SEOUL — Three days after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged $200 million to countries battling the Islamic State, the terrorist group Tuesday demanded the same amount to spare the lives of two Japanese men it holds hostage.
A video purportedly from the Islamic State — coinciding with a high-profile trip to the Middle East led by Abe — shows the two men kneeling in the desert dressed in orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by other foreign captives who were later killed.
“You now have 72 hours to pressure your government into making a wise decision by paying the $200 million to save the lives of your citizens,” said the masked militant standing between them, speaking in English with a British accent.
The video, posted on militant Web sites, extended the reach of the Islamic State’s hostage-taking to a nation normally on the fringe of Middle Eastern affairs. It also suggested a shift in tactics by the group to openly set a price for the freedom of captives rather than previous behind-the-scenes ransom demands.
Japanese officials declined to discuss whether they would consider paying for the release of the hostages: journalist Kenji Goto Jogo and self-styled military consultant Haruna Yukawa.
But Abe sharply condemned the threats and vowed not to alter Japan’s policies against terrorism.
“To use people’s lives and threaten like this is an unforgivable act of terror, and I feel indignant,” Abe said in Jerusalem, near the end of a six-day visit to the region along with a delegation of about 100 Japanese businessmen and policymakers.
“I strongly demand that they not harm the two Japanese citizens and immediately release them,” added Abe, who is scheduled to return to Tokyo on Wednesday.
Hours after the video was posted, Abe canceled several meetings but kept talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on his agenda. Abe also dispatched a senior envoy to Jordan, whose intelligence services keep close watch on the Islamic State, a radical al-Qaeda offshoot also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“We will continue to take all possible measures from a standpoint of respecting human life,” Abe said. “Whatever the case is, the international community adamantly must not give in to terror. We need to cooperate and tackle it.”
On Saturday in Cairo, Abe pledged $200 million in nonmilitary aid for refugees displaced by the rise of the Islamic State, which holds large parts of Iraq and Syria. The money is part of larger humanitarian and development initiatives in the region by Japan, which is a major customer of oil from Iran and the Persian Gulf states.
Japan has not taken part in the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State. But the black-clad militant in the video spoke directly to Abe, accusing him of having “proudly donated $100 million to kill our women and children and destroy the home of Muslims” and an additional $100 million “in an attempt to stop the expansion of the Islamic State.”
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to say whether Japan would consider paying the ransom.
“If true, the act of threat in exchange of people’s lives is unforgivable, and we feel strong indignation,” Suga told journalists. “We will make our utmost effort to win their release as soon as possible.”
A senior Japanese diplomat quoted by the Associated Press said Japan may have paid money in the past to free captives but declined to give details.
“Officially, we don’t pay ransoms,” added the diplomat, who spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the issue. “In some incidents in the past we might have paid, but we’d never announce it. I don’t know what will happen now.”
Since its beheading of American journalist James Foley last August, the Islamic State has killed two other Americans and two Britons. The group also has claimed responsibility for other atrocities. A video in November purported to show the beheadings of 18 captured Syrian soldiers.
It’s unclear how many hostages the group holds from Western countries and allies. The authenticity of the latest video, made by the Islamic State’s al-Furqan media wing, was not immediately verified.
But in August, the 42-year-old Yukawa appeared in a video shortly after his capture, being questioned roughly and with blood trickling down his face.
Goto, 47, a well-respected Japanese journalist, was last heard from Oct. 24. He had told friends he was traveling to Kobane, a flashpoint town on the Turkish-Syrian border, but it is unclear exactly where he was kidnapped while covering Syria’s multiple conflicts.
Yukawa took a far different path to Syria.
Yukawa had suffered a series of misfortunes: His wife died of lung cancer, then he went bankrupt and lost his home and his business, the Reuters news agency reported.
He apparently went on a voyage of self-discovery, changing his name to the more feminine Haruna, attempting to kill himself by cutting off his genitals, and claiming to be the reincarnation of a cross-dressing Manchu princess who had spied for Japan in World War II, the news agency reported.
He is believed to have been captured in Marea, about 18 miles north of Aleppo, in August while he was traveling with rebel fighters, the Kyodo news agency reported.
In 2013, Yukawa decided to become a security consultant, borrowed some cash and hopped a plane to Syria. He planned to provide consulting services to major Japanese companies in conflict zones and would start there. “He felt his life had reached its limit,” his 74-year-old father, Shoichi Yukawa, told Newsweek.
In a blog post last summer, Yukawa talked about working with the Free Syrian Army.
“I’m very happy and I too want to quickly meet up with them,” he said. “I want to devote the rest of my life to others and save many people. I want to make my mark on history one more time.”
Although Japan is rarely drawn directly into Middle East conflicts, some Japanese have been taken hostage by the Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.
In 2004, followers of Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq beheaded a Japanese backpacker, Shosei Koda, in apparent reprisal for the deployment of Japanese soldiers to do humanitarian work in Iraq. Zarqawi’s faction became the ideological core for the eventual Islamic State.
In early 2013, militants linked to al-Qaeda attacked an Algerian natural gas plant, killing 37 foreigners during a four-day battle, including 10 Japanese who were working for an engineering company.
Murphy reported from Washington. Yuki Oda in Tokyo and Lindsey Bever in Washington contributed to this report.