Last year, Japan was rocked by the kidnapping and murder of journalist Kenji Goto and his friend Haruna Yukawa by the Islamic State in Syria. Another Japanese journalist, Junpei Yasuda, was abducted in Syria last year, and on Thursday, he appeared in a hostage video posted online, raising the hopes of family and friends that he might be recovered alive.
Yasuda, who disappeared in June shortly after entering Syria from Turkey, is apparently in the hands of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
According to the New York Times, the Japanese government confirmed Yasuda’s identity but did not say who his captors were or why they decided to post the video. Yasuda makes no mention of a ransom demand in the clip, and Japanese officials say they have not received one.
“Rumors and fragmentary reports about Mr. Yasuda’s fate have circulated since he vanished,” the Times reports. “In December, Reporters Without Borders, the international advocacy group for journalists, said the Nusra Front was demanding a ransom and had ‘started a countdown’ to his execution unless it was paid. But Reporters Without Borders withdrew its statement days later, saying its information was ‘not sufficiently verified.'”
In the video, Yasuda is seated in a room with white walls, wearing a sweater and scarf. He reads from some papers on the table in front of him as he speaks in English: “Hello, I am Junpei Yasuda, and today is my birthday, 16 March. They told me I can speak with you what I want freely, and I can send a message through this to anyone.” This statement would indicate the video was filmed on Wednesday, March 16, and then uploaded the following day.
“I love you, my wife, father, mother, and brother,” Yasuda says. “I always think about you. I want to hug you. I want to talk with you. But I can’t anymore. I guess I can say, please take care.”
“My life, 42 years, always good. Especially this eight years, so happy.” At this point, despite that pronouncement, Yasuda sniffs and seems on the verge of tears.
“I have to say something to my country,” he continues after a moment. “Where you are sitting, wherever you are, in a dark room, somewhere there is pain, there is still more. No answering, no one responding. You are invisible. You are not exist. No one care about you.”
Japan Times reports that the video was posted by a Syrian man named Tarik Abdulhak, who confirmed it was filmed on Wednesday. Abdulhak said he is not a member of the Nusra Front, but described himself as a “fixer for journalists, and a media activists who simply wants to help secure Yasuda’s freedom.”
“I can tell you that Yasuda is in good health. But he is mentally exhausted,” said Abdulhak. He said he negotiated with Yasuda’s captors for three months, and they originally demanded a price of $150,000 for allowing their prisoner to send a video message, but he eventually persuaded them to give him a video at no charge.
Although the Japanese government said it has not been dealing with the hostage-takers, they told Abdulhak they will not deal with intermediaries. His captors have threatened to sell Yasuda to ISIS, or trade him to the Islamic State for a Nusra Front prisoner, if they do not get whatever price they demand for his freedom.
The Japan Times quotes observers who believe the video is evidence that the kidnappers have been negotiating with the Japanese government, despite official denials, and the negotiations are not going well. Other analysts questioned whether the kidnappers were authentic members of the Nusra Front, noting that the video lacks the group’s characteristic identifying graphics. It has been suggested that smaller gangs of Islamist Syrian rebels would be tempted to make themselves appear more formidable by using the “big name” of Nusra.
The 42-year-old Yasuda’s mother, Sachiko, told Asahi Shimbun she was “shocked and shivered immediately” when she saw his untidy appearance in the video.
She said her daughter-in-law called her at 6:00 in the morning Thursday to tell her about the posting of the video, and they “exchanged words of support on the phone, telling each other to hold out hope that their loved one would safely return home,” according to Asahi Shimbun.
“I hope we find a way to help him safely return home by all means, no matter what it takes,” said Yasuda’s friend, photojournalist Toru Yokota, who saw hope in the fact that Yasuda showed no obvious signs of physical abuse and appeared to have been fed fairly well.