One is a freelance journalist respected for his reporting on refugees and children in war zones. The other is a man who seems obsessed with guns and went to Syria to train with fighters.
Despite their differing backgrounds and passions, their paths had crossed before. Now, in a chilling video released this week, the two men were seen kneeling on the ground in orange jumpsuits with a masked, knife-wielding figure threatening to kill them if their government failed to pay a $200 million ransom by Friday.
Kenji Goto, the journalist, and Haruna Yukawa are in some ways outliers in Japan, a relatively risk-averse society. Their capture by the Islamic State group, the militants who have seized part of Syria and Iraq, has created a sudden crisis for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government is working feverishly to try to free them.
Yukawa, 42, set up a company a year ago offering security services in conflict areas after running an online business selling military-related items. But then he went to Syria to train with militants, according to a post on his blog. Photos posted in July on his Facebook page showed him holding a Kalashnikov rifle, and his personal blog included entries about his visits to Iraq and Syria, along with videos of him and bloody scenes from the region.
The images seemed at odds with the description of him as “gentle, likable person” by Nobuo Kimoto, a retired former local assembly lawmaker who also served as an adviser to Yukawa’s business, Private Military Company. The outfit’s website says it provides security services for Japanese nationals overseas, but the company is not functioning.
“His idea sounded interesting at the beginning, but he had no money or experience,” Kimoto said.
Yukawa and Goto met last April, after Yukawa had been caught and detained by an anti-government militant group in Syria called Free Syrian Army, or FSA, in northern Syria.
Goto, who was coincidentally in the area, was brought as an interpreter for the group to interrogate Yukawa, who only spoke limited English, about why he was there. Goto, who apparently had won the group’s trust from his previous reporting visits, virtually negotiated his release.
Yukawa was thrilled by the meeting, he said on his blog, because he had regarded Goto as a hero for his journalistic work. He posted some photos of the two of them together in their subsequent meetings on Facebook, and also seeking advice from Goto about his military business.
They both then returned to Japan — and were separately in and out of Syria.
Goto, 47, started a video news company called Independent Press in 1996, covering mainly conflicts, poverty, refugees and children in war zones. He also worked with U.N. organizations including UNICEF and the U.N. refugee agency.
He was not a war reporter interested in bloody conflict, said a friend, Toshi Maeda, also a freelance journalist.
“Children, the poor and the needy, those are where he is coming from. He just wants to meet children in conflicted areas and tell the rest of the world their suffering,” Maeda said. “As he follows their stories, he ends up in war zones.”
Yukawa, meanwhile, was captured again sometime after July 21, when his blog entries stopped. In August, the Islamic State released a YouTube video showing him bleeding on the face and lying on the ground, identifying himself as Japanese and not a spy.
Goto re-entered Syria via Turkey in early October, uploading footage he filmed in northern Syria on Twitter. After making a quick trip back to Japan to edit his videos for NHK World, the English language channel for Japan’s public broadcaster, he abruptly returned to the Mideast on Oct. 22, saying he would return in a week but never did, his friend Maeda said.
Goto was very persistent about the visit, saying he wanted to go to Raqqa, an Islamic State hub in Syria, possibly to film U.S. airstrikes in the area, Maeda said. He said nothing about looking for the captured Yukawa, Maeda said, but now wonders if his friend did try to find Yukawa while he was in the area as reported by some Japanese media — and was captured in the process.
Goto was scheduled to give a talk last month about his reporting trips to Syria at the UNICEF’s office in Sendai, his birthplace, said Eiko Igarashi, the office director. She worried about his safety when he did not respond to an email she sent about the event.
She described him as “a gentle and warm person with determination and passion to tell the people about what’s going on in these areas.”
Igarashi said they have postponed his talk for now.
“He will be released safely and come back,” she said hopefully, “and we’ll reschedule the event.”