Last week, as negotiators from the Tupac Amaru edged towards a compromise with the Peruvian and Japanese governments, the standoff passed the 100- day mark. It is hard to imagine that if an American or European embassy had been targeted by terrorists it would have been allowed to go on for so long, and Peru's President Alberto Fujimori has frequently appeared itchy to force things to a conclusion. But this is as much a Japanese crisis as a Peruvian one, and for Japan there is too much at stake for any sense of rush.
Apart from saving the lives of its citizens (including its ambassador and several representatives of its biggest corporations), and apart from preserving relations with Peru, the prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, has a point to make: that, after 20 years as the scaredy-cat of the advanced nations, Japan is no longer weak on terrorism. "Japan is at a watershed," says Atsuyuki Sassa, a former senior policeman who was head of the Japanese Cabinet Office's security section. "Twenty years ago we were dishonoured, and if we repeat what we did in those days, then only humiliation awaits us.
"At last we have the chance to prove that we are responsible members of the international community. This is the last chance - the last chance for the descendants of the samurai."
Japanese attitudes to terrorism have fluctuated over the past 30 years, but until the present crisis the country had a reputation for compromise which has undoubtedly encouraged groups like the Tupac Amaru. In several ways, overseas Japanese are ideal targets for extortionists and political blackmailers. By the standards of the developing world, they are rich and work for rich companies. With almost no violence in their own country, they often have a naive approach to crime and personal security. And time and again, Japanese governments and corporations have shown themselves willing to buy a quiet life by releasing prisoners, paying ransoms and accommodating terrorist demands.
Tokyo's only long-running experience of terrorism was in the Seventies at the hands of a radical student organisation called the Red Army.Japan followed a careful and consistent policy of "no victory, no punishment": terrorists were allowed their freedom, and safe conduct, but nothing more. In 1970, the Red Army hijacked a Japan Airlines jet. No ransom was paid, but the gang eventually flew to asylum in North Korea, accompanied by volunteer substitute hostages who were released unharmed.
The policy began to crumble after the seizure of the US Consulate in Kuala Lumpur in 1975. Six imprisoned Red Army members were released, although no ransom was paid. The nadir came two years later when another JAL flight was hijacked and forced down in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Six more terrorists were released, along with a $6m ransom. A few months later, a Lufthansa flight was hijacked in Somalia, where West German special forces killed or captured all the kidnappers, without the death of a single hostage.
"The West Germans won applause," remembers Mr Sassa. "After the siege of the Libyan Embassy, the British won applause too. For Japan, Dhaka was a complete defeat, and we were the focus of disgust. As a descendant of the samurai I was not happy about this."
During the 1980s, Japan's private sector reinforced the country's reputation as a terrorist push-over. Japanese corporations rapidly expanded their operations in developing countries, and there were a number of murky incidents. In 1986, the manager of Mitsui's Manila branch was released after an alleged ransom payment; last year, Sanyo admitted paying off the kidnappers of one of their executives in Mexico. Senior employees of some of Japan's biggest companies remain captives of the Tupac Amaru, and rumours surface about supposed attempts by the corporations to cut direct deals with the kidnappers.
Japan has no special forces capable of coming to the aid of citizens overseas. During his 14 months as prime minister, however, Mr Hashimoto has forged an image for himself as a firm, uncompromising leader. At the Group of Seven summit in Lyons last year, he affirmed Japan's policy of no compromise. But the new policy has never been tested against Japanese popular opinion. "In the West, it's understood that fighting terrorism sometimes brings with it innocent victims," says Professor Koichi Oizumi, a specialist in crisis management at Nihon University. "At the moment, most Japanese couldn't accept that."
Thus the extraordinary length of the crisis. Both the prime minister and President Fujimori have made it clear that they prefer a negotiated solution, but that if any of the hostages comes to harm, then force may have to be used. "If Hashimoto blocked the use of force, he would betray the world's trust and dishonour Japan," says Mr Sassa. "Japanese sentimentalism doesn't like bloodshed, but on this I take a wholeheartedly Anglo-Saxon point of view."Reuse content