TOKYO - A purported Islamic State threat to kill two Japanese captives unless it gets $200 million in ransom could harden Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's resolve to break with Japan's pacifism and boost Tokyo's global security role - even as it intensifies debate over his polarising policy.
In an online video released on Tuesday near the end of a tour by Abe to the Middle East, a black-clad figure holding a knife and standing between two kneeling men in orange clothes, gave Japan 72 hours to respond to the ransom demand, which he linked to Abe's Jan.
17 pledge of $200 million in non-military aid for countries battling the Islamic State.
Abe has denounced the threat. While stressing the humanitarian nature of the aid and promising to do the utmost for the captives' release, he has also insisted that Japan's diplomatic policies will not change.
"I don't think there will be any impact at all on Japan's diplomacy from this hostage, terror incident," ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yoshiaki Harada told Reuters.
"This sort of terror can occur any time. But given Abe's character, I am sure he will not flinch or weaken his fundamental policies.
"Abe surged to power for a rare second term in 2012, pledging to bolster Japan's defences and carve a bigger role for Tokyo on the global diplomatic and security stage.
He has visited over 50 countries to promote that policy, which includes easing a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence, or militarily aiding an ally under attack.
That change, a reinterpretation of the pacifist constitution that must now be passed into law, was the most dramatic policy shift since Japan set up its post-war armed forces 60 years ago.
Abe has made clear he would like to go further by eventually revising the charter itself, a politically tougher step.
Back in Tokyo on Wednesday, a grim-faced Abe repeated the government was doing all it could to secure the captives'release, but added: "Japan will never give into terrorism".
Abe's handling of the hostage crisis - he must look firm but not callous - will be a big test for the 61-year-old, but in fact he appears to have few options.
Under the constitution, Japan's military cannot attempt a rescue even if it were feasible.
Offering to pay ransom would put Tokyo at odds with its close ally Washington, whose policy is to refuse to pay for the release of captives.
An earlier crisis - the killing of 10 Japanese hostages by Islamic militants in a siege at a gas complex in Algeria in January 2013 shortly after Abe returned to office - gave impetus to demands by conservatives to loosen limits on the military's actions overseas.