Japan stands firm in hostage
crisis By J Sean Curtin
As Japan anxiously awaits news on the fate of 24-year-old
Shosei Koda, its latest citizen to be taken hostage in
Iraq, a strange mood of pessimism and defiant resolve
hangs over the country. The young captive is in the
hands of a ruthless al-Qaeda-linked group that threatens
to behead him unless Japan withdraws its 550 troops from
southern Iraq - they are deployed on a strictly
The terrorists' demand
stands no chance of being met, officials said. The
corpse of an Asian man - apparently shot in the head -
has been found near the Iraqi city of Tikrit, but the
Japanese government has not been able to confirm its
identity. The whole country fears for the worst, and one
way or another, Koda's fate will reaffirm the country's
tough new no-compromise policy on terrorism.
the Friday deadline to comply passes, people are braced
for the worst. They know Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi's more assertive Japan no longer bows to
terrorists, a message this current crisis is likely to
dramatically reinforce. Gone are the days when a weaker
and less confident country would have buckled under such
opinion appears to support this resolute stance,
representing a complete break with Japan's past. The
country has conceded to terrorist demands on a number of
occasions. In 1977, Tokyo infamously capitulated when it
paid US$6 million in ransom and released six members of
the terrorist Japanese Red Army to free Japanese
passengers in an airline hijacking in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Today, the situation could hardly be more different as
Japan seeks to raise its profile and garner global
Immediately after the hostage story
broke, a defiant Koizumi told reporters, "We can't
tolerate terrorism. We can't yield to terrorism." US
Secretary of State Colin Powell was quick to support
Koizumi. He said, "We welcome Prime Minister Koizumi's
unequivocal statement that Japan would not withdraw
Japanese forces from Iraq and that Japan will not yield
to terrorism." Once again, Tokyo has proved that it
stands firmly in the US camp when it comes to dealing
This is the third Iraq-related
hostage crisis Japan has endured this year. Tokyo
adopted an equally hard-line approach in the two
previous incidents, but fortunately was able to
negotiate the release of its five captives through
intermediaries. On this occasion that option does not
appear to be available and the fear is that this time
things may end in tragedy or perhaps already have.
Hostage's prospects not good The
Qatar-based news channel al-Jazeera broke the story of
the kidnapping on Wednesday, just after 6am Japan time.
It broadcast a video showing a distraught-looking Koda.
Wearing a white T-shirt, long disheveled hair hanging
around his limp shoulders, he nervously knelt in front
of three masked men. The dark-clad trio stood motionless
behind a black flag bearing the menacing name "al-Qaeda
Organization of the Holy War in Iraq". The banner is
similar to those that have appeared in earlier
Speaking in a mixture
of English and Japanese, the youth begged, "Mr Koizumi,
they are demanding withdrawal of Japan's Self-Defense
Forces. They are saying they will cut off my head
otherwise. I am so sorry. I want to return to Japan."
Parts of the distressing video were aired on Japanese
One of the masked militants then read a
statement, demanding the Japanese government withdraw
its troops from Iraq within 48 hours or Koda would meet
the same fate as "his infidel predecessors [Nick] Berg
and [Kenneth] Bigley." Both Berg, an American, and
Bigley, a Briton, were beheaded by the group.
Maha Azzam, a leading authority and researcher on
al-Qaeda, told Asia Times Online, "From the evidence we
have, it is almost certain that this al-Qaeda-related
group has him and this is a cause for very deep concern.
Regrettably, the past actions of this particular group
clearly indicate that the chances of a hostage being
released alive are not very high."
al-Qaeda-linked group is led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,
responsible for numerous terrorist attacks inside Iraq
and America's most wanted man in Iraq. His organization
also recently claimed responsibility for the gruesome
mass murder of 49 Iraqi Army recruits. Since May, the
group has conducted several high-profile abductions and
murders of foreigners, usually demanding troop
withdrawals before executing its victims in front of
Dr Mohamed Ali Hussein, a Middle
East analyst, said Koda's chances of being released
alive are very slim. He commented, "There are many of
these kidnap-groups and it is almost impossible to
contact them. It is extremely doubtful that Japan will
be able to establish a line of communication." He added,
"The situation looks extremely grim. I am gravely
concerned for the safety of this young Japanese man and
Margaret Hassan [the abducted Irish aid worker, married
to an Iraqi and holding dual citizenship]."
Japanese government also appears to have come to the
same dark conclusion. A grim-faced Foreign Ministry
spokesman, Hatsuhisa Takashima, frankly acknowledged the
dire situation. He said, "It's an extremely dangerous
group and most cases [linked to it] end tragically."
Since the discovery of a corpse in Tikrit, the ministry
has been tight-lipped.
Koizumi vows to do his
best to save Koda While strongly ruling out any
concessions to the terrorists, Koizumi has also
emphasized that he is doing his utmost to secure the
release of the young hostage. He commented, "I hope they
don't do anything brutal or cruel to him. At the same
time, we're set to take every possible measure to save
him without putting his life at risk."
opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which opposes the
presence of Japanese troops in Iraq, has backed
Koizumi's stance. The Japanese media is also largely
supporting Koizumi, with the conservative press adopting
a harder line than the prime minister.
largest circulation daily, Yomiuri Shimbun, said in an
October 28 editorial, "If the nation conveys to
terrorists its determination not to give in to their
threats, they will realize it is useless to target
Japanese. A stern and uncompromising attitude is
important in preventing terrorism."
government question victim's motives The media
and government have also questioned what the young
Japanese man was doing in Iraq, painting an impression
of him as a naive individual who recklessly wandered
into a war zone. The manager of the hotel in Amman where
Koda stayed before going to Iraq said the young man
ignored repeated warnings about the dangers. Instead he
departed the Jordanian capital on a Baghdad-bound bus on
October 20. Koda spoke of wanting to find out what was
going on in the country.
A Japanese woman
familiar with Jordan, who did not wish to give her name,
told Asia Times Online, "I was in Jordan earlier this
month on business and it is a safe country where
Japanese people can feel comfortable and there is little
to worry about. You certainly don't feel that you are
next to war-torn Iraq. Somehow defying common sense, I
guess Mr Koda must have convinced himself Iraq would be
Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka
Machimura could not explain the young man's motives. In
an interview, he said, "An evacuation advisory has been
repeatedly issued and he must have been fully aware of
the danger. I really find it hard to understand why he
has traveled there."
A Japanese diplomat, who
did not wished to be named, told Asia Times Online,
"Since the first hostage crisis earlier this year, we
have worried about something like this happening. There
are some young people out there who just don't seem to
have any concept of danger, no common sense and
absolutely no understanding of the situation in Iraq. To
them Iraq is a trendy destination. We just can't seem to
convince them otherwise. It's a recipe for tragedy."
Koda's parents, Masumi and Setsuko, could also
not explain their son's actions and thought he was in
New Zealand until they saw him on TV. His father said,
"I didn't know he was in Iraq at all. I don't know why
he set foot in a country under warlike conditions." In
an emotional message to the kidnappers, he begged, "From
the bottom of my heart I ask you to release [my son]
Dr Mohamed Ali Hussein, commented,
"Sadly we have heard such heart-moving pleas before.
This group has always ignored them and tragically, it
will probably be the same in this case unless there is
some kind of miracle."
As the deadline slipped
away, and with the discovery of another corpse, Japan is
learning that standing firm against terrorism is not a
painless option, and playing a more active global role
comes at a price. How the country copes with these
growing pains will probably help determine its future
status on the world stage.
Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based
Japanese Institute of Global Communications.
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