Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking help from Middle Eastern nations to help save two Japanese hostages that Islamic State militants threatened to kill on Friday if Japan doesn’t pay a $200 million ransom.
Abe spoke with King Abdullah of Jordan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi after Islamic State released the video threat on Tuesday. The Abe government also set up a crisis task force in Jordan, Chief Cabinet Minister Yoshihide Suga said today.
In the video, Islamic state said it would kill the men in 72 hours if Japan didn’t pay the ransom, which was set at the same amount that Abe pledged in aid to nations fighting the al-Qaeda breakaway group during a Middle East trip this week.
The ultimatum may deepen Japan’s involvement in the fight against the militant group, which has executed thousands of Iraqis and Syrians as well as international aid workers and journalists. The crisis also risks provoking a backlash in Japan where public opinion opposes Abe’s efforts to ease the country’s pacifist constitution and raise Japan’s profile in global security.
“Terrorism and hostage situations in the Middle East trigger reactions inside Japan that is going to be less favorable to the Japanese pro-active agenda,” Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, said by phone.
The video shows a masked militant dressed in black with two hostages in orange tunics kneeling in what appears to be a desert. Speaking with a British accent, the knife-wielding man said Japan had been “foolish” to give money to fight Islamic State. Should Japan not pay “this knife will become your nightmare,” he said.
Japan won’t pay any ransom, Masahiko Komura, vice president of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters, Kyodo news agency said.
Abe departed Jerusalem yesterday at the end of a six-day trip to Israel, Jordan and Egypt, where he said that terrorism in the Middle East threatens global stability and pledged the non-military aid for the fight against Islamic State. He is due to arrive in Tokyo Wednesday afternoon.
Before leaving the region, Abe told reporters in Jerusalem on Tuesday that the hostage situation was an unforgivable act of terrorism and demanded their immediate release. The pledged funds were to provide support to refugees and Japan would continue to provide non-military aid, he said, adding that international society “must not buckle to terrorism.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke Tuesday with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to convey U.S. support for Japan and condemn Islamic State, according to an e-mailed press release from the State Department.
The government has confirmed the identity of the two hostages and after speaking with family members, Suga said. The two are Kenji Goto, a journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, who had set up a company to try to offer security services in Iraq.
Goto was born in the northern Japanese city of Sendai in 1967, according to his Independent Press website. He specializes in coverage of wars, refugees, poverty and children’s education, according to the website set up in 1996.
A person with Goto’s name posted a message on Facebook in July last year looking for help getting a visa to travel to Baghdad.
Goto was due to return to Japan in October, but when he didn’t come back, his family notified the Foreign Ministry, public broadcaster NHK reported, citing an unidentified source.
NHK said Goto later contacted his family and told them he was going to help Yukawa, whom Kyodo News reported had been captured by Islamic State in northern Syria in August after arriving in the country to support rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Yukawa went to the Middle East seemingly in search of adventure after his life appeared to fall apart over the past decade, Reuters reported in August after his capture. His wife had died, he had lost a business, had attempted suicide and he’d been forced to live in a park for a month. Yukawa also changed his name to Haruna to make it sound more feminine, because he thought he was a reincarnation of a cross-dressing princess who had spied for Japan in World War II, the news agency said.
Last year, Yukawa tried to to reinvent himself as a security consultant and posted a video purported to be from Iraq and Syria on his YouTube channel called Private Military Company.
The capture of the two Japanese citizens may complicate Abe’s push to loosen the pacifist shackles of the nation’s postwar constitution to strengthen its defenses. Opinion polls show public opposition to Abe’s defense plans, even as China becomes more assertive in a territorial dispute with Japan. Abe faced demonstrations when his cabinet approved his plan to allow Japan to come to the aid of allies under attack.
Japan’s involvement exposes the greater risks in taking a higher profile in the fight against terrorism, Nakano said, while also offering Abe a chance to make his case for more engagement.
“On a certain level, Abe would make the argument that this is all the more reason why Japan has to take part in the war against terrorism,” he said.
(A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Abe’s planned departure date.)