Last week, the Asahi Shimbun ran an opinion piece by writer Genichiro Takahashi that was in the form of an advice column. The anonymous advice-seeker professed to having suffered the same fate as the three Japanese hostages who returned from Iraq to a chorus of derision. After all I went through, said the letter writer, why was I being treated this way?

“It is natural to assume that the government’s job is to protect citizens,” Takahashi said. “But they act as if working for the hostages’ release is akin to unpaid overtime.” He went on to say that this attitude infects the public, which complains about the “trouble” the hostages caused for the nation. “But what trouble do they cause for me?” Takahashi asks. “None at all.”

The only Japanese people the hostages caused trouble for were those in the government who had something to lose, especially Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He staked his political career on the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces to Samawah and their safe return, and his relief at the hostages’ release was accompanied by obvious annoyance at having been put through such an ordeal.

Thus, the term jiko sekinin, which a number of government officials threw at the hostages, became the worst sort of insult. “Jiko sekinin” means “taking responsibility for one’s actions,” but the people who used it twisted the meaning around to cover up their own lack of effectiveness and foresight.

It wasn’t the first time. During the ’90s, as the economy unraveled, the term became an all-purpose excuse when people wanted to know whom to blame. In many cases the blame was placed on individuals so that larger entities (corporations, government ministries, etc.) could be let off the hook. In this case, the government wants everyone to believe that the hostages took a risk and lost, and therefore must apologize to the government and the people of Japan, who worked for their release and spent a lot of money in the process.

The families of the hostages became convenient scapegoats. While the kidnappers still held their loved ones, the families went on TV and demanded the government “rescue” the hostages by recalling the SDF, as the kidnappers demanded. The families’ sense of victimhood gave them the entitlement to overstate their feelings irrationally, and the media egged them on. “What do you want to say to the government?” was the reporters’ litany, and viewers were put off by the families’ “selfish” demands. Eventually, the families figured it out and stopped answering the question.

But it was too late. Some weeklies had already started looking into the families’ backgrounds (as did the government). The mother of Noriaki Imai, it turns out, is a nurse in a hospital that’s affiliated with the Japan Communist Party. His father is a teacher, a job usually associated with left-wing beliefs.

By themselves, these facts are trivial, and even if they prove to some people that the families are against the SDF dispatch they certainly do not prove, as people in the media have said, that their demands were politically motivated. If anything, their demands were emotionally motivated, and those already heated emotions were stoked by the media.

It was hardly surprising that the three hostages bowed and apologized on cue when they arrived home after their ordeal. Having been traumatized once in Iraq, they were traumatized a second time by media and government officials wagging their fingers and saying, “Shame on you.”

But what had they done? Though they could be accused of naive idealism, as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Japanese interviewer, “There can be no progress in the world without people [like the Japanese hostages] who are willing to take risks.”

Powell added that Japan should be proud not only of the SDF, but also of the three former hostages for having entered a dangerous country of their own volition to help people. One wonders if the Koizumi administration fully grasped the irony implicit in the statement. Powell, who represents the United States, which is the main reason for the SDF dispatch to Iraq, is inadvertently disavowing Koizumi’s stern warning to Japanese citizens not to go to Iraq for any reason, humanitarian or otherwise.

Even the two hostages who were freelance journalists apologized for “causing trouble,” though no one bothered to elucidate what “trouble” they had caused to anyone but themselves. When one of the journalists, Junpei Yasuda, was interviewed on TBS’s “News 23” and asked about jiko sekinin, he couldn’t answer. The most frustrating aspect of Yasuda’s situation is that his story has overshadowed the story he went to cover. He is, after all, a journalist and has information that he thinks Japan and the world might be better off knowing. When asked what his thoughts were when he was kidnapped, Yasuda told TBS, “I told myself I’m a journalist and I should take advantage of the situation.”

But while reporters in Amman wanted to know about the pair’s captors and those captors’ opinion of Japan, the vernacular press in Japan only want to know if they realize how much “trouble” they’ve caused and whether they understand their “responsibility.”

That responsibility has yet to be clarified. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said, “Japanese who go to Iraq do so at their own risk, but they must understand how many people they inconvenience by doing so.” Translation: “If you are killed in Iraq that’s your problem, but don’t put the government in a position where it is expected to do work it doesn’t want to do. Kidnappings are out of our league.”