Family and friends on Wednesday waited anxiously for news on the apparent release of journalist Jumpei Yasuda, who went missing in Syria in 2015, after the government said the previous night a man believed to be him had been freed.
“I’d do whatever it takes to see him again,” Yasuda’s father, Hideaki, 78, told reporters at his home in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture.
The 44-year-old journalist was apparently taken hostage by an al-Qaida-linked group after entering Syria to cover the country’s bloody civil war. The government was working to verify if the freed man was indeed Yasuda after being informed Tuesday by Qatar about the release.
Hideaki and his wife, Sachiko, 75, learned about the possible release of their son at about 11 p.m. Tuesday after being told by Yasuda’s wife to watch the television news.
Wiping tears away with a handkerchief, Sachiko spoke of grappling with the uncertainty surrounding her son’s fate.
“I could not do anything but pray for him every day,” she said, noting that she had folded more than 10,000 paper cranes during the ordeal, a traditional way of making wishes in Japan.
Yasuda’s friends in the journalism world, as well as from nonprofit organizations supporting refugees in Syria, were also keen to see him return home quickly.
In a phone conversation Wednesday, freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, Yasuda’s longtime friend, told The Japan Times that he was relieved to hear the news of his release, adding that recent events in the Middle East may have contributed to his freedom.
“Since last year, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been locked in a diplomatic crisis, and following recent reports on the murder of a Saudi journalist, Qatar might have wanted to use this opportunity to strengthen its relationship with Japan,” Tsuneoka said, referring to the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, allegedly by a hit squad who members have close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Still, despite the celebratory mood surrounding Yasuda’s release, Tsuneoka said the newly free journalist should expect to come under intense criticism as soon as he returns to Japan for endangering his own life in a conflict zone — a decision that critics are almost certain to say had put Japanese relations in the region in jeopardy.
“He has already been under fire for entering a conflict zone in Iraq in 2004,” Tsuneoka said, referring to an incident that Yasuda tried to cover involving three Japanese civilians that were taken hostage and threatened on video with being burned alive unless Japan pulled its noncombat troops out of Iraq. Between January 2004 and July 2006 Japan deployed a largely humanitarian contingent of troops from the Self-Defense Forces to the country in support of the U.S.
“Physically and mentally, he’s a tough guy and attacks and criticism didn’t destroy him at that time and I don’t think they will this time, either,” he said.
Rather than criticism, Tsuneoka hopes the world will be able to view Yasuda’s experiences as an asset.
“As someone who for about 3 1/2 years observed the actions of a powerful yet very mysterious (militant) group so closely, I want him to spread this information throughout the world,” Tsuneoka said. “I believe he was an eyewitness to very important events and I want him to document it. I remember him saying that he wanted so much to see the situation in the province of Idlib, which as the center of the Syrian conflict has been the target of scores of airstrikes … and I’m curious how much of what has been going there he has seen.”
Tsuneoka, who shared an experience similar to Yasuda’s when he was detained by local authorities in Iraq in 2016 while covering the battle to retake the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, stressed the necessity of reporting from conflict-torn areas.
“Although it’s dangerous, we should be concerned and stay alert to what’s happening around the world,” he said.
This view was echoed by Maki Sato, secretary-general of the Japan Iraq Medical Network.
“What he witnessed during his captivity is precious information,” she said. “We want to hear from him to utilize his experience in helping to end the war.”
Fusako Yanase, chair of the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan, said Yasuda’s situation reminded the group of the need to be mindful of security near the Syrian border, where its members are operating.