Freed Japanese journalist recalls harrowing ordeal as hostage in Syria but many say it’s his own fault for getting kidnapped
- Yasuda has become the target of angry criticism – mostly online – ranging from accusations of recklessness to claims he is not even Japanese
- Yasuda was kidnapped once before, in Iraq in 2004, prompting some to describe him as a ‘professional hostage’
A Japanese journalist freed from Syria this week arrived home to overjoyed relatives and supporters, but also to vitriol from some who accuse him and other hostages of reckless behaviour.
During 40 months of captivity at the hands of Syrian militants, Jumpei Yasuda was forbidden from moving or making any noise, even while sleeping. After being accused of being a spy, Yasuda was confined for eight months to a space just 1.5 metres high and 1 metre wide. He was not allowed to bathe, wash his clothes, or make any kind of noise or movement.
“Because I couldn’t wash my hair, my head itched – but when I scratched, that made noise,” he told the Asahi newspaper during his flight back to Japan. “Breathing through my nose, cracking my knuckles, moving while I slept – everything was forbidden.”
The rigid control of his daily life got even tighter after he was accused of “eavesdropping” while making a noise as he relieved himself. At one point, he didn’t eat for 20 days in an effort to avoid any movement.
“I was skin and bones, horribly nauseated. If it had gone on much longer, I would probably have died, but I was finally moved to a different place,” he said. “They would not bring me food, or if they did give me canned food, they would not bring a can opener.”
He arrived back in Japan on Thursday night, greeted by his delighted wife and parents, who had brought him home-made Japanese food to celebrate. But even before Yasuda set foot on Japanese soil, he was the target of angry criticism – mostly online – ranging from accusations of recklessness to claims that he was not even Japanese.
“He is disturbing society,” wrote one Twitter user. “He’s an anti-citizen,” charged another.
Perhaps anticipating the criticism, Yasuda’s only statement upon arrival, read to reporters by his wife Myu, was dominated by an apology.
“I apologise for causing such trouble and worry, but thanks to all of you, I was able to come home safely,” he said.
The anger directed at Yasuda – author of books on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, whose reporting has appeared on Japanese television – is a far cry from the reception that journalism held hostage have received in other countries upon their release.
When four French journalists held by Islamic State in Syria were released, then-French president Francois Hollande met the men as they arrived home. But in Japan, freed hostages have often met a mixed reception, with critics suggesting victims were are responsible for getting themselves kidnapped.
“They are the victims, they haven’t broken the law, but they have to apologise. It’s strange, but it’s the mentality of a part of Japanese society,” said Toshiro Terada, a professor of philosophy at Sophia University in Tokyo. “The person is accused of having harmed society.”
In one of the more shocking examples of the reaction, three Japanese men held hostage in Iraq and freed in 2004 arrived home to find people at the airport holding up banners reading “It’s your fault.”
Their kidnappers had threatened to burn them alive if Tokyo failed to withdraw non-combat troops stationed in southern Iraq. But then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi refused the demands, and even declined to meet with the families of the hostages, a hardline position that was applauded in some quarters of Japanese society.
The government itself, supported by right-wing media, described the men as “irresponsible youths” for having ignored warnings to avoid travel to Iraq, then an active war zone. One of the men, Noriaki Imai, said recently he received letters saying “die” or calling him “stupid”.
“Online, the bashing lasted 10 years,” he said.
Yasuda has faced similar criticism for venturing to Syria, a country where several Japanese citizens were kidnapped and eventually executed.
Compounding the antagonism is the fact Yasuda was kidnapped once before, in Iraq in 2004, prompting some to describe him as a “professional hostage”. And detractors have claimed Yasuda is not even Japanese, partly as the result of a bizarre hostage video showing him and another captive in Syria that emerged in August.
Despite speaking Japanese, he identified himself as a South Korean called “Omar”, apparently after his kidnappers banned him from revealing his identity or nationality.
“This guy isn’t even Japanese,” wrote one Twitter user. “He should go back to his country, South Korea,” added another.
A string of kidnappings of journalists in Syria at the height of the country’s war exposed differences in how governments and publics responded.
Some governments paid ransoms, while others refused, and while countries celebrated their journalists as heroes, others quietly criticised them for taking unnecessary risks.
In Japan, mainstream media outlets and officials have largely avoided criticising Yasuda and other hostages, but the antipathy expressed online concerns journalists like Toru Tamakawa, a commentator for TV Asahi.
“In the case of Yasuda particularly, the argument that ‘it’s his fault’ must be firmly rejected,” he said this week. “We need people who will risk their lives to go and get information on the ground.”
Additional reporting by Reuters