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Japanese Hostages Return Home


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Freed From Captivity, Japanese Return to More Pain


The three hostages' arrival in Japan was met mostly by disapproval.

TOKYO, April 22 — The young Japanese civilians taken hostage in Iraq returned home this week, not to the warmth of a yellow-ribbon embrace but to a disapproving nation's cold stare.

Three of them, including a woman who helped street children on the streets of Baghdad, appeared on television two weeks ago as their knife-brandishing kidnappers threatened to slit their throats. A few days after their release, they landed here on Sunday, in the eye of a peculiarly Japanese storm.

"You got what you deserve!" read one hand-written sign at the airport where they landed. "You are Japan's shame," another wrote on the Web site of one of the former hostages. They had "caused trouble" for everybody. The government, not to be outdone, announced it would bill the former hostages $6,000 for air fare.

Beneath the surface of Japan's ultra-sophisticated cities lie the hierarchical ties that have governed this island nation for centuries and that, at moments of crises, invariably reassert themselves. The former hostages' transgression was to ignore a government advisory against traveling to Iraq. But their sin, in a vertical society that likes to think of itself as classless, was to defy what people call here "okami," or, literally, "what is higher."

Treated like criminals, the three former hostages have gone into hiding, effectively becoming prisoners inside their own homes. The kidnapped woman, Nahoko Takato, was last seen arriving at her parents' house, looking defeated and dazed from tranquilizers, flanked by relatives who helped her walk and bow deeply before reporters, as a final apology to the nation.

Dr. Satoru Saito, a psychiatrist who examined the three former hostages twice since their return, said the stress they were enduring now was "much heavier" than what they experienced during their captivity in Iraq. Asked to name their three most stressful moments, the former hostages told him, in ascending order: the moment when they were kidnapped on their way to Baghdad, the knife-wielding incident, and the moment they watched a television show the morning after their return here and realized Japan's anger with them.

"Let's say the knife incident, which lasted about 10 minutes, ranks 10 on a stress level," Dr. Saito said in an interview at his clinic on Thursday. "After they came back to Japan and saw the morning news show, their stress level ranked 12."

To the angry Japanese, the first three hostages — Nahoko Takato, 34, who started a nonprofit organization to help Iraqi street children; Soichiro Koriyama, 32, a freelance photographer; and Noriaki Imai, 18, a freelance writer interested in the issue of depleted uranium munitions — had acted selfishly. Two others kidnapped and released in a separate incident — Junpei Yasuda, 30, a freelance journalist, and Nobutaka Watanabe, 36, a member of an anti-war group — were equally guilty.

Pursuing individual goals by defying the government and causing trouble for Japan was simply unforgivable. But the freed hostages did get official praise from one government: the United States.

"Well, everybody should understand the risk they are taking by going into dangerous areas," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "But if nobody was willing to take a risk, then we would never move forward. We would never move our world forward.

"And so I'm pleased that these Japanese citizens were willing to put themselves at risk for a greater good, for a better purpose. And the Japanese people should be very proud that they have citizens like this willing to do that."

In contrast, Yasuo Fukuda, the Japanese government's spokesman offered this about the captives' ordeal: "They may have gone on their own but they must consider how many people they caused trouble to because of their action."

The criticism began almost immediately after the first three civilians were kidnapped two weeks ago. The environment minister, Yuriko Koike, blamed them for being "reckless."

After the hostages' families asked that the government yield to the kidnappers' demand and withdraw its 550 troops from southern Iraq, they began receiving hate mail and harassing faxes and e-mail messages. The Japanese, like the villagers in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," had to throw stones.

Even as the kidnappers were still threatening to burn alive the three hostages, Yukio Takeuchi, an official in the Foreign Ministry, said of the three, "When it comes to a matter of safety and life, I would like them to be aware of the basic principle of personal responsibility."

The Foreign Ministry, held both in awe and resentment by many Japanese, was the okami defied in this case. While Foreign Ministry officials are Japan's super elite, the average Japanese tends to regard them as arrogant and unhelpful, recalling how they failed to deliver in time the declaration of war against the United States in 1941 so that Japan became forever known as a sneak-attack nation.

Defying the okami are young Japanese people like the freed hostages, freelancers and members of nonprofit organizations, who are traditionally held in low esteem in a country where the bigger one's company, the bigger one's social rank. They also belong to a generation in which many have rejected traditional Japanese life. Many have gravitated instead to places like the East Village in Manhattan, looking for something undefined.

Others have gone to Iraq looking to report the true story, since Japan's big media outlets have generally avoided dangerous places. (Almost all of them left Iraq over the last week on a government-chartered plane, leaving Japan's most important military mission since the end of World War II essentially ignored by the news media.)

Mr. Yasuda — who was in the second group of hostages and also described the stress of his return as far greater than what he felt during his captivity in Iraq — quit his position as a staff reporter at a regional newspaper to report as a freelancer in Iraq.

"We have to check ourselves what the Japanese government is doing in Iraq," Mr. Yasuda said during an interview Thursday night. "This is the responsibility on the part of Japanese citizens, but it seems as if people are leaving everything up to the government."

The okami reacted with fury at such defiance. Some politicians proposed a law barring Japanese from traveling to dangerous countries; even more of them said that the hostages should pay the costs incurred by the government in securing their release.

"This is an idea that should be considered," The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's biggest daily newspaper, said in an editorial. "Such an act might deter other reckless, self-righteous volunteers."

When two freed hostages mentioned wanting to stay or return to Iraq to continue their work, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi angrily urged them "to have some sense."

"Many government officials made efforts to rescue them, without even eating and sleeping, and they are still saying that sort of thing?" he said.

The comment was revealing, one that would not likely be heard from the United States government. Here, the government is now trumpeting "personal responsibility" for those going to dangerous areas — essentially saying that travelers shouldn't expect any help from the government to secure their safety or get out of trouble.

Again, no Japanese politician dared to speak out against this idea.

Indeed, Mr. Koizumi's handling of the hostage crisis translated into positive evaluations in public opinion polls, and the issue diverted attention from Iraq's worsening security situation and the fact that Japan's troops, according to this country's war-renouncing Constitution, are supposed to be in a noncombat zone.

Grasping Japan's attitude toward them, the hostages found themselves under crushing pressure, Dr. Saito said.

According to him, Mr. Imai, the 18-year-old former hostage, registered a high blood pressure reading. Ms. Takato, who had a pulse rate of over 120 beats per minute, kept bursting into tears. When the doctor told her she had done good work in Iraq, she cried convulsively and said, "But I've done wrong, haven't I?"

On Tuesday, Ms. Takato used the tranquilizers Dr. Saito gave her and finally left Tokyo for her hometown in Hokkaido. Ms. Takato, the news media reported, expressed fear about returning to her family home, but she may as well have been talking about returning to Japan. "I feel like going back home quickly, but I'm also afraid of going home."

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Here's the gut reaction that people get after reading this:

"$*@*ing inconsiderate Japanese policies!" But, this is a general, ignorant, racist statement, and people should get the facts first.

Japan's reaction to the hostages may reflect a fundamental difference in culture, which, not knowing anything about Japanese culture, I shouldn't put down. While my view is: "Christ, cut those people some slack!", I'd like to hear a reasonable explanation for this seemingly strict, incompassionate behaviour. Any takers?

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They clearly disrespected their government. Definately they should foot their own bill for the flight. they had to come home some time. they shouldn't get a free ride just because they are prisoners. I appreciate they were trying to help out but if your going to go to a country thats under war, don't expect your government to bail you out after they told you DON'T GO THERE.

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