Dramatic Climax to Hostage Crisis
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
Thursday 15 April marked a defining moment in the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi and may turn out to be his most dramatic day in office. The twenty-four hour period witnessed a crucial turning point in Japan's tense hostage stand-off which tested Koizumi's abilities to the limit. By the time midnight struck, three hostages were free, enabling the prime minister to snatch a stunning victory from the jaws of defeat. Koizumi's darkest hour miraculously became his finest.
Within the space of just twelve hours, the number of Japanese hostages being held captive in Iraq dramatically fluctuated, rising from three to five and then suddenly plummeting to just two. These incredible developments put the government under intense pressure and changed its fortunes by the hour. For the first time since the hostage crisis began, the prime minister displayed visible signs of strain as he desperately fought to stabilize his administration and control the rapidly spiraling situation.
The day broke with bad news for the premier. Two additional Japanese civilians, Jumpei Yasuda and Nobutaka Watanabe, had been abducted. A little later came the tragic confirmation that an Italian hostage, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, had been brutally killed. It was also reported that on Wednesday about 300 Iraqis had rallied against the presence of Japanese troops in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah, where the military are stationed on a humanitarian mission.*
As the day worn on, the outlook became even bleaker. The seven o'clock NHK evening news was almost exclusively devoted to the expanding hostage drama, painting a less than positive picture. The recently released former French hostage, Alexandre Jordanov, help add to the national gloom. He described his harrowing ordeal to Japanese viewers, telling how he was moved around from location to location. He was guarded by different groups and factions while being subjected to continual humiliation.
Ask to describe his captors, who he estimated to number about a hundred, he told Japan's NHK news, "They are everyday people. Kids, religious [people], but they don't have any jobs here. Their country is in complete chaos. They're former doctors, they're students, army, they are from all walks of life, [they're] everybody. It's just a very wide range of Iraqi people."
Jordanov implied that the Japanese hostages might not be released, later telling Britain's Channel 4 News, "They repeatedly told me that if I was an American or a British citizen or [from] any of the countries that participate in the coalition, they would kill me." Because Japan and Italy are key members of the US-led coalition, the murder of the Italian hostage made the Japanese captives' prospects look particularly grim. Jordanov's testimony greatly lowered people's spirits.
Suddenly, just after 9pm, the national mood completely changed as news spread that the initial trio of hostages had been released. Hiroshi Sakamoto, a recently retired senior government official from Hokkaido, home prefecture of two of the hostages, described the scene, "In Hokkaido, crowds gathered outside the hostages' houses in Sapporo [home of freed hostage Noriaki Imai] and in Chitose [home of Nahoko Takato]. There was a strong sense of relief and people were very happy for the families of the hostages." He added, "We are looking forward to their safe return to Hokkaido."
Although two hostages remained in captivity – and as it turned out would be freed on Saturday – the fact that the three who were threatened with death had been released created a wave of national celebration. Koizumi's fortunes were instantly transformed by the news. A besieged leader was abruptly turned into a national hero. In the public's eyes, the premier's hard-line policy of no compromise with the hostage-takers was vindicated. He personally won an amazing victory against the odds. Thursday 15 April 2004 is certain to be remembered as one of the most dramatic days in modern Japanese politics.
For a comprehensive analysis on how the resolution of the hostage crisis will affect Prime Minister Koizumi's fortunes and the wider implications for Japan see the article below.
Japan Exorcises the Ghosts of Terrorism Past
Asia Times, 19 April 2004
* The protesters in Samawah demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Japanese military from Iraq, claiming it was impossible to distinguish Japanese troops from American forces. The demonstration was the first of its kind. Many ordinary Samawah locals have also expressed frustration and disappointment with the Japanese troops because they have for the time being suspended their promised reconstruction projects due to the nationwide unrest. All Japan's Ground Self Defense Forces (GSDF) are presently confined to their heavily fortified barracks outside Samawah because of the worsening security situation. Self Defense Forces activities are severely restricted by Japan's war-renouncing constitution.