In their latest Internet hostage video, the Islamic State demanded $200 million from Japan in exchange for the lives of security contractor Haruna Yukawa and freelance journalist Kenji Goto Jogo, promising they would be killed within 72 hours if the ransom was not paid.
After vowing that his nation would not submit to terrorist demands, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has asked several prominent Middle Eastern leaders for help, including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Japan has no official diplomatic presence in Syria, which has led to Abe contacting leaders in Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan, plus Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, to ask for help. According to the Hurriyet Daily News, sources within the Turkish government say Erdogan promised Abe that he would share all intelligence gathered by Turkey on the kidnapping of Yukawa and Jogo, which would seem like the sort of assistance more useful to a rescue effort than ransom payment. On the other hand, Turkey has experienced some success at negotiating the release of ISIS hostages in the past, notably 49 Turkish nationals kidnapped in Mosul last summer.
According to the Japan Times, Jordan’s King Abdullah told Abe “he was ready to extend help should Japan need it.” The Japanese government has established a headquarters for negotiating the release of its hostages in Jordan, and Vice-Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama has been dispatched to meet with King Abdullah.
Abe described the kidnapping as “an unforgivable act of terrorism” at a press conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday before returning to Japan. “Japan will never yield to terrorism,” he declared. “Japan will do its best in the battle against the cowardice of terrorism, hand-in-hand with the international community.”
Japanese ministers have stated they will not relent on the $200 million in non-military aid they have pledged to the international effort against ISIS, prompting the $200 million retaliatory demand from the hostage-takers. However, they have not categorically ruled out paying the ransom, possibly after attempting to negotiate the amount down a bit. A spokesman said the Japanese government had taken the unusual step of attempting to convince ISIS that kidnapping Yukawa and Jogo was a mistake, based on a “misunderstanding” of what Japan’s contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition would be used for – it is entirely meant to provide humanitarian assistance to war refugees, not military strikes against the Islamic State. Given ISIS’ penchant for kidnapping humanitarian aid workers, it is not surprising this appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Direct Japanese negotiations with the Islamic State do not appear to be going well. The Associated Press reports that the Japanese government has not been able to communicate with the hostage-takers yet, prompting university professor and Islamic law expert Ko Nakata and journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, a journalist who was held hostage in Afghanistan, to step forward and offer themselves as negotiators. However, Nakata conceded that the 72-hour time limit imposed by ISIS before the hostages are executed is not enough time for him to travel to the region and begin negotiations.
The Associated Press quotes Japanese news editor Tsutomu Ishiai suggesting that the only way to save the hostages is for Japan to “get in touch with religious leaders and local heavyweights who are in a position to make contact with the extremists” – an uncertain proposition, given the tight time frame.
Prime Minister Abe’s political situation at home is uncertain. Some in his government, notably Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, have warned that paying the ransom would establish a dangerous precedent, warning that “there will be consequences if we do not act strongly now.”
The UK Guardian judges that Abe’s government is not really all that interested in the Middle East, although Abe has spoken about the global threat posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Japan is thought to be more concerned with China, and pledged a contribution to the anti-ISIS effort mostly to please the United States and United Kingdom, which are vital Japanese allies against growing Chinese influence in Asia. There might not be much appetite in Tokyo for a prolonged battle against Islamist terror, especially if it escalates into terrorist attacks on Japanese soil.
Such fears are represented in social media traffic from Japanese citizens collected by the website Japan Crush, along with sentiment to the effect that Yukawa and Jogo are private citizens who got into trouble on their own, placing no burden on the government to pay their ransom.