How 2 Japanese men ended up in ISIS hands

TOKYO — The Japanese government has verified the identities of the two hostages held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after consulting with the victims’ families, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday, adding that Tokyo would “exert its utmost to secure the men’s release.”

Historically pacifist and heavily dependent on Mideast oil, contemporary Japan has reiterated that its aid to the Mideast nations and their allies battling ISIS was humanitarian in nature, and meant to promote the stability of the region.

“We have been aggressively contributing, for the sake of peace and to improve the welfare of the people of the Mideast,” Suga said. “Japan’s aid is absolutely not being used to kill Muslims, as claimed by these brutal criminals.”

In a video released Tuesday, ISIS demanded $200 million in exchange for the lives of the two men, and accused Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe directly of donating “$100 million to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of the Muslims … and in an attempt to stop the expansion of the Islamic State, you have also donated another $100 million to train the (apostates).”

“We will not yield to terrorism, and there is no change to our position of contributing to campaigns against terror in international society,” Suga said Wednesday, reiterating remarks made immediately after the video surfaced.

Japan has been at pains to emphasize that the aid announced in recent days is strictly non-military in nature.

The widely circulated Asahi Shimbun newspaper said the ransom demand was more than four-times the amount of money extorted by ISIS in exchange for hostages over the past year.

Japan’s National Police Agency, meanwhile, said it was dispatching a counter-terrorism team, activated when Japanese citizens are abducted overseas, to Amman, Jordan. The government was also analyzing the hostage video itself — shadows on the victims’ faces and discrepancies in the way the wind is blowing their garments indicate the video may be doctored.

Japan is renowned for its low crime rate. Japanese police do not carry firearms and the self-defense forces are not considered an actual military. Its remote location has largely isolated it from the terrorism that has plagued Western countries in recent years, and naiveté and miscalculations by both of the hostages apparently played a role in their abduction.

“I was afraid something like this would happen eventually,” Shintaro Kimoto, an acquaintance of hostage Haruna Yukawa, told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Yukawa, despite having no experience or military background, set himself up as a private military contractor in January, 2014, telling Kimoto the venture would guard Japanese ships.

In April he went by himself to Syria, saying on his blog that he wanted to “record everything that happens in a war zone.”

At the time, he was training with members of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army rebels in northern Syria.

An image from video posted to Haruna Yukawa's blog shows him receiving weapons training with Syrian rebels

“I came to get experience for my military contracting,” he said. There, he met journalist Kenji Goto, who warned him, “if you identify yourself as a military contractor in a combat area, you’ll be marked as an enemy.”

Yukawa returned to Japan. He expressed excitement over having had the chance to fire a gun — something impossible in Japan, where strict laws forbid ordinary citizens from owning firearms.

Unable to sell his services to Japanese shipping companies, Yukawa decided there was business to be had bringing medicine and ambulances to the Free Syrian Army, and providing bodyguard service to journalists like Goto.

Kimoto said he told him the venture was too dangerous, to which Yukawa, a widower, replied, “I’m alone in the world, so even if I die, it doesn’t matter.” He returned to Syria in July.

In mid-August, a YouTube video appeared, showing Yukawa being interrogated, his head bleeding.

Swarmed by media in front of his home in Chiba city yesterday, Yukawa’s father, Shoichi, said only: “My mind is confusion, I can’t do interviews,” and then he left.

Unlike Yukawa, whose life was a series of personal reverses, Kenji Goto was a widely respected journalist in Japan, who set up his TV production company, Independent Press, in 1996, to cover conflicts, refugees, poverty, AIDS, and children’s education. He had traveled repeatedly to Syria and was a prime source of reports from that area in the Japanese language media.

Akira Ikegami, a leading journalist in Tokyo who had relied on Goto’s expertise while producing a story on the Iraq war, praised him as a “veteran of combat reporting” and expressed shock over his abduction.

Goto, Ikegami told various Japanese media, “tried to get across the tragedy of conflict. I am worried about him.”

Yet despite his experience working in war zones, Goto failed to heed warnings on his most recent trip.

A Syrian guide interviewed in southern Turkey by several Japanese TV networks described how Goto tried to hire him for a trip into ISIS-held territory to search for Yukawa and report on civilian life under the militants’ control.

The guide took him from Kiris, Turkey, to the battlefront city of Aleppo in northern Syria, but refused to escort him to Raqqa, the de-facto capital of ISIS’ territory, saying that foreign journalists were prime targets.

The guide said Goto felt his nationality would shield him from harm.

Goto’s wife received an email, apparently from ISIS militants, demanding $17 million in ransom in December, according to Japanese broadcaster NHK.

ISIS’ well-documented social-media savvy was evident, according to the Japanese edition of Huffington Post, in their use of Twitter.

In an effort to disseminate their video as far and fast as possible in Japan on Tuesday, the captors tweeted a link using unrelated Japanese-language hashtags that happened to be trending at the time: “Hitoshi Saito,” a deceased judo champ; “coldest period of winter,” and “snow crab,” among others.

As the news began to generate tweets in Japan, key phrases in Japanese, like “236 million yen,” (the ransom amount in Japanese currency) and “within 72 hours,” were copied and pasted into new hashtags, ensuring the news’ quick spread.

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How 2 Japanese men ended up in ISIS hands
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