Early on the morning of Feb. 1, 2015, Japan woke to the news that Japanese freelance journalist Kenji Goto, held hostage by Islamic State militants, had been beheaded.
Fast-forward two years: Has the Japanese government learned anything from the hostage crisis that claimed two of the nation’s own?
Fellow freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, who also visits the Middle East, believes Goto’s death should serve as a lesson about how the roles and responsibilities Japan must accept on the global stage.
Tsuneoka believes there was a slight chance the hostage crisis would have ended differently had Tokyo been more proactive.
“The government called Goto’s move to enter the war zone reckless,” Tsuneoka recalled in an interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo earlier this month.
“I don’t think there is anywhere outside of Japan where governments publicly criticize citizens who have been kidnapped and murdered,” Tsuneoka said.
Goto, a war correspondent, headed to Syria in October 2014, reportedly to find Haruna Yukawa, a failed businessman and self-styled military contractor who went there on a soul-searching journey.
“I think blaming them for the outcome is something the government should be ashamed of,” Tsuneoka said.
Yukawa, then 42, went to the Middle East with the ambition of working as a private military contractor. He was kidnapped during a firefight between Syrian rebels, the Free Syrian Army and the extremist Islamic State group in August 2014.
Months after he disappeared, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to provide about $200 million in aid to countries fighting the Islamic State during a tour of the Middle East in January 2015.
Tsuneoka believes that pledge somehow contributed to their deaths.
After Abe’s announcement, the Islamic State released a ransom video that month showing Goto, Yukawa and their masked captor. The man demanded that Japan pay up or watch them die. Yukawa was believed beheaded in January.
Tsuneoka believes his execution could have been avoided.
In early September 2014, soon after Yukawa’s kidnapping, Tsuneoka was asked to accompany Hassan Ko Nakata, a scholar of Islamic law and a former professor at Kyoto-based Doshisha University, to Yukawa’s first trial in a so-called Sharia court.
“Initially, they hadn’t made any ransom demand,” Tsuneoka said.
“I think they were serious about this trial” until Abe made his aid pledge against the Islamic State, he said.
But in October 2014, Tsuneoka said he was prevented by Japanese authorities from attending Yukawa’s second trial session, allegedly on suspicion of preparing for or plotting a private war. The suspicions emerged in connection with his previous trip, during which he had met with and interviewed affiliates of al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
Tsuneoka is upset that authorities always treat reporters who cover issues considered sensitive or potentially damaging to the government as a nuisance. He said that as a convert to Islam, his beliefs often arouse suspicion that he is linked to terrorists both within and outside Japan.
Tsuneoka was captured and held captive several times by military forces in Afghanistan in 2010, in Pakistan in 2011 and in Iraq in 2016, the latest on suspicion of being a member or supporter of the Islamic State.
In Iraq, Tsuneoka said he was captured on Oct. 27, 2016, by Asayish, the Kurdish security force, in Irbil while covering an offensive to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group because he had a key chain sporting an IS logo. He said he got it from an Islamic State commander he had spoken with in 2014 and kept it in the belief that it might come in handy during future journeys. He was released after 12 days.
Tsuneoka also fears for the fate of his friend Jumpei Yasuda, another freelance journalist believed to have been taken hostage in Syria in summer 2015.
Yasuda, who was also close to Goto, is believed to be held by an al-Qaida affiliate formerly known as Nusra Front, which recently renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
“The group has captured numerous foreigners. . . . But so far, it hasn’t seen Japan as its enemy,” Tsuneoka emphasized.
Tsuneoka believes Tokyo’s efforts to protect its citizens are insufficient.
“I think Abe is giving low priority to Yasuda’s case. I don’t think he’s willing to do anything,” he said. “Without instructions from Abe, the Foreign Ministry’s hands are tied.”
Tsuneoka suggested that Japan seek help from Syria’s neighbors — Turkey or Qatar.
“Dealing with kidnapping cases is complex,” he said. “But it’s not like the ministry can’t do more.”
According to Tsuneoka, journalists from other countries can count on greater support from their governments.
In November 2015, the same group that detained Yasuda also captured Marcin Mamon, a Polish documentary filmmaker and journalist who is also friends with Tsuneoka. Mamon has reported from conflict-torn areas including Chechnya and Afghanistan.
In an email, Mamon, 48, confirmed to The Japan Times that he was kidnapped with Polish journalist Tomasz Glowacki when they entered Syria to rescue a female German reporter. They were later freed.
For Mamon and his friend, the six-week ordeal involved multiple transfers, unhygienic conditions and constant fear of death from airstrikes and firefights.
They were held in Idlib, where Yasuda was believed to have been held, and in Aleppo. Their captors tried to open ransom negotiations, but intervention by third parties resulted in their case being tried in another Sharia court, which ruled that keeping the journalists in captivity was illegal.
Both were freed thanks to swift efforts by Polish authorities and intelligence services, a Turkish humanitarian organization, and militants Mamon had befriended on earlier trips.
Last September, the German hostage was freed along with her baby, which she gave birth to while in captivity, according to German media reports.
Mamon said the kidnappers never negotiate directly with the governments of the citizens they are holding and only communicate through hired liaisons who profit from the ordeals.
Tsuneoka hopes Tokyo will draw a lesson from Goto’s death but believes that his work and sacrifice “weren’t in vain.”
“Many (global) issues are underreported,” Tsuneoka said, underlining the important role played by journalists who risk their lives to tell the truth about war.
“Japan doesn’t seem to share the same stance as other leading countries on global issues,” he said, referring to the Syrian civil war.
“As a G-7 (Group of Seven) member and the world’s third-largest economy, Japan shares responsibility” for what’s happening in the Middle East and other regions, he said. “There would be more understanding if people were better informed.”
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