From the prime minister to ordinary people, Japanese were shocked at a video purportedly showing one of two Japanese hostages of the extremist Islamic State (IS) group had been killed.
With attention focused on efforts to save the other hostage, some also criticised Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive for a more assertive Japan as responsible for the crisis.
A sombre Mr Abe appeared on public broadcaster NHK early yesterday demanding the militants release 47-year-old journalist Kenji Goto unharmed.
He said the video was probably authentic, although he added that the government was still reviewing it. He offered condolences to the family and friends of Haruna Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer taken hostage in Syria last year.
Mr Abe declined to comment on the message in the video, which demanded a prisoner exchange for Mr Goto. He said only that the government was still working on the situation and reiterated that Japan condemns terrorism.
“I am left speechless,” he said. “We strongly and totally criticise such acts.”
Mr Yukawa’s father, Shoichi, told reporters he hoped “deep in his heart” that the news of his son’s killing was not true.
“If I am ever reunited with him, I just want to give him a big hug,” he said.
President Barack Obama condemned what he called “the brutal murder” of Mr Yukawa and offered condolences to Mr Abe. His statement did not say how the US knew that Mr Yukawa was dead.
“The US intelligence community has no reason to doubt the authenticity of the video,” said Brian Hale, spokesman for the US director of national intelligence.
On a visit to India, Mr Obama said the United States will stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Japan and called for the immediate release of Mr Goto.
President Francois Hollande of France also said condemned the killing and praised Japan’s “determined engagement in the fight against international terrorism”.
The United Nations Security Council “deplored the apparent murder” of Mr Yukawa, declaring that IS “must be defeated and that the intolerance, violence and hatred it espouses must be stamped out”.
Criticism of Mr Abe has touched on his push for an expanded role for Japan’s troops – one that has remained strictly confined to self-defence under the pacifist constitution written after the nation’s defeat in the Second World War.
About 100 protesters, some of them holding placards that read, “I’m Kenji” and “Free Goto,” demonstrated late yesterday in front of the prime minister’s residence.
Demonstrator Kenji Kunitomi, 66, blamed Mr Abe for bringing the hostage crisis on himself.
“This happened when Prime Minister Abe was visiting Israel,” he said. “I think there’s a side to this, where they may have taken it as a form of provocation, possibly a big one.”
While in the Middle East, Mr Abe announced $200m in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the militants. IS addressed Mr Abe and demanded the same amount of money as ransom for the two hostages.
Mr Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, was sceptical about the voice on the video claiming to be her son’s.
She said: “I’m petrified. He has children. I’m praying he will return soon, and that’s all I want.”
Mr Yukawa was captured last summer, and Mr Goto is thought to have been seized in late October after going to Syria to try to rescue Yukawa.