An apparent hostage video emerged Thursday showing missing Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda, sparking speculation of behind-the-scenes contact between his kidnappers and the government.
But Tokyo was quick to say it is unaware of any ransom demand having been made.
In the video, which was posted to Facebook and Twitter, a bearded Yasuda, 42, missing since last summer, identifies himself by name and sends a message to his family.
“Hello, I’m Jumpei Yasuda. Today is my birthday, 16th of March,” he says. “They told me that I can speak what . . . I want freely, and I can send a message through this to anyone.”
Yasuda then makes an apparent appeal to the Japanese government to work for his release.
“I have to say something to my country. . . . No one responding. You are invisible. You are not exist. No one care about you,” he says.
“I love you, my wife, father, mother and brother. I always think about you. I want to hug you. I want to talk with you. But I can’t anymore.”
Kyodo News reported Thursday that the Syrian man who posted the Yasuda video on the Internet received it from a Nusra Front representative, a claim the Japanese government has yet to confirm.
Contacted by The Japan Times, Tarik Abdul Hak, who posted the video, said it was filmed on Wednesday.
“I can tell you that Yasuda is in good health. But he is mentally exhausted,” he said, speaking from Turkey via an interpreter.
“I was negotiating with them for the video clip for three months,” Abdul Hak said. “To begin with, they were asking me for money.”
He said the price was initially $150,000. This dropped to $15,000, but he eventually convinced them to give it to him for nothing.
He said at one point in the negotiations, the hostage-takers informed him that they might sell Yasuda to the Islamic State group if negotiations with the Japanese government were fruitless.
He said a range of people have been attempting to negotiate Yasuda’s freedom, dealing with an intermediary organization named Jamiyat al-Nour. However, he said the group rejects the negotiators when it learns that they do not carry the authority of the Japanese government itself.
Abdul Hak underscored that he himself has no relation to Nusra Front. He described himself as a fixer for journalists and a media activist who simply wants to help secure Yasuda’s freedom.
Asked if there is a danger Yasuda could be sold to ISIS, Abdul Hak said three months ago “they told me they won’t sell him. But they might be forced to give him to ISIS in a swap for a Nusra hostage.”
He added, that while he cannot speak to what Nusra Front is seeking, “the only choice is to negotiate with the intermediaries.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said later the man in the video seemed to be Yasuda. He said that officials had “taken some actions, because securing safety for Japanese citizens is a top priority for the government.”
When asked about a demand for a ransom, Suga said he is “not aware of such a thing.”
The top government spokesman declined to comment further, citing the sensitivity of the situation.
Responding to the video, Yasuda’s mother, who lives in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture, told Kyodo News, “I want my son to come back safely, no matter what.”
Yasuda went missing after entering Syria last June. Media reports quoted a local guide as saying he had been kidnapped by Nusra Front.
To some, the video fuels suspicions that contact has taken place between the government and Yasuda’s kidnappers.
“This is just speculation, but there may have been behind-the-scenes negotiations,” said Osamu Miyata, who heads the Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan. “The group may have published the video because the Japanese government won’t accept its demand.”
Meanwhile, a high-ranking government official said the video seemed intended to “create a commotion” among the public, and that the government should not play into this.
Tokyo should deal with situation in a “low-key manner,” the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official underscored that Tokyo was unable to confirm whether the group is linked to Nusra Front, as claimed.
Shuji Hosaka, a Middle East expert at the Japanese Institute of Middle Eastern Economies in Tokyo, said there was no firm evidence yet of a connection to the hard-line militia.
“An obscure group won’t attract much attention. So such a group may use a big name, like Nusra,” he said.
Hosaka said neither the Facebook account nor the Twitter account involved in the video’s release had information suggesting a connection to Nusra Front.
He added, Nusra Front videos usually carried the group’s logo, but this one had no identifying graphics.
Yasuda went missing after crossing into the Idlib province of northwestern Syria, which was now controlled by Nusra Front. But many other armed groups existed in the area, and security was unstable.
In his final Twitter message, posted on June 20, Yasuda wrote that he would be unable to continue making real-time updates from Syria because it was “too dangerous” — and that someone was obstructing his work
(Additional reporting by Magdalena Osumi, Mizuho Aoki and Mark Thompson)