images

Japan isn’t the first country that comes to mind when discussing the growing phenomenon of foreign fighters flocking to Syria to join the Islamic State militant group. But for top officials in Tokyo, the spread of Islamic State propaganda is a growing concern despite the country’s exceedingly small contribution of jihadist fighters to Iraq and Syria.

On Tuesday, the chief of staff of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force said Tokyo is taking measures to prevent citizens from traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State militant group and stepping up its humanitarian support in the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. 

"Generally speaking, the Japanese people are not really deeply influenced by the Islamic religion or culture," Gen. Kiyofumi Iwata told Foreign Policy in an interview. "At the same time, I am concerned that the propaganda made by the Islamic State is very elaborate."

Last week, Tokyo police began investigating a 26-year-old Japanese student on suspicion that he attempted to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. In September, Japan’s former air force chief said nine Japanese citizens have joined the Islamic State, citing information passed onto him from Israel’s foreign ministry. Though Iwata could not confirm those figures, he said Japan was committed to playing its part in efforts to address the ISIS-fueled crisis in Iraq and Syria. 

"Terrorism is never tolerated," he said, speaking through a translator. "Japan is going to cooperate as much as possible with the international community."

As it stands, Tokyo has contributed more than $33 million to the humanitarian crisis, which has gone toward providing emergency shelters and relief items for internally displaced persons (IDP) and refugees affected by the Islamic State’s takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. 

The foreign fighter threat in Japan pales in comparison to that of other countries in Europe, South East Asia and even North America — where thousands of nationals have fled from to take up jihad — but is nevertheless surprising given the relative lack of influence Islam has in the country. According to a Pew Research Center survey from 2010, the country is home to about 180,000 Muslims or 0.1 percent of its population. 

Tokyo police reportedly questioned the 26-year-old student after he had taken a leave of absence from Hokkaido University in north Japan. "He was influenced by one of the professors who was teaching Islamic culture at the college," said Iwata. "[The] college student said his motive was that all the humans die anyway so he wanted to die in battle … [but] I do not expect that lots of Japanese are going to join the Islamic State." 

Although Islam has had a historically small footprint in Japan, especially prior to the 1950s, Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that there is some precedent of the two cultures intermingling. "I would draw your attention to the fact that the Japanese Red Army operated out of Beirut and with other Middle East terrorist groups in the 1970s," she said, referring to the leftist and anti-Zionist militant group whose stated goal was to overthrow the Japanese government.

"It does not surprise me that ISIS is online in Japan, as it is in other advanced industrial societies," Smith said. "Nor would it surprise me that there would be some interest among disaffected and isolated Japanese youth, or even among those who might have a desire to fight for a spiritual cause." 

In September, the U.N. Security council called on all nations to criminalize the act of traveling abroad to fight with militant groups and recruit and finance their activities.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola