In general, crime prevention is a good thing — it helps stop crime. By punishing people for minor transgressions, you stop them from committing larger misdemeanors and discourage crime overall. If the principle is applied blindly, however, it can produce some awkward results.

Tokyo police raided the home of journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka in Nakano Ward on Oct. 6 on suspicion he had a role in assisting a student who reportedly wanted to go fight for the Islamic State group in Syria. Tsuneoka is believed to be acquainted with an Islamic State military commander.

“(Police) raided his home Sunday and confiscated everything that contained data, from PCs, USB memory sticks, cameras, mobile phones — just about everything,” The Japan Times quoted Hitoshi Takase, a friend of Tsuneoka, as saying. “Tsuneoka thinks the police see him as having a key role in taking the student to Islamic State, or that they want to obtain information about Islamic State from him.”

Investigators who looked into his background affirmed as much. The police also seized materials that belonged to Islamic scholar Hassan Ko Nakata, a friend of Tsuneoka who was also believed to have been involved in the student’s attempted trip overseas.

Tsuneoka and the student were suspected of violating Article 93 of the Penal Code, which stipulates punishment by imprisonment of three months to five years for people who prepare or plot to wage war against a foreign state in a personal capacity.

While the law has rarely been used, the perceived attempt of a Japanese citizen to join the Islamic State group was treated with grave seriousness. And so it should be — the Islamic State is a pernicious terrorist organization that has killed thousands of civilians in the Middle East.

After the raids, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government would prevent Japanese nationals from supporting terrorist groups and that Japan intended to take measures “to curb extremists.”

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Public Security Bureau can be overenthusiastic. It was embarrassed in October 2010, after leaked documents showed police had engaged in extensive surveillance of Muslims in Japan. The leaked files contained names, addresses and personal information on hundreds of Muslims nationwide. In some cases, the files even contained the names of mosques they attended. The government was criticized for effectively treating Muslim citizens as terrorists.

All this helped result in the detainment and investigation of both Nakata and Tsuneoka. It also caused unforeseen problems.

The two men were on their way to Syria to negotiate the safe return of self-proclaimed military adviser Haruna Yukawa, who was captured by the Islamic State group last year. Tsuneoka was in contact with the group and had been asked to serve, along with Nakata, as intermediaries in a Shariah trial for Yukawa.

Both men, now under investigation, were unable to go. In their place, a well-respected journalist and friend of Yukawa, Kenji Goto, went instead. He had negotiated the safe release of his friend before and perhaps felt he could do it again. Fellow journalist Toshi Maeda describes Goto as an extremely compassionate man who felt that all news should involve “the human angle.” Then, around the end of October last year, Goto vanished in Syria.

The government knew as early as mid-November that both Goto and Yukawa had been taken hostage by the Islamic State group. In the latest issue of Shukan Post, the magazine details how the Foreign Ministry asked it not to write about Goto’s capture in 2014.

The Foreign Ministry told the magazine that ransom negotiations were taking place and the jihadis were likely to cut off Goto’s head if the name of the group was published. As a result, the magazine killed the story.

The Foreign Ministry later told the magazine that negotiations had all but broken down; Goto and Yukawa were now being offered as a package deal, with a higher ransom being demanded.

Japan has paid terrorists to secure the release of hostages before. In 1977, they paid $6 million to Japanese Red Army hijackers in Dhaka; then-Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda accepted the hijackers’ demands, “on the principle that “human life outweighs the Earth.” So it’s understandable the jihadis probably felt as if they’d hit the jackpot.

However, any chance of negotiating with the militants diminished when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Middle East. While knowing the Islamic State was holding two Japanese citizens, he pledged at a meeting in Cairo on Jan. 17 to provide assistance worth “$200 million for those countries contending with the Islamic State.”

That speech did not go over well with the jihadis and they played the hostage card. In a dispatch on Jan. 20, Jiji Press summed it up succinctly: “The Islamic State violently responds to Abe speech, views Japan as ‘a Christian Crusader.'” The article said his speech resulted in the release of the video as both a warning and retaliation for attempts to block the group’s activities in the Middle East.

Japan is now regarded as a full-blown enemy of the Islamic State.

After demanding a ransom of $200 million themselves, the jihadis allegedly beheaded Yukawa and made a new demand. Answering a question from the opposition at the Diet on Jan. 27, Abe admitted knowing the Islamic State group was holding Japanese hostages but refused to acknowledge he had disregarded their safety when making his speech in Cairo.

The Islamic State, of course, is the real problem. But still …

There is another crime in Japanese law we have also been hearing about in the midst of the hostage crisis: professional negligence resulting in death or injury. The Tokyo Prosecutor’s District Public Office last week said it would not hold Tepco responsible for the triple nuclear meltdowns in March 2011 and, therefore, would not press charges. The story was buried in the news cycle amidst all the hostage updates.

Imagine if we started holding people responsible for the deaths of people because they failed to pay attention to the risks of what they did? Tepco might go bankrupt or its executives might be jailed. On the other hand, Shukan Post paid attention and killed its story. Abe decided for himself there was no risk or, simply, that he didn’t care.

That’s not a crime, right?

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

Full coverage of the Islamic State hostage crisis

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.