Japan acts sluggishly as time ticks for second ISIL hostage

By Daniele Pestilli on January 26, 2015
Image of Haruna Yukawa (right) and Kenji Goto posted on YouTube by ISIL extremists prior to Mr. Haruna's murder.

Just weeks after the latest terrorist attacks at France's weekly satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, comes another outburst of Islamist extremism: the capturing of two Japanese nationals by ISIL members.

France, with its large Muslim population of about 5 million people, felt pressed to set a precedent of incredible organization and efficiency in the face of this latest terrorist attack. The tragedy started when two masked gunmen assaulted cartoonists, editorial staff and police bodyguards at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Rue Nicolas-Appert on January 7th. The following day, the suspects shot two more people in the southern Paris suburb of Montrouge and authorities confirmed the gunmen of this new attack were the same as those of the previous day. On January 9th, after a massive coordinated effort by French intelligence and police, the two attackers were holed up at a printing firm 35km (22 miles) from Paris. Contemporaneously, another gunman was surrounded at a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris. All of the transgressors were effectively shot down within 3 days, with impressive speed and professionalism.

Japan, on the other hand, has found itself rather unprepared and sluggish in response to the capture of Haruna Yukawa, a private military company operator, and Kenji Goto, a freelance journalist. After taking the two Japanese citizens hostage in Syria, ISIL members demanded a $200m ransom within 72 hours of their captivity. If this deadline were not met, the militants claimed, the hostages would be killed.

The crisis began while Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe was on a six-day tour of the Middle East. On January 17th, he pledged $200m in non-military assistance for countries battling the Islamic State, according to Reuters.

I will pledge assistance of a total of about 200 million U.S. dollars for those countries contending with ISIL, to help build their human capacities, infrastructure and so on – Shinzō Abe

The jihadist organization seized this opportunity to request the same amount for the two people it captured. Japan strongly condemned the ISIL members' wrongdoing and have received the support from many world leaders, including US president Barack Obama who personally expressed his condolences and full support to Japan. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida claimed the government was making every effort to secure the hostages' release, yet when asked whether Japan would pay the ransom, Mr. Kishida said, “We will not give in to terrorism. We will fight against terrorism in cooperation with other countries.”

The ransom was not paid and the deadline expired.

On January 25th, the Japan Times released an article claiming that a video had been posted on Saturday night showing Kenji Goto holding a picture of the body of Haruna Yukawa. The picture was split in two frames: the first showed Yukawa kneeling on the ground; the second showed his decapitated body. The images are deemed to be authentic.

Prime Minister Abe called the killing “outrageous and impermissible” and demanded the release of the second hostage. The militants responded in a more recent video, dropping their request for $200m, and requesting instead the release of the Iraqi woman Sajida al-Rishawi, who was involved in a series of deadly attacks at Jordanian hotels in 2005. She has been held by authorities in Jordan for the past nine years after a failed attempt to detonate bombs strapped to her belt. She was sentenced to death in 2006, but Jordan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty that same year.

This entire sequence of events has proved to be a real test for the Abe administration, which has truly struggled with how to handle the situation.

Unlike the attacks in Paris, the Japanese hostage situation has received mixed sympathy back home making the matter all the more complex to settle.

Twitter user @mahonoyumiya wrote, “The three of them are all of the same breed. Are those two Japanese proud of themselves? As if they were doing something useful or something? They'd surely be heroes if they received 24 billion yen. Going there blindly, of their own volition. What a nuisance.”

User @uchidatomiji wrote, “Kenji Goto is a spoiled brat from hell. He doesn’t deserve to be rescued. “Entering a country to help children”, he's just like Nahoko Takatō [who was held hostage] in Iraq. Why go to a war zone? What a bunch of bothersome fools.”

While this may seem shocking to people outside of Japan, it is in fact quite an expected response. A famous Japanese proverb reminds us: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” In the context of Japanese culture, being a nuisance to others is almost more grave than the actual problem itself. Pleading ISIL to spare her son Haruna's life, Junko Ishido firstly apologized profusely to the Japanese people and government:

Thank you for your great kindness and I apologize for the tremendous inconvenience and trouble that my son has caused

According to a survey run by Kyodo News, 60.6% of of Japanese citizens approved of the Japanese government's handling of the hostage crisis and 31.2% opposed its response.

Many, however, have also shown their support for the hostages. Asahi News reports that Facebook users have waged an "I AM KENJI" campaign in support of the surviving hostage. This movement, the founder explains, is not about freedom of speech as the "JE SUIS CHARLIE" campaign was. It is purely to show solidarity with Kenji and ask for his release.

Muslims living in Tokyo have also been demonstrating against ISIL's extremists to display their solidarity with the Japanese people.

The situation is still tense as Japan decides what it must do to save the remaining hostage, Kenji Goto. During the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris several weeks ago, ISIL's threat seemed remote to Japan. In a sharply critical opinion piece written on January 21st, the Italian daily, Il Fatto Quotidiano released an article entitled, “Japan, the country that does not laugh (and that not even Charlie Hebdo was able to move).” The overarching message was that the terrorist attack in Paris did not really shake Japanese media and did not generate a whole lot of discussion around the issue of freedom of expression in Japan. Few were the demonstrations of solidarity, with no official debates, no special news editions covering the events that swept across the world or about the lack of political satire in the land of the Rising Sun. Now, suddenly, Japan finds itself in a situation where the problem is no longer something that can be ignored as merely foreign. This time, the crisis is very close to home.