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ISIS Demands $200 Million From Japan To Free Hostages


Once again, hostages in orange jumpsuits have appeared in a video from the Islamic State, or ISIS. This time the men being threatened with death are Japanese nationals. ISIS is demanding a $200 million ransom in exchange for their lives. That demand comes three days after Japan's prime minister pledged exactly that amount, $200 million, in non-military assistance to the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS. We wanted to know how this drama is playing out in Japan. For that, we turn to The Washington Post Tokyo bureau chief, Anna Fifield.

Good morning.

ANNA FIFIELD: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, ISIS showed the hostages in a video and gave Japan 72 hours to ransom them, saying otherwise they would be killed. So, what is the Japanese government doing as far as you know before that deadline?

FIFIELD: Well, the government has said that it has been trying to reach the group that is holding these men and that it hasn't been able to reach them yet. But they have instead been talking to the Americans and to the U.K., two countries who have had nationals beheaded in a grisly fashion by this group. But interestingly, they also have been talking to the French and the Italian governments. Both of these had hostages taken by this group and then released reportedly after they paid ransoms for them. So that has sparked some speculation that maybe the Japanese government is considering paying some money to this group and that they may be trying to use this period to negotiate down the price tag from $200 million.

MONTAGNE: What then is the talk in Japan about whether the government should pay? Are people talking about that? Because just to say, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been quite aggressive on the international stage, something of a hawk. So, those two are a little bit in tension there?

FIFIELD: Right, they are. I mean, there's a wide range of opinion. Some people say that the government should be doing everything it can to get these men home. Some people are saying that he should rescind this offer of $200 million to countries that are fighting the Islamic State. But just in general, this whole situation comes at a very delicate time for Japan. Prime Minister Abe is trying to make Japan a stronger and more normal country, in his words. And he is trying to take off some of the post-war shackles that were imposed on Japan, including by spending more money on the military and allowing Japan's military to become more involved in international situations. So this is sparking a lot of debate in Japan. Some people are saying that it's because of Abe's very aggressive stance and his big vision for Japan, that Japan has got itself into a situation like this in the first place - that it's over there in the Middle East where it has, you know, no business being. But then on the other hand, some people are saying that they wanted to go and launch a rescue mission. Right now under the constitution, Japan can't do that. So conservatives are saying this is exactly why Japan needs to change.

MONTAGNE: Well, one thing though that's unusual about this is that even though France and Italy and some other countries are believed to have paid enormous ransoms to get hostages out and to save their lives, none of these countries admit that they are paying ransoms. Japan is in this unusual circumstance of being asked straightforwardly in public to come up with the money. Would that not compromise, certainly, the country's credibility or Abe's credibility as a hawk?

FIFIELD: In some respects, yes it would, I think. I mean, there would be no way of dodging this. So, Abe is in a very difficult situation there. He's prided himself on being very hawkish. But there would be a lot of criticism, I think, if he wasn't seen to be doing everything he could to try and get them back. At the same time, I should say that there's quite a lot of criticism in Japan of these two men. The people are saying that they got themselves into the situation and neither of them had any business being there. And there's some anger towards them.

MONTAGNE: Well, explain that a little bit. Tell us a little bit more about these two men being held.

FIFIELD: Right. So one of them is Mr. Goto, who is a freelance journalist, a cameraman, and had been filing footage back for Japanese television stations and he had been going back and forth to there. And on one of these trips he had met this other man, Mr. Yukawa, who seems to be a very troubled individual. He'd had a lot of problems in his life. He'd gone bankrupt, his wife had died, and he was on this kind of voyage of self-discovery in the Middle East and apparently had ambitions to become some kind of military contractor. So these two met up along the way, though they seem to have been taken at different times. Mr. Yukawa went missing in August and Mr. Goto, not until at least October.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

FIFIELD: You're welcome, nice to be with you.

MONTAGNE: Anna Fifield is Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.