Japan’s deputy foreign minister has expressed hope that his fellow countryman and a Jordanian pilot held by Islamic militants will return home “with a smile on their faces” as criticisms mounted over the government’s handling of the crisis.
Yasuhide Nakayama, assigned by prime minister Shinzo Abe to co-ordinate efforts in Amman to save two Japanese hostages of the Islamic State (IS) group, said he believed there were “firm ties” between Japan and Jordan.
“I hope we can all firmly work hard and join hands to co-operate, and for the two countries to co-operate, in order for us to see the day when the Jordanian pilot and our Japanese national Mr Goto, can both safely return to their own countries with a smile on their faces,” he said after another day of crisis talks in the Jordanian capital.
It was the first time a Japanese official mentioned Jordanian pilot 1st Lt Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, who has been held by the extremists after crashing in December. It was not clear when the pilot’s possible release had entered the picture.
Freelance journalist Kenji Goto was seized in late October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue another hostage, 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, who was captured by the militants last summer.
Over the weekend, an unverified video emerged online showing a still photo of Mr Goto, 47, holding what appears to be a photo of the body of Mr Yukawa. It included a recording of a voice claiming to be Mr Goto, saying his captors wanted the release of Sajida al-Rashawi, an Iraqi woman sentenced to death in Jordan for involvement in a suicide bombing that killed 60 people.
The message retracted a demand for payment of 200 million dollars (£132m) in ransom for the two Japanese, made in an earlier online message, and said Mr Yukawa had been killed. It threatened to kill Mr Goto unless al-Rashawi was released.
Japanese officials have indicated they are treating the video released over the weekend as authentic and thus accepting the likelihood that Mr Yukawa, an adventurer captured in Syria last summer, was killed.
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon appealed for Mr Goto’s unconditional release.
“The Japanese hostage Mr Goto needs to be released unconditionally,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. “That’s what we call for and we call for the release of all other people who are being held against their will by extremist groups in the region.”
Securing the release of al-Rashawi would be a major propaganda coup for IS and would allow the group to reaffirm its links to al Qaida in Iraq. Al-Rashawi fled but was captured after her explosive belt failed to detonate in the attack in Jordan. She pleaded not guilty.
Some Japanese are critical of the two men for taking such risks and some are also criticising Mr Abe for pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, saying it may have contributed to the crisis.
As parliamentary debate resumed, MP Seiji Maehara of the opposition Democratic Party questioned Mr Abe on how the government had handled the hostages’ cases since when Mr Yukawa was seized in August.
He noted Mr Abe’s explicit mention of IS in an announcement of 200 million dollars in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the extremists – something also mentioned in the videos issued by the militants.
But Mr Abe defended his performance.
“If we fear the risks so much that we succumb to the terrorists’ threats, we won’t be able to make any humanitarian contributions to countries surrounding the area of conflict,” he said.
“Our country will never bow to terrorists. We will continue our humanitarian support in our own unique way.”
Mr Abe has pushed to expand the role for Japan’s troops – one that has remained strictly confined to self-defence under the pacifist constitution adopted after the nation’s defeat in the Second World War.