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Gov't questioned over Japanese hostage as notion of 'self-accountability' remains intact

Missing journalist Jumpei Yasuda is pictured here in a photo taken in Tokyo in January 2015. (Mainichi)

Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda, who went missing in Syria in 2015, is believed to have been taken hostage by the Syrian rebel group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front. The Japanese government, however, does not appear to be taking a proactive stance toward rescuing him from his captors. How long are we to wait for the 43-year-old journalist's release?

With the exception of people who have been kidnapped by North Korean agents, there have been 30 cases of Japanese nationals being taken captive overseas in the past four decades.

Looking at the release rate by decade, 67 percent of those abducted were let go in the 1980s, 90 percent in the 1990s, and 67 percent in the 2000s. The rate has been even worse in the 2010s. The average length of time in which abductees in the 29 cases were detained -- excluding the case of Yasuda -- is three months. The longest was when the vice president of a Colombian subsidiary of Japanese company Yazaki Corp. was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). After ransom negotiations that lasted for two years and nine months, the hostage was killed when government troops closed in on the rebels.

Yasuda's case has been the second longest in history, at a year and 10 months. With no sign of progress, Yasuda's family and friends are calling on the government not to forget about him. Journalists and academics held a press conference in Tokyo on April 15, claiming that the government does not appear to be working proactively toward Yasuda's release. Pointing to a case in which the U.S. government sought the cooperation of at least 20 countries to rescue an American who had been taken hostage by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the group demanded that the Japanese government make better efforts to free Yasuda.

As someone who has connections with Uighurs fighting with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, Chuo University lecturer Naoko Mizutani has been trying to obtain information about the missing journalist. "I don't believe that the Japanese government is being proactive, since there are no signs that it has sought the assistance of Turkish agencies, which would be key to securing Yasuda's release." She points out that the government's stance is obviously different from a case in August 1999 in which mining engineers dispatched by the Japanese government were abducted in Kyrgyzstan. "I suspect the reason the government hasn't been dedicated to freeing Mr. Yasuda is because he's a freelance journalist."

A tendency to blame the victims of hostage situations became common in Japan during the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. When three Japanese nationals were taken hostage in Iraq in 2004, then Environment Minister and current Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said, "It's mostly your own fault if you're going out of your way to go to places that are said to be dangerous." Other Cabinet ministers began to speak of "jiko sekinin," which could be translated as "personal liability" or "self-accountability," and the media committed the crime of reporting the made-up term without caveats or critical commentary.

"Politicians said something politicians should never say, and the term 'jiko sekinin' spread throughout the Japanese public," says journalist Hitoshi Takase. "That's why we live in a time in which it isn't uncommon for people who you'd think have common decency to flippantly say things like, 'It's questionable to use national coffers to rescue just one person.'"

Film director Takeharu Watai uses an analogy to explain the absurdity of the government's attitude. "If an emergency medical technician came upon a person on the brink of death, they would try to save that person's life, whether the person wished to kill themselves, or was a terrorist. That's the ethics of medicine. Likewise, a government should be operating on the basic premise that it will do everything it can to save a citizen, regardless of the person's attributes."

Has any interest been shown toward Yasuda in the current session of the Diet? Since March 2016, when footage of a captive Yasuda was released, his name has come up in Diet committee meetings six times. But in each case, government officials said, "We are gathering information and handling this seriously," and no lawmakers pursued the matter further.

Around the time Yasuda was taken hostage, Spanish, Italian and German nationals were also captured by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Chuo University lecturer Mizutani says, "In each of these countries, there exists the basic concept that 'all are equal under God.' But this idea is not shared by Japanese policymakers. I hate that these morals aren't shared across national boundaries."

Ryoji Fujiwara, an acquaintance of Yasuda's who is also a journalist working in and around Syria, says, "I trust that Mr. Yasuda is continuing to take notes about the situation in Syria, even if it's in bits and pieces, and trying to survive so that he can release that information eventually."

No matter how strong Yasuda may be psychologically, a year and 10 months is a long time to be kept hostage. Spanish journalist Antonio Pampliega, who was released last May after having been captive for 10 months, says that his abduction changed his entire world view. "Since my release, I've placed more importance on my personal relationships over my work and reporting."

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