Comment: Prison of Culture-Hostages Get Icy Welcome Home
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April 26, 2004: A New York Times report on the icy welcome home from Iraq which the Japanese hostages received last week, is a striking illustration that there are limits to the impact of globalisation. Despite adaptation to change, the rules of a hierarchical society can remain virtually immutable.
The three hostages including a woman who went to Iraq to help street children in Baghdad had been shown on television being threatened by their knife-brandishing kidnappers but a hand written sign at the airport in Tokyo on their return, which read "You got what you deserve!" was a sign of worse to come. Another compatriot wrote on the website of one of the former hostages: "You are Japan's shame," and to add insult to injury, the Japanese Government billed the returnees $6,000 for the air fares. By this weekend, the former hostages were in hiding from an angry public.
Dr. Satoru Saito, a psychiatrist who examined the three former hostages twice since their return told the New York Times that the stress they were enduring now was "much heavier" than what they experienced during their captivity in Iraq. Asked to name their three most stressful moments, the former hostages told him, in ascending order: the moment when they were kidnapped on their way to Baghdad, the knife-wielding incident, and the moment they watched a television show the morning after their return here and realized Japan's anger with them.
"Let's say the knife incident, which lasted about 10 minutes, ranks 10 on a stress level," Dr. Saito said in an interview with the Times. "After they came back to Japan and saw the morning news show, their stress level ranked 12."
To the angry Japanese, the first three hostages — Nahoko Takato, 34, who started a nonprofit organization to help Iraqi street children; Soichiro Koriyama, 32, a freelance photographer; and Noriaki Imai, 18, a freelance writer interested in the issue of depleted uranium munitions — had acted selfishly. Two others kidnapped and released in a separate incident — Junpei Yasuda, 30, a freelance journalist, and Nobutaka Watanabe, 36, a member of an anti-war group — were equally guilty.
Pursuing individual goals by defying the government and causing trouble for Japan was simply unforgivable. But the freed hostages did get official praise from one government: the United States.
"Well, everybody should understand the risk they are taking by going into dangerous areas," the Times quoted US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "But if nobody was willing to take a risk, then we would never move forward. We would never move our world forward.
"And so I'm pleased that these Japanese citizens were willing to put themselves at risk for a greater good, for a better purpose. And the Japanese people should be very proud that they have citizens like this willing to do that."
However, Yasuo Fukuda, the Japanese government's spokesman saw it differently: "They may have gone on their own but they must consider how many people they caused trouble to because of their action."
The criticism had began almost immediately after the first three civilians were kidnapped two weeks ago. The environment minister, Yuriko Koike, blamed them for being "reckless."
After the hostages' families asked that the government yield to the kidnappers' demand and withdraw its 550 troops from southern Iraq, they began receiving hate mail and harassing faxes and e-mail messages. Even as the kidnappers were still threatening to burn alive the three hostages, Yukio Takeuchi, an official in the Foreign Ministry, said of the three, "When it comes to a matter of safety and life, I would like them to be aware of the basic principle of personal responsibility."
The former hostages' crime against society was to ignore a government advisory against travelling to Iraq. In the still traditional vertical society they defied what is called "okami," or, literally, "what is higher" -i.e. the elders and powerful know better and should not be defied.
- Michael Hennigan
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