Haruna Yukawa's strange path to being a hostage of Islamic State

A journey of self-discovery by a broken soul living on dreams has leda Japanese man to being captured in Syria by Islamic State militants

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 2014, 6:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 2014, 6:41am

When Haruna Yukawa was captured in Syria earlier this month, a video apparently released by his captors showed them pressing the Japanese man to answer questions friends say he had struggled with for years: Who are you? Why are you here?

In fact, Yukawa, 42, had first travelled to Aleppo four months earlier on what amounted to a hardship course in self-discovery, according to people who know him and his account.

Changes in Yukawa's life in suburban Tokyo had been fast and disorienting. Over the past decade, he had lost his wife to lung cancer, lost a business and his house to bankruptcy and been forced to live in a public park for almost a month, according to Yukawa's father and an online journal he maintained.

The hard times led to soul searching. By his own account, he had changed his name to the feminine-sounding Haruna, attempted to kill himself by cutting off his genitals and came to believe he was the reincarnation of a cross-dressing Manchu princess who had spied for Japan in the second world war.

By late last year, Yukawa had begun a flirtation with Japan's extreme right-wing politics and cultivated a new persona as a self-styled security consultant, according to his Facebook page and blog posts, though he never did any work as a consultant.

He borrowed money to travel to Syria and dreamed of providing security to big Japanese companies in conflict areas like the coast of Somalia. The Syrian civil war was a new start - and his last chance to make a success in life, he told friends and family. Later this year, he planned to head to Somalia "where the danger factor will be amped up".

"He felt his life had reached its limit," said Yukawa's father, Shoichi, 74.

Yukawa's capture by fighters believed to be with Islamic State has pulled Japan into a scramble by various governments to free dozens of foreigners held hostage in Iraq and Syria. The incident marks the first hostage situation for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government since January last year, when 10 Japanese were killed by Islamist militants at a gas complex in Algeria.

Japan's foreign ministry has declined to identify the captured person or to comment.

The picture of Yukawa that emerges from his writing and the accounts of his father and people who had met him is at odds with the tough image he tried to cultivate in video posts from Syria in black T-shirt and fatigues.

"He was a very friendly, gentle guy. I hosted him at my house for five days," said Fadi Qarmesh, who met and spent time with Yukawa in Abril in Iraq in June.

Two months earlier, Yukawa had been in Syria and was stopped and briefly detained for questioning by fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and he befriended an Asian member of the group, according to Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist who met Yukawa then. This aspect of the account could not be verified.

In Syria, Yukawa said he became particularly close to a part-Korean, part-Japanese fighter who had been born in Yugoslavia. Over time, Goto said, the FSA fighters took a liking to him, sharing meals and introducing him to their families in refugee camps. He was also given an Arabic nickname. For his part, Yukawa spoke of wanting to bring badly needed medicine and shoes to Syrian hospitals and developed an interest in Islam, according to his father and Yukawa's blog.

After his first visit to Syria in April, Yukawa had a short stay back in Japan before returning to the Middle East, first to Iraq with Goto in June to observe the veteran reporter and learn how to work in a conflict zone and then to Syria again in late July after travelling through Turkey.

Although he had never learned to handle a weapon and described himself as a "very gentle" person, Yukawa portrayed himself online as a soldier of fortune. A visit to the Tokyo address of his company, Private Military Company, revealed a building with numerous small, unmarked offices. The firm was set up for a range of businesses including handling pet goods, according to a company registry. In effect, it existed only online.

In video blogs shot from Syria and loaded to the company website, Yukawa showed himself awkwardly firing an AK-47. "My bodyguards are five minutes away so I keep this for protection," he said in one posting, picking up an assault rifle.

But it was his gentle personality that helped Yukawa win over FSA rebels, said Goto, who first met Yukawa in Aleppo in April. "Yukawa has this soft, non-threatening approach that makes people trust him and puts them at ease," said Goto. In his online journal, Yukawa talked about how he and the Asian FSA fighter talked until three in the morning.

In a blog post from October, Yukawa said his cheerfulness was something he learned from being bullied as a child. "I would pretend to be happy even if I felt lonely or in pain so that others couldn't read my mind," said Yukawa. "Hiding my true feelings became my second nature. It also came in handy in business later."

Yukawa's road to Aleppo started in a sleepy suburb of Chiba, about an hour's drive east of Tokyo. After graduating from high school, Yukawa, then still known as Masayuki, started a military surplus store.

But the store failed around 2005, leaving him in debt, his father said. Around 2008, Yukawa described an attempt to kill himself by cutting off his genitals, an act he likened to the ritual suicide of a samurai. "I thought if I failed I would live as a woman and leave the rest to destiny," he said.

Yukawa was saved by the intervention of his wife, who rushed him to a hospital. She died some two years later, according to Yukawa's father, who said he was forced to sell an apartment he had bought for the couple to pay off his son's debts.

Yukawa did not return to his father's house until last year. When he did come home, he looked different, his father said. With rounder cheeks and long brown hair, he told his father that he had consulted a fortune teller and decided to change his name to Haruna.

Over the next few months, Yukawa attended events of the Japanese nationalist group Gambare Nippon (Stand Firm, Japan) which has made several trips to islands at the heart of a territorial dispute between China and Japan.

Yukawa posted photos posing with Toshio Tamogami, a former Japanese air force chief of staff sacked in 2008 for saying Japan was not the aggressor in the second world war. Yukawa also persuaded a local leader of the nationalist group, Nobuo Kimoto, 70, to become an adviser to his company, Kimoto said.

Yukawa was looking forward to his final, solo trip to Syria.

"It seems like the Free Syrian Army soldiers are all waiting for me. I'm very happy and I too want to quickly meet up with them," he said in a blog post from June. "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."

On August 14, the fighters with Yukawa were overrun by Islamic State. Amid the fighting, Yukawa suffered a leg injury and was captured, Goto said, citing information from local contacts.