The Japanese hostage crisis 2004 in Iraq
and "Little Lindberghing"
By Arudou Debito and Alan McCornick

(Click here to see the Japan Times Community Page Article of May 11, 2004, which resulted from these articles)

Date: Tue, 27 Apr 2004

Hello all. Arudou Debito here. What follows are some thoughts I had on Japan's society
and government reaction to the whole Iraq hostage mess (where three
Japanese were held prisoner in Iraq, threatened with death if Japan
didn't withdraw its Self Defense Forces, and then released after (the
media says) Muslim clerics appealed for clemency, or (the domestic
internet bulletin boards reckon) a hefty backdoor ransom was paid.

Two essays follow. The first I dashed out last week to my Japanese
lists, about what I commonly call the "Little Lindbergh Effect"
(where a society, in the aftermath of a national shock, passes a
preemptive law which ultimately oversteps its intentions--in
Lindbergh's case, a near-automatic death penalty if a kidnapped child
hostage dies; in the present day, passing the PATRIOT Act after Sept
11, see <http:// www.debito.org/japantodaycolumns13-15.html#14>). In
Japan's case, politicians are proposing to make hostages pay their
rescue costs....

The second essay is about the ironies of Japan's reaction to the
hostage repatriation, by friend Alan McCornick of Keio University. I
believe it does better than most observers in trying to make sense of
the situation, because Alan doesn't try to find grandiose theories,
such as "national honor" or "flaws in Japan's national character".

First, my essay about the political ramifications:

//////////////////////////////////////////////////// //////////
"VICTIMS TO PAY FOR RESCUE COSTS": Sankei Shinbun, April 16, 2004
http://news.goo.ne.jp/news/sankei/seiji/20040416/NAIS-0416-01-15-48. html
(Japanese, excerpt, translated by Arudou Debito)

Opinions have emerged from the Koizumi Cabinet that the Japanese
hostages released from Iraq should pay for part of their rescue

METI Minister Nakagawa Shouichi said in an informal cabinet meeting
on Friday morning, "People who get lost in the mountains have to pay
for their rescue." He added, "The families of the hostages used
Hokkaido Government offices in Tokyo for their rescue efforts. The
Hokkaido Government is in a dilemma about how to cover those costs."
National Research Institute for Disaster Prevention Chief Inoue
Kiichi also stated in a press conference after the meeting: "The
victims should bear a degree of responsibility for the costs."

Party Komeito chief Fushiba Tetsuzo also stated in a policy meeting,
"How about tabulating the costs, and sending a bill to the victims or
their families?"..

Arudou Debito here. Thanks to the degree of social shock behind this
policy drive, I think there's a screw loose in the attitude towards
and the treatment of the repatriates. Let me speak from the
standpoint of a fellow human rights activist and one founder of a
volunteer human rights group (The Community
<http://www.debito.org/TheCommunity >)

First of all, let me say that I can understand to some degree why the
public is upset. It's perfectly natural to say, "Why the hell would
anyone want to go to a dangerous part of the world?", and their
getting kidnapped did indeed cause a great deal of public upset and
worry. It's also quite understandable for people to feel, "Let's fix
it so that this sort of thing never happens again."

But it's still a jump to insist that the victims pay for their own
rescue costs. Comparing the Iraq rescue efforts with mountain rescue
payments misses the point, because people enter these areas with
different motives. Going into a dangerous area like Iraq is not just
some mountain stroll gone wrong. It is an earnest attempt to help
people who are in trouble--and a danger zone is precisely the place
you will find them. If aid workers should get into trouble
themselves, the last thing they need is to be blamed for it (or
worse, to be fined--and in proposals which may amount to millions of

Thus the debate has gone awry by not giving due consideration to what
these human-aid groups do. By and large, they exist to alleviate the
world's miseries, and offer a way for people who care to give of
their time, funds, and even lives to help people. What's special is
that they often deal with social problems which governments would
rather not touch. Yes, it is tragic when these aid workers become
the targets themselves of the very agents of social misery. But this
should not become grounds for criticism of the aid group. Or for
financial punishment. The background and mistakes of the three
hostages in this case notwithstanding, the government should not be
considering steps like these.

Kidnapping is one potential risk of working in a danger zone. Nobody
knows this better than the aid workers, and they go there accepting
those risks. This might be difficult for those without this type of
experience, but let it be known that most definitely do not do this
for "kicks". (buyuuden)

Now let's turn to the political dimension of this issue. According
to the proposals as they stand, only those people who enter
"dangerous areas" of the world (kiken kuiki, as defined by the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs) on official business, such as a Japanese
company or a government mission, will be exempt from being billed for
their rescue. That's understandable, but the converse of this
proposal means that only those who have been, so to speak,
"sponsored" by the government will qualify. Meaning that the
government is now creating a mechanism for a certain degree of social
control. However, as I mentioned above, not all NGOs wish to have
government sponsorship, let alone involvement, and many prefer to< BR> remain unbeholden in their choice of projects (especially if they go
against their government's wishes). If this policy goes through, in
practice it will mean that the established aid associations, such as
the Japan Red Cross (or the corrupt Japan Green Cross), get a free
pass. But a small, newly-founded, grassroots organization which
lacks the government's blessing may face the threat of a "rescue
fine". This is not going to help overseas volunteerism in Japan.

Now consider a potential political abuse. Hark back to the dark days
of corrupt Dietmember Suzuki Muneo, using the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs as a political moneyspinner and an expansion of his power.
<http:// www.debito.org/japantodaycolumns16-18.html#18> In 2002, he
excluded from a MOFA meeting on Afganistan an aid group called Peace
Winds Japan for personal reasons (apparently their leader didn't say
hello to him properly at a meeting).
<http:// www.sankei.co.jp/databox/muneo/20020129.html> in Japanese )
Point is this sort of thing has happened before. Now there would be
a financial penalty involved which would probably bankrupt the
organization. Hence the "Little Lindberghing" I'm talking about:
This draconian policy proposal will easily become a way to keep the
NGOs and grassroots under a degree of government control.

What a shame. As Colin Powell pointed out in his appraisal of this
situation (see Alan's essay below), volunteerism is a good thing for
a society. Japan, which is not a country well-known for its
volunteerism at home or abroad, is now only truly emerging from its
shell and understanding that the world's problems need more than just
money thrown at them. For the grassroots levels to start organizing
and participating is a healthy development of a civil society--one
which is taking up even domestic issues such as government-sponsored
discrimination against foreigners, ahem
<http:// www.debito.org/immigrationsnitchsite.html>. It would be a
shame for this overall positive development to be nipped in the bud.

Let's face it. The world is not always a happy place. Not everyone
believes in peace and brotherhood towards their neighbor. That is
why there are trouble spots, and the aid groups are usually the first
ones on the scene. It would be a shame for the Japanese public to
buy into the current undercurrent of "Japan is the safest place in
the world, and if you go overseas and get into trouble, it's your
fault and your responsibility. So stay home and mind your own
business. Volunteerism only leads to trouble for you and your
family." This may be an extreme argument, but it's one in response
to an extreme proposal in an attempt at balance.

Of course I want to tell people to avoid dangerous areas. But going
there is their decision. Not their families', and they should not be
punished. Instead, I suggest that for areas designated as
"dangerous" by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, people sign a release
waiver making it clear that they go there on their own recognaisance;
if anything befalls them, government assistance will not be
necessary. A bit cold-blooded a counterproposal, yes. But it is far
better than blaming someone for getting hurt while trying to help

Arudou Debito, Sapporo
April 22, 2004

///////////////////////////////////////////////////// /////////

Now, on to Alan McCornick's essay. I believe it does better than
most in trying to make sense of the situation, because Alan doesn't
try to find grandiose theories, such as national honor or flaws in
Japan'snational character. In fact, he reacts to the April 27 New
York Times article which in his view (and mine) really doesn't get to
the heart of the matter. The NYT author cites some bogus cultural
value about "okami", which nobody I've talked to in Japan has ever
heard of:

"Beneath the surface of Japan's ultra-sophisticated cities lie the
hierarchical ties that have governed the country for centuries and
that invariably reassert themselves at moments of crisis. The former
hostages' transgression was to ignore a government advisory against
traveling to Iraq. But their sin, in a vertical society that likes to
think of itself as classless, was to defy okami, or, literally, 'what
is higher'."

http://www.iht.com/ihtsearch.php?id=516645&owner=&date= 20040423100018

Overseas observers are falling back into the trap of seeing Japanese
as prisoners of their culture, which is a facile (and rather
demeaning) way of patching over an outsider's inability to understand
the inside ("Hey, I can't understand their feelings. Must be
culture.") How about watching the wide shows or reading the (very
nasty) BBSes out there--which would give a much closer approximation
of why people are angry?

Other observers go so far as to cite hundreds of years of culture:
"It's as if the honor of the country itself had been smeared by the
reckless result of these poor brave Japanese, who were just trying to
make a difference... It's a deep-rooted cultural need to always put
the welfare (and in this case, the reputation) of the group above the
concerns of the individual...I'm not saying that the Japanese should
change the way they've been taught to think for centuries. But it's
worth pointing out that this tendency to hold back, not make waves,
be the nail that stays down instead of sticking out (and therefore
get hammered), not take risks and listen absolutely to authority has
maybe held back Japanese people in the great world scheme of
things... I love Japan and the Japanese, but this week I'm glad that
I'm an American."
Gil Asakawa, Nikkei View, http://nikkeiview.com/
=============== ==============

Quite honestly, I'm not 100% sure why people reacted the way they
did. But I do not think it was a matter of deference to authority.
More of ingratitude, I think. Anyway, I'll let Alan talk now.
Arudou Debito in Sapporo

Date: Sat, 24 Apr 2004 17:55:04 +0900
Subject: Any takers?
From: Alan McCornick <alan@sfc.keio.ac.jp>

Dear Friends:

I have a group of folk with whom I correspond regularly on a number
of issues, mostly having to do with American politics and culture
wars. I just sent out a letter on the topic of the five hostages who
have returned to Japan to a large amount of criticism. I find this
criticism misplaced and deeply disturbing.

I thought I'd send you a copy of that letter and invite your comment.
If you have an opinion on the issue, I would really enjoy hearing
from you. With best wishes, Alan McCornick


Dear Folks:

Imagine your family sitting around the dinner table every night
talking of world events. The topics run from corruption in
government and the nation's leading corporations, to SARS and AIDS,
to the war in Iraq. Now suppose one of the children at this table
says to you, "You old people--all you do is complain about how messed
up the world is; none of you does anything about it!" And then
suppose a few days later this child comes to you and announces, "I
can't stand just watching this misery. I'm going to Iraq to try to
do some good."

What is your response? "Go with my blessing!"? "Over my dead
body!"? "Let George do it!"?

If you are Japanese, this is not an idle question these days.

When the first three hostages returned to Tokyo on Sunday, they faced
signs saying, "You got what you deserved!" "You have disgraced the
nation!" "Japan's shame!"

The other day I took this debate into one of my classrooms and asked
for written comments. Let me share a couple of them with you.

--They ignored the worries of the government and their family members.
Life does not belong (only) to the person who has it, but (to others
as well).

--They should give some thought to what they have done.

--They went there (for their own reasons)--not to benefit the country.

--They should have been more prepared--should have thought of the impact.

--They were careless and gave the Japanese government trouble.

--Did (Imai the 18-year-old who went to protest the use of depleted
uranium weapons) honestly believe he could do a scientific
investigation on this issue without knowledge of science? He doesn't
even speak English!

--I think when a person takes a risk, and especially when the problem
could involve the nation, they must think about the effects or impact
they have.

I have selected only the criticism here and I need to point out that
there was also some support for the efforts of the hostages, and
distinctions drawn between the the initial three and the two
journalists who were captured later. But in almost every case even
those who were slow to blame suggested the five ought to be made to
foot the bill for their rescue.

Norimitsu Onishi, the New York Times writer, put the story in a
Japanese cultural context.
"To the angry Japanese," he writes, "the
three had acted selfishly." He was referring to Nahoko Takato, who
started her own organization at age 34 to work with street children,
Soichiro Koriyama, a 32-year-old freelance photographer, and Noriaki
Imai, the 18-year-old kid upset over the use of depleted uranium
munitions. But the two journalists, both in their 30s, have been
caught up in similar criticism.

Onishi hints at the ancient Confucist sense of order where everyone
knows his place, and the Japanese adaptation of that notion of virtue
which emphasizes blind loyalty and a desire to view authority with a
sense of gratitude for favors received. I've pushed this analysis a
bit; Onishi simply refers to a "sin" of defying "okami"--"that which
is higher."

One has to be careful not to fall into the trap of reducing an entire
complex modern civilization to the values of only a segment of their
numbers. I haven't forgotten the diversity of responses from my
students. And while it is still true that the "deru kugi"--the "nail
that sticks up"--gets hammered down perhaps more readily here than in
a lot of places, the Japanese are not likely to go marching off to
Manchuria simply because their government tells them to, or line up
to fly planes into battleships anymore. True, the Aum cult managed
to get well-educated men and women to do unspeakable things because
of this kind of loyalty but so did Jim Jones in Guyana. Mostly,
Japanese are still reeling from this evidence of blind loyalty to a
leader. Nobody believes Japanese are a nation of lemmings.

Still, this condemnation of the young idealists who ventured beyond
the pale is troubling. This time it's not a wacko cult leader
demanding loyalty; it is the government.

Maybe they were careless. Do their families really deserve hate
mail? Maybe their timing was lousy. Should they really be forced to
come up with $6000 for airfare home?

The Asahi Shimbun, perhaps Japan's best government watchdog, had ten
reporters in Iraq. It sent them all to Kuwait just as things got
tough. That left nobody to report on the activities of the Japanese
Self-Defence Forces, currently defending themselves (if you can get
your mind around that one) in Iraq. No accountability whatsoever for
taxpayer money. Condemnation flows because three individuals cost
some money for their rescue. Yet troops hiding behind fortress walls
(so I'm told--how would I know for sure?) get a blank check for the
duration. This is somebody's idea of a democracy?

As I see it, the chill effect is going to be devastating to Japanese
democracy in the long run. What are the chances now that a new
generation of kids will go off to troubled areas of the world when
the going gets rough? Having a knife at their throats was
apparently the most stressful moment the hostages had ever
experienced, says the Times writer. Until they got home, that is,
turned on the television and saw the condemnation of their
countrymen. They and their families are now afraid to show their

"Reckless!" says the Environment Minister of Japan. Quite a
different response from Colin Powell's. This man, who one assumes
fell on the sword of his principles and best judgment to remain
influential in the Bush war machine, called the shots differently.
"If nobody was willing to take a risk," he observed, "We would never
move forward."

If this is what a nation does to its young idealistsmakes them
afraid to show their facesmaybe they ought to emigrate.

WANTED: Country interested in receiving young idealists with energy
and enthusiasm, a willingness to take risks, a desire to help
children, to gather accurate information, to resist war and to
protect the environment. Must be willing to allow for the
possibility of mistakes.

Any takers?
Alan McCornick <alan@sfc.keio.ac.jp>
Oiso, April 24, 2004

(Click here to see the Japan Times Community Page Article of May 11, 2004, which resulted from these articles)

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Portion written by Arudou Debito Copyright 2004, Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan