For a country normally on the fringe of Middle Eastern matters, Japan is in an unusual situation. It's not the first time that Japanese hostages have been taken by extremists in the Middle East, however. A little more than a decade ago, a similar case in Iraq prompted a remarkable reaction – and that time, the Japanese government made the freed hostages pay for their own flights home.
On April 8, 2004, two freelance Japanese aid workers, Soichiro Koriyama and Noriaki Imai, and a photojournalist, Nahoko Takato, were kidnapped by a militant group in Iraq. Shortly afterward, a video was released that showed the Japanese citizens with knives held to their throats. Their captors said they would burn them alive unless Japanese troops withdrew from their humanitarian mission in Iraq.
After mediation from Islamic clerics, all three Japanese prisoners were released unharmed a week later. Yet rather than sympathy, on their return to Japan they faced scrutiny about their behavior. Many critics thought that the three young anti-war idealists had acted selfishly by ignoring the Japanese government's warnings about travel to Iraq.
''You got what you deserve!'' read one handwritten sign that greeted them at the airport, while "Jiko sekinin," a phrase that roughly means "self-responsibility," was thrown around in the media. Responding to the outrage, the Japanese government announced that it would bill the hostages for their airfare home and other costs (a sum of more than $6,000 each).
"People who go there say they do so on their own responsibility, but they should think about how much trouble they cause when something like this happens," government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda said at the time. "I wish they would use a little more common sense."
The trio received so many angry messages that they eventually went into hiding: Rumors even circulated that they had faked their kidnapping in a bid to get Japanese troops to withdraw from Iraq, prompting further outrage. One psychiatrist who treated the hostages told the New York Times that their stress levels back home in Japan probably were worse than they had been while kidnapped in Iraq.
"It was a huge surprise. People were saying I needed to take responsibility for my own actions,” Noriaki Imai explained in an interview with the Financial Times. “But it sounded to me as if they were saying they wished I'd died. To my mind, the meaning was: ‘You should have died in Iraq and come back a corpse.' "
The kidnappings in April 2004 weren't the last for Japan in Iraq. In October 2004, backpacker Shosei Koda was beheaded by al-Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor group to the Islamic State. Again, although there was much sympathy and sadness about his death, there also were questions about why Koda had chosen to journey to Iraq. "It is truly hard to understand why he traveled, despite repeated strong evacuation advice and being fully aware that it is dangerous there," Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said before Koda was killed.
Not every case drew the same level of scrutiny. Akihiko Saito, a security guard working in Iraq, was killed after being taken hostage by Jaish Ansar al-Sunna in 2005, but he was widely portrayed as a hero by the Japanese media. "This is very different from previous abduction cases, as Mr. Saito is a trained professional with much experience," one editorial read. Saito was an expert in conflicts and was simply doing his job, the takeaway seemed to be.
The debate has returned in the past few years, however, as other Japanese citizens have inexplicably traveled to war zones. Toshifumi Fujimoto, a former truck driver, recently received criticism after he was interviewed by Agence France-Presse in Syria. He was accused of war tourism, and some Internet users called him “stupid and shameless" or even “nothing more than human waste” for traveling to Syria without good reason. (Fujimoto's Facebook page says he is back in Japan, and he has been posting concerned links about the fate of the two Japanese hostages of the Islamic State.)
Will Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa, the two Japanese citizens allegedly being held by the Islamic State, face a similar backlash? It's hard to say — the global fear of the Islamic State is relatively unique. Plus, the men's contrasting backgrounds may well be a factor. Goto, a well-respected journalist, had been traveling to Kobane in October when he was apparently kidnapped. Yukawa, who had apparently styled himself as a military consultant for Syria's rebels, had murkier reasons for being there. He traveled to the country after the death of his wife and a bankruptcy left him depressed and confused. “He felt his life had reached its limit,” his father told Reuters last year.