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Commentary (November 1, 2004)

Defiant Japan mourns murdered hostage

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

Japan awoke on Sunday to the news that 24-year old Shosei Koda had become the country's first hostage to be executed in Iraq. The young man was brutally beheaded by a ruthless al-Qaeda-linked group which had threatened to kill him unless Japan withdrew its 550 troops from Southern Iraq they are currently there on a strictly humanitarian mission. At the outset of the crisis, officials had stated that the terrorists' demand stood no prospect of being met and analysts had given Koda a slim chance of survival. The horrific discovery of his body and severed head in a volatile area of Baghdad confirmed the nation's worst fears. His inhuman death has also dramatically reaffirmed the country's tough new no-compromise policy on terrorism.

As the terrorists' Friday deadline passed, Japan braced itself for bad news. People knew Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's more assertive Japan no longer bows to terrorists, a message this current crisis has painfully reinforced. Gone are the days when a weaker and less confident country would have buckled under such terrorist pressure.

Responding to the news of Koda's death, Japan's Foreign Minister, Nobutaka Machimura, underlined the government's steadfast determination not to yield to terrorism. He said, "We can never forgive this extremely cruel act that killed an innocent civilian. We must resolutely continue to fight against terror." He added, "The Self-defence Forces (SDF) are engaged in activities of extending humanitarian assistance that are highly appreciated by the local and the international community. We'll never withdraw SDF personnel in a way in which we give in to terrorism."

Japan's one-year mission in Iraq is scheduled to finish in mid-December, although Koizumi has indicated that he would like it to continue.

The prime minister focused more on the national sense of grief, Koizumi said, "It is extremely painful that Mr. Shosei Koda became a victim of terrorism, although the government made every possible effort for the hostage's release. My heartfelt condolences and sympathy go to his family. I once again feel indignant at the act of depriving an innocent civilian of his life. That is extremely barbarous and vicious." Like his foreign minister, he also struck a defiant note, "We should help the Iraqi people's nation-building without succumbing to terrorism."

Significantly, public opinion appears to support this resolute stance, representing a complete break with Japan's past. The country has conceded to terrorist demands on a number of occasions. In 1977, Tokyo infamously capitulated when it paid US$6 million in ransom and released six members of the terrorist Japanese Red Army to free Japanese passengers in an airline hijacking in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Today, as Koda's death graphically illustrates, the situation could hardly be more different.

Immediately the initial news of Koda's capture broke, a resolute Koizumi told reporters, "We can't tolerate terrorism. We can't yield to terrorism." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was quick to support him. He said, "We welcome Prime Minister Koizumi's unequivocal statement that Japan would not withdraw Japanese forces from Iraq and that Japan will not yield to terrorism." Koizumi's unflinching position has once again proved that Tokyo stands firmly in the US camp when it comes to dealing with terrorists. Koda's tragic death underlines that the government now means what it says.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which opposes the presence of Japanese troops in Iraq, backed Koizumi's stance against the hostage-takers. However, once Koda's death was announced, they renewed their criticism of Japan's involvement in Iraq.

DPJ President Katsuya Okada, said, "This incident would not have happened if SDF troops had not been sent." However, Koda's murder is unlikely to significantly alter the political equation on Iraq as many people believe the young man's careless actions in visiting the country are partly to blame for his predicament. Nevertheless, Japan will probably remain uneasy about its involvement in Iraq, but the result of the US election is likely to have a bigger impact on its foreign policy than this tragedy.

This incident is the third Iraq-related hostage crisis Japan has endured this year. Tokyo adopted an equally hard-line approach in the two previous incidents, but fortunately was able to negotiate the release of its five captives through intermediaries. On this occasion that option was not available. Koda is the fifth Japanese national to be slain in Iraq. In November two diplomats were killed and in May two freelance journalists were murdered.

Hostage's prospects were never good
The Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera broke the story of the kidnapping on Wednesday, just after 6am Japan time. They broadcast a video showing a distraught-looking Koda. Wearing a white T-shirt, long disheveled hair hung around his limp shoulders, he nervously knelt in front of three masked men. The dark-clad trio stood motionless behind a black flag bearing the deadly name "al-Qaeda Organization of the Holy War in Iraq." The banner is similar to those that have appeared in earlier hostage-beheading videos.

Speaking in a mixture of English and Japanese, the condemned youth begged, "Mr. Koizumi, they are demanding withdrawal of Japan's Self-Defense Forces. They are saying they will cut off my head otherwise. I am so sorry. I want to return to Japan."

One of the masked militants in the video read a statement, demanding the Japanese government withdraw its troops from Iraq within 48 hours or Koda would meet the same fate as "his infidel predecessors [Nick] Berg and [Kenneth] Bigley." Both Berg, an American, and Bigley, a Briton, were mercilessly beheaded by the group. Parts of the distressing video were aired on Japanese TV before the murder and fully broadcast after Koda's headless corpse was identified. His killers have yet to release a video of the gruesome execution, a feature which has become a chilling trademark of such hostage murders.

From the beginning, Dr. Maha Azzam, a leading authority and researcher on al-Qaeda, thought that tragedy was the most likely outcome. On initially hearing the news of the capture, she observed, "From the evidence we have, it is almost certain that this al-Qaeda-related group has him and this is a cause for very deep concern. Regrettably, the past actions of this particular group clearly indicate that the chances of a hostage being released alive are not very high." Like most other experts, her pessimism was proved to be well-founded.

The al-Qaeda-linked group that killed Koda is led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He is responsible for numerous terrorist attacks inside Iraq and America's most wanted man in Iraq. His organization also recently claimed responsibility for the gruesome mass murder of 49 Iraqi Army recruits. Since May, the group has conducted several high-profile abductions and murders of foreigners, usually demanding troop withdrawal before executing its victims in front of video cameras.

Dr. Mohamed Ali Hussein, a Middle East analyst, stated at the start of the crisis that Koda's chances of being released alive were minimal. He accurately predicted, "There are many of these kidnap-groups and it is almost impossible to contact them. It is extremely doubtful that Japan will be able to establish a line of communication." He added, "The situation looks extremely grim. I am gravely concerned for the safety of this young Japanese man and Margaret Hassan [an abducted Irish aid worker]."

The Japanese government also came to the same dark conclusion and while it did its best to work for Koda's release, official were never optimistic. A grim-faced Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hatsuhisa Takashima, frankly acknowledged the dire situation shortly after the crisis began. He said, "It's an extremely dangerous group and most cases [linked to it] end tragically."

From the start, while strongly ruling out any concessions to the terrorists, Koizumi emphasized that he was doing his utmost to secure the release of the young hostage. The main opposition DPJ, which opposes the deployment of Japanese troops in Iraq, backed Koizumi's stance.

The Japanese media also largely supported Koizumi with the conservative press adopting a harder line than the prime minister. Japan's largest circulation daily, Yomiuri Shimbun, said in an October 28 editorial, "If the nation conveys to terrorists its determination not to give in to their threats, they will realize it is useless to target Japanese. A stern and uncompromising attitude is important in preventing terrorism."

Media, government question victim's motives
Even though Koda's death is deeply mourned, criticism of the government is likely to be blunted because many people feel he put himself in unnecessary danger. The media and government questioned what the young Japanese man was doing in Iraq, painting an impression of him as a naive individual who recklessly wandered into a war zone.

The manager of the hotel in Amman where Koda stayed before going to Iraq said the young man ignored repeated warnings about the dangers. Instead he departed the Jordanian capital on a Baghdad-bound bus on October 20. Koda spoke of wanting to find out what was going on in the country.

A Japanese woman familiar with Jordan, who did not wish to give her name, said, "I was in Jordan earlier this month on business and it is a safe country where Japanese people can feel comfortable and there is little to worry about. You certainly don't feel that you are next to war-torn Iraq. Somehow defying common sense, I guess Mr. Koda must have convinced himself Iraq would be the same."

Japan's Foreign Minister, Nobutaka Machimura, could not explain the young man's motivation. In an interview shortly after the kidnap was announced, he said, "An evacuation advisory has been repeatedly issued and he must have been fully aware of the danger. I really find it hard to understand why he has traveled there."

A Japanese diplomat, who did not wished to be named, commented, "Since the first hostage crisis earlier this year, we have worried about something like this happening. There are some young people out there who just don't seem to have any concept of danger, no common sense and absolutely no understanding of the situation in Iraq. To them Iraq is a trendy destination. We just can't seem to convince them otherwise. It's a recipe for tragedy."

Koda's parents, Masumi and Setsuko, could also not explain their son's actions and thought he was in New Zealand until they saw him on TV. His father said, "I didn't know he was in Iraq at all. I don't know why he set foot in a country under warlike conditions." In an emotional message to the kidnappers, he begged, "From the bottom of my heart I ask you to release [my son] Shosei."

Before the young man's headless body was found, Dr. Mohamed Ali Hussein, said, "Sadly we have heard such heart-moving pleas before. This group has always ignored them and tragically, it will probably be the same in this case unless there is some kind of miracle." Unfortunately, his assessment was correct and the hoped for miracle never materialized.

After Koda's murder was confirmed, his family issued a press statement. They said, "We would like to sincerely apologize for causing tremendous trouble and concern to many people who supported us and at the same time we are overwhelmed with a sense of appreciation and gratitude." They added, "While it has turned out this way, we pray that peace will arrive for the people in Iraq as early as possible."

With the death of its first hostage in Iraq, Japan is learning that standing firm against terrorism is not a painless option. Playing a more active global role comes at a price. How the country copes with its feelings of grief will probably help determine its future status on the world stage.

(Some sections of this article first appeared in a different form in Asia Times Online on 30 October 2004,, and those sections which have been reproduce are republished with permission and copyrighted to Asia Times Online.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications