ISIS' Japanese hostages receive mixed sympathy at home

Split image shows hostages Kenji Goto (L) and Haruna Yukawa (R), taken from a video purportedly distributed by ISIS.

Story highlights

  • Hostage Kenji Goto's mother's decision to apologize for inconvenience caused by her son not unusual in Japan
  • Many Japanese people have made a distinction between Goto and fellow hostage Haruna Yukawa
  • Previous hostages have been treated with indifference upon their return home to Japan

Tokyo (CNN)Fighting back tears, Junko Ishido stood before dozens of television cameras, just hours before an apparent ISIS deadline to execute her son, Kenji Goto -- one of two Japanese hostages who appeared in a shocking propaganda video days before.

One of the first statements she made, before making a direct plea to ISIS to spare her son's life, was an apology to the Japanese people.
"Thank you for your great kindness and I apologize for the tremendous inconvenience and trouble that my son has caused," she said.
    The plea came just before a 72-hour deadline for a $200 million ransom set in the video was due to expire. The Japanese government appears not to have given into the demand, and a day later, her son appeared again, this time holding a photo that purported to show the decapitated body of his compatriot, Haruna Yukawa.
    Now, the jihadist group is demanding the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, a female terrorist being held in Jordan, in exchange for Goto's life.

    Culture of respect and humility

    Ishido's public apology is understandable in the context of Japanese society, says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus.
    "In Japan when you inconvenience people, it's important to respect them and ask for forgiveness," Kingston says.
    Ishido conveyed several times how badly she feels about her son's capture causing trouble for the Japanese government and alarm for its people.
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    To her, it doesn't matter that her son was likely trying to rescue his friend and fellow hostage Haruna Yukawa. It doesn't matter than he has been praised by friends, colleagues, and strangers for reporting sensitively from war zones like Syria with strong, respectful determination.
    If she were to say such things publicly in Japan, she could be perceived as a selfish individual who touts the righteousness of her son.
    Because of this, Ishido -- a desperate mother, with a son in imminent danger of brutal murder at the hands of a militant jihadist group -- apologized to her country "from the bottom of my heart." And then begged for help.

    Pleas for government assistance

    "I plead to the Japanese government to save Kenji's life," Ishido said. "To all members of ISIS, Kenji is not the enemy of ISIS. Please release him"
    Kingston says public sympathy for the two hostages is mixed, partly because of their vastly different backgrounds.
    "There's a distinction in the public between Goto and Yukawa," Kingston told CNN, ahead of the news of Yukawa's apparent murder.
    "There is a great deal of respect for the journalist (Goto) and what he's done and his experience. Yukawa is looked at as a naïve adventurer who put himself in harm's way. So many are asking why should it be the government and the taxpayer's problem."

    Previous hostages shunned at home

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      Japanese hostage's Syrian fixer: This day was coming


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    In 2004, three young Japanese hostages were released by militants in Iraq. Instead of being welcomed home, they were shunned for "causing trouble" for Japan. The former hostages, including one who was in Iraq helping children before her capture, were even billed by the government for their airfare.
    "They got the frostiest unwelcome you can imagine. It was essentially government-encouraged bullying," Kingston says -- adding the trauma of their return was in some ways worse than their capture.
    In the previous hostage crisis, under Japan's former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during the Iraq war, language like "self responsibility" and "go at your own risk" was engraved into the Japanese psyche.

    ISIS a world away

    For most Japanese citizens, areas of the Middle East ravaged by conflict are perceived as distant, dangerous places -- the opposite of the safety and calm that permeates Japanese society. Many in Japan don't understand why anyone would leave the island nation and travel to such hostile regions, where they face potential capture by terror groups like ISIS.
    Therefore, many find it difficult to sympathize with those who choose to go.
    Goto has received more sympathy because the Japanese media has widely reported on his commitment to telling the stories of suffering women and children.

    Troubled past

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      Japanese hostages held by ISIS met in Syria


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    According to his own online posts, Yukawa was a troubled man, and as such he has received far less sympathy back home in Japan. He lost his wife to cancer, and then his home and business to bankruptcy. At one point, he attempted suicide and took a traditionally female name.
    "On the outside I look normal," he wrote in one post. "But inside I'm mentally ill."
    It seems he went to the Middle East looking for a fresh start and wanted to be a private security contractor -- even though he had no experience.
    "He's seen as irresponsible," Kingston says.

    Change in public mood?

    Kingston adds this latest incident has the potential to change the way Japanese society feels about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's approach of "proactive pacifism."
    The ISIS video was released just two days after Abe was in the Middle East pledging $200 million in humanitarian aid to the coalition against ISIS -- a commitment the Japanese government insists it will honor, no matter what happens to the hostages.
    However the public might feel about the two men who they watched kneel in the desert on their computers and TV screens, there is no doubt that the sight of their countrymen enduring capture at the hands of ISIS has brought the situation in Iraq and Syria into sharp relief.
    "Islamic extremism was something you watched on TV that happened to other people," Kingston says. "And now it's happening to the Japanese."