Japan pays tribute to bold move

Click to follow
"How can anyone criticise President Fujimori?" asked Ryutaro Hashimoto, the Japanese Prime Minister, a few hours after the news broke of the end of the Lima siege. "It is not important whether we had prior knowledge of the move. The important thing is that the hostages were freed."

In the circumstances, no one in Japan is likely to argue with this. But President Fujimori's decision to send in his soldiers unilaterally, without so much as a phone call to Tokyo, was fraught with risks - not just to the hostages, but to the crucial relationship between Peru and Japan. In the end, Mr Hashimoto can shrug off the slight (in a phone conversation with Mr Fujimori, he expressed "regret" at not being warned, but thanked the President anyway). But if the operation had gone wrong, and Japanese hostages had been killed, the humiliation and outrage could have had long- lasting repercussions.

To Peru, Japan is more than just a rich trading partner - it is its biggest foreign benefactor and the ancestral home of thousands of its people, including its president. More than 96 billion yen (pounds 500m) of development loans are tied up in Peru, whose exports to Japan were worth $540m (pounds 333m) in 1995.

The Japanese Prime Minister also had much at stake. In 25 months in power, Mr Hashimoto has cultivated a tough and dynamic image. But the Japanese public reacts badly to the deaths of Japanese nationals overseas, and in the 1970s Tokyo acquired a reputation for being soft on terrorism after a sequence of humiliating pay-offs.

Throughout the crisis, Mr Hashimoto steered a delicate line - publicly ruling out any compromise, but bringing intense diplomatic pressure on Peru to avoid violence. Mr Fujimori's decision to ignore this injunction was a huge gamble - if Japanese blood had flowed, the outcry would have virtually compelled Mr Hashimoto to behave with visible toughness towards Peru.

As it is, Mr Fujimori chose to take full responsibility and he reaps the credit. The glory reflected upon Mr Hashimoto will be very dim indeed.