From hostage and hero to has-been

Richard Lloyd Parry asks if the ex-ambassador to Peru is being made a scapegoat for Japan's impotence in the face of terrorism
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The Independent Online
"When we first heard the shooting and the explosions," says Ambassador Aoki, "I certainly thought that I was going to be killed. All the way through I thought that my only personal hope was a peaceful solution - any military attack and I would be one of the first to be executed. But nobody came. We waited for 30 minutes, but when the room caught fire we decided to get out. The window was much stronger than we thought, and it took seven of us to get it open. Otherwise I would have been killed by the fire. I would be dead - but I would be remembered as a hero."

If Morihisa Aoki is remembered outside Japan, it is as the host of the most disastrous cocktail party in history: it was in his former residence, the Japanese Ambassador's house in Peru, that 500 guests were taken hostage last December by a group of left wing guerrillas called the Tupac Amaru. But at home he has become a household name. During the four-month long crisis, he was a symbol of Japan's resilience and new-found refusal to cave in to terrorism. For a fortnight after his astonishing release, he was a hero - and then, almost overnight, he became a villain.

Two months on he is effectively unemployed, trapped in a limbo of bureaucratic embarrassment and fudge. "During the crisis I was praised as a samurai am- bassador, and when I returned to Japan I found myself being treated like a Class A war criminal."

The rise and plummet of Ambassador Aoki has something of the quality of a fable. From the very beginning there was an air of unreality about the hostage crisis which began like a James Bond scene. The Tupac Amaru rebels burst in on a party held to mark the birthday of Emperor Akihito through a hole in the wall; some of them had disguised themselves as waiters. The 500 party guests were whittled down to a celebrity core of generals, Peruvian senators, Japanese businessmen and the brother of Alberto Fujimori, Peru's President. Beyond the walls of the ambassador's residence, leaders and officials from dozens of governments - from Canada to Cuba - shuttled across the Pacific trying to solve the crisis.

Inside, all that the hostages could do was wait, and do their best to ward off despair. They arranged language classes (the former head of the Peruvian anti-terrorist unit taught French to the rebel leader). They played endless games of mah jong.

However, unknown to Aoki, a group of Japanese hostages smuggled a letter to the outside in which they stated that they no longer had any trust in him. In interviews in Japanese magazines, after their release, he was accused of arrogant, overbearing behaviour and of drunkenness, charges which he only half denies. "The terrorists let us have two bottles of whisky a night, and we shared the bottle among about 14 people," he says. "I opened the bar every night, and I was the last to leave, so I may have sometimes drunk the most. Those other drinkers are jealous."

But the turning point for Aoki came after the climactic end to the crisis, the commando raid on 23 April in which all 14 rebels were killed, with the loss of just a single hostage. Within hours the Ambassador, confined to a wheelchair after injuring himself in his jump from the window, was literally wheeled out for a now famous press conference. In retrospect, it is obvious that Aoki played the whole thing badly, principally through committing the cardinal sin of being candid.

In the best traditions of Japanese diplomacy, his first appearance would have been a bland and formulaic affair. He would have entered, bowed deeply, and expressed equal measures of profound gratitude and deep regret, to his fellow hostages, their rescuers, and the leaders and people of the two countries. He would have apologised for the "inconvenience" caused by the crisis, pondered gravely his "responsibility" for what happened and, after giving colourless and evasive answers to a handful of questions disappeared swiftly into the background.

Aoki's mistake was to let his exultation show in public. He smoked (four cigarettes in 30 minutes, his critics later pointed out). He smiled repeatedly, and snapped at a journalist from a paper which had argued for "sacrificing" some of the hostages. "I was exultant," he says. "I should have been more apologetic and more mournful, but I wanted to show the Japanese have guts. That's why I joked, I smoked, I smiled, I kept my head high."

The backlash took a fortnight to gather force - after that hardly a week passed without a new piece of Aoki-bashing. There were innuendoes about his family and the life of selfish luxury they were said to lead. Aoki attempted a counter-attack, giving interviews in his defence, but it was too late. Three weeks after being freed, he offered his resignation and, in the fuss over the Ambassador's fags, the real lessons of the crisis were conveniently forgotten.

For the fact is that, despite the lucky outcome, the Lima affair showed Japan almost completely impotent in dealing with international terrorism. In the absence of an effective system of intelligence gathering or a dedicated anti-terrorist force, the disaster could have struck at virtually any embassy. Once the hostages had been seized, Japan's "peace constitution", which forbids the dispatch of troops abroad, left the government a passive onlooker.

Tokyo's painfully slow bureaucratic procedures produced the ultimate humiliation: after insisting all along on a peaceful solution, the Prime Minister, Ryu- taro Hashimoto, was informed of the raid only after it had begun. "If Mr Hashimoto had been asked, he would have had to inform the Cabinet, hold meetings, consult officials," says Aoki. "It would have taken three months to reach a decision. Fujimori needed a decision on the spot."

A Foreign Ministry report on the affair was vague and inconclusive, although Aoki and three other officials were reprimanded. Even his resignation is wholly symbolic. He remains on the payroll as "ambassador at large" and has been told that he will eventually be given another embassy. "It seems to me my people have tried to evade the hard lessons," he says. "They put the whole blame on me, focused on my personality: 'This happened because Aoki is a crazy fool. Get rid of Aoki, and there'll be peace.' Unfortunately it's not so."