Japanese hostages released from their Iraqi captors returned home this weekend to a bill from the government for their rescue and a public scolding from the prime minister.
Japan is a close-knit nation and any offence against its citizens overseas is felt acutely, so when two aid workers and a journalist were taken hostage recently Japan was plunged into national anguish. The plight of the hostages displaced most other stories from the news and chat shows.
The kidnapping sparked national controversy. Japan’s population is very much against both the deployment of its own troops in Iraq and the US led occupation of the country. Would the hostage crisis be the governments equivalent of the Madrid bombs which changed the Spanish leadership?
It must have been with considerable relief that Prime Minister Koizumi received the news of the hostages’ release and he took the opportunity at a press conference to say that they ought to reflect long and hard on all the trouble they had caused. Whether the trouble to which he referred was the negotiations for their release or the threat to his position at home was not clear.
However, at the same time, an Iraqi cleric concerned with negotiating the release of the hostages criticised the Japanese government for its lack of concern. “We were thinking about the hostages more than the Japanese government,” Abdel Salem Al Kubaisi of the Islamic Clerics Association said at a press conference.
The government reception for the hostages cooled further when it was decided to bill them for their release.
” For plane costs, we’ll charge economy-class,” an official said. “We’ll also ask for the costs basically needed to cover their medical checkups.”
And when the hostages announced that they would like to return to Japan to continue their work, the government reaction turned into outright hostility, one official saying, “If they really hate to return to Japan, I want them to defect to Iraq. Since we’ve paid so much from the state coffers, I feel they should compensate us for it.” Mr. Koizumi pitched in again, urging them “to have some sense.” Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi commented, “I hope they will value their saved lives.”
Kawaguchi went further sending them a message to be careful about what they do in the future while another official told them Japan would not protect them if they returned to Iraq.
The youngest of the released hostages, Noriaki Imai, 18 also got a good dressing down from his mum. Like the prime minister she scolded him for all the trouble he had caused and then lamented to reporters that although he understood the words, she was not convinced he understood the meaning.
In hyper-polite Japan it is not unusual for rescued people to publicly apologise for inconveniencing their rescuers, but such public scolding and demands for compensation from the authorities are exceptional.