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Japan’s news outlets weigh in on Jumpei Yasuda’s culpability in Syria kidnapping

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Freelance reporter Jumpei Yasuda gave a three-hour news conference at the Japan National Press Club on Nov. 2 about his hostage ordeal, describing in detail how he was kidnapped after entering Syria in 2015 and then held for more than three years. He also discussed the situation in the Middle East and why it was important for Japan to know about what was happening in the region.

However, many people seemed only interested in one thing — whether Yasuda would apologize to the government and the public for putting himself in harm’s way. As expected, based on past hostage incidents involving Japanese nationals, when Yasuda was released last month, the news was met with criticism of his “personal responsibility” (jiko sekinin). The government discourages individuals and groups, including those involved in news-gathering activities, from working in conflict areas, its message being that anyone who does go to such a place is responsible for whatever happens to them, which presumably means they’re on their own. Of course, the government is expected to do everything in its power to help Japanese who get into trouble overseas, but victims of kidnapping and the like typically face fierce resentment in Japan when they’re freed because they are seen to have flouted official directives for self-serving reasons.

A Canadian man who was also recently held captive in Syria explained to Kyodo News that he, too, was roundly condemned after his release by people who said he “deserved” what he suffered, but the main difference between this man and Yasuda is that the former is not a journalist. Yasuda received condemnation not only from the Japanese public, but from some in the Japanese media — that is, his own profession.

On Fuji TV’s lunchtime information program, “Viking,” guests commented on the news conference as it was broadcast live and, according to the web magazine Litera, no one in the studio seemed to care much about Yasuda’s explanation of the situation in Syria. They only cared about an apology, which Yasuda delivered at one point.

“I’m relieved he finally apologized and thanked people,” comedian and former Miyazaki Prefecture Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru said. “If he hadn’t, I would have stood up and walked out.” Since Higashikokubaru was not physically at the news conference, it’s difficult to say what “walking out” would have accomplished.

Comedian Teruyuki Tsuchida was not impressed, saying he wasn’t interested in listening to stories about Yasuda’s years of captivity. “I want to hear the Q&A as soon as possible,” he said.

Lawyer and former Diet lawmaker Katsuhito Yokokume was more understanding, praising Yasuda’s “detailed and logical” explanations, but he was bothered that Yasuda didn’t discuss how he felt about becoming a hostage or what he thought when he heard the government had become involved in his case. He wanted Yasuda to talk more about his “remorse.”

This line of inquiry continued into the adjoining information program, “Chokugeki Live Goody,” since the news conference hadn’t finished. In passing the baton to “Goody” host Yuko Ando, “Viking” host Shinobu Sakagami complained that for three hours Yasuda had just “talked about his situation” rather than the public’s main concern — his personal responsibility. Ando, who, unlike the participants on “Viking,” is a career journalist, took up this concern. She seemed disappointed that “at the core” Yasuda didn’t talk much about jiko sekinin.

Although it would seem that as individuals most journalists do not resent Yasuda, media companies have institutionalized the government’s restrictive position. In a different article in Litera, former Kyodo reporter Osamu Aoki says that as far back as the Vietnam War, domestic news organizations have never sent reporters into conflict areas, relying instead on freelancers. If they do report on conflicts, it’s usually through correspondents who are far away from any fighting.

Even when the Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in March 2011, companies told their reporters to evacuate, which meant all news came through the authorities. Aoki says these companies don’t want to pay compensation if anything happens to their employees. Using freelancers is cheaper, because if something does happen, they aren’t responsible.

What’s troubling about this attitude is that it runs contrary to the spirit of journalism. Yasuda wanted to convey to the Japanese public, in their own language and in terms that made sense to them, why the Syrian civil war was creating so many refugees. Toru Tamakawa, a regular commentator on TV Asahi’s “Shinichi Hatori Morning Show,” said that journalists safeguard “democracy” by bringing to light the issues of the moment and, in that regard, Yasuda should be welcomed home as a “hero.”

Veteran reporter Taro Kimura elaborated on this idea in his column for the Tokyo Shimbun. In 1973, when he was working for NHK, he covered the effects of the oil embargo on Japan, when consumers panicked and started hoarding toilet paper. Kimura realized that the situation in the Middle East was influencing the lives of average Japanese, but no one was reporting on it from there. He talked NHK into sending him to Beirut, where he was stationed as civil war raged in Lebanon. The background of that war was deep and complex, and could only be understood by someone on site.

Yasuda was doing the same thing, wrote Kimura, and while foreign news organizations can convey what’s going on, they aren’t going to do it with the concerns of Japanese people in mind. Reporters such as Yasuda will. As for understanding the dangers, that is an essential part of the job. Yasuda fully accepted the risks, even if he misjudged them.

Kimura’s point is valid, but he’s talking from the standpoint of a dedicated journalist whose work is invested in the need to know. What he doesn’t mention is whether the Japanese public, or media companies in general, share the same desire.