National

From a harrowing experience in Iraq to youth mentorship: Noriaki Imai dedicates his life to helping at-risk teens

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

When freelance journalist Jumpei Yasuda returned to Japan in October after being held captive by a militant group in Syria for over three years, 33-year-old Noriaki Imai was confounded and disappointed by the muted reception he received from the public, with many blaming the journalist for his own abduction.

In 2004, Imai, then 18 and volunteering in Iraq, also made headlines when Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera broadcast harrowing footage of him and two other Japanese hostages surrounded by armed captors holding swords at their throats.

After returning to Japan he, too, faced a barrage of criticism, with the government, the media and the public blaming him and the other Japanese hostages for what they called unnecessary volunteerism.

Fast forward to today and Imai is doing what he can to create an environment that can encourage youths to question the world around them and take on challenges without being blamed for their courage to uncover the truth.

As a first step, Imai set up the nonprofit organization DxP and offers educational and other opportunities for school truants, recluses and other young people, including victims of bullying, to help them re-emerge socially and build confidence. In addition to an accredited schooling program for correspondence and part-time students, Imai’s group helps young people make career connections by finding job opportunities or discovering career paths.

“We give importance to creating a society where all young people can feel hopeful about their future,” Imai told The Japan Times in a recent interview in Tokyo.

What Imai and those who seek his help have in common is the feeling of being rejected by the government and fellow citizens and being marginalized in society — something his old self could relate to.

Fresh out of high school and with aspirations of becoming a freelance writer, Imai wanted to make a difference in the world by raising the public’s awareness of sensitive subjects. An issue that caught his attention was the Self-Defense Forces troops’ exposure to radiation from depleted uranium ammunition used in the U.S.-led war against Iraq in the early 2000s.

In April 2004, as an aspiring freelance writer, he traveled to Iraq seeking information on the effects of war on the country that he hoped to convey to his fellow Japanese, especially youths. But he got captured by rebels who identified themselves as Saraya al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen Brigades) and threatened to burn their prisoners alive unless Japan pulled its troops out of Iraq. SDF personnel were deployed in the war-torn country from 2004 to 2006 on a noncombat mission.

Imai and the other two Japanese were released unharmed.

But Imai’s boldness failed to earn him any understanding or approval back home.

Instead, he faced scorn from government officials and much of the media, with some outlets disclosing his personal information, triggering a deluge of hateful letters and emails.

“You should die!” and “All of Japan is ashamed of you!” were among some 10,000 messages Imai received after returning home.

Similar criticism surrounded the kidnapping and release of Yasuda, 44, in late September from the hands of a militant group with links to al-Qaida, with some media outlets and critics calling the journalist’s decision to go to war-torn Syria selfish and irresponsible. In Yasuda’s case, however, the storm of criticism quickly passed.

“It’s not like I wanted to kill myself … but I didn’t know what to do with my life,” Imai said, recalling how harsh disapproval from his compatriots impacted his life.

“I went because I wanted to inspire people my age, to raise their awareness and interest in international politics and the war in Iraq,” he explained.

After the 2004 incident, Imai confined himself to his home and for several years struggled with social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. He was also the target of physical attacks on the street. He said it took him about five years to get back on his feet.

“But in spite of all I’ve been through I want to encourage young people to take on challenges and assure them people like us have got their back,” he said.

At DxP, teenagers can join classes during which they can connect with adults, discuss social issues and hear the experiences of people who are already in the workforce. Some 300 volunteers are members of the program.

Teenagers attending an educational program provided by DxP, a group that mainly supports social recluses and drop-outs, are taught about how to deal with life
Teenagers attending an educational program provided by DxP, a group that mainly supports social recluses and drop-outs, are taught about how to deal with life’s struggles from adult volunteers. | COURTESY OF NORIAKI IMAI

Imai’s group also runs a cafe where impoverished teenagers are provided free meals.

The group also helps young graduates find employment and helps finance projects that can help them find their place in society.

Around 4,000 youths, mostly between 15 and 18 years old, have sought and received assistance from the group since its launch in 2012, Imai said.

The group holds sessions for youths in Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Wakayama, as well as in Sapporo. Imai plans to bring the program, which is fully funded by donations, to Tokyo next year.

Imai recalled one of the group’s best success stories, that of a young transgender woman who skipped school for six years. Her family depended on public assistance and, as a third-year junior high school student, she started working at hostess bars in Osaka. With the help of DxP, she eventually managed to get a job as a care provider at a nursery.

Imai noted that, in order to address the complex program of truancy that is often triggered by poverty, Japan needs greater cooperation between schools, social workers and organizations providing counseling or other assistance.

According to the education ministry, 144,031 students from elementary and junior high schools, as well as 49,643 high school students, were chronically absent from school in the previous academic year, while another 46,802 dropped out of high school in 2017. A total of 250 pupils took their own lives.

Imai believes the struggles of Japanese youths remain in the dark.

“It’s a different form of poverty, compared to the situation in developing countries. They lose connection with society,” he said.

“Now as the population in Japan is aging, I want to help youths, as they’re the ones who should actively work for society,” Imai continued. “I want to create a society where children struggling in various ways can gain skills that can liberate them from dire living conditions, where children can live with hope for the future.”

Imai also wants to provide assistance for youths in other Asian countries and other regions of the world, including conflict-torn areas.

“Someday, I’d like to go back to Iraq, too.”