TIME China

Is China’s Official News Agency Following a Japanese Porn Feed on Twitter?

If so, perhaps the notoriously frosty ties between the old East Asia rivals are warming at last

The official news outlet for China’s Communist Party appears to be a follower of Japanese pornography.

On Friday morning local time — when the adjacent screen shot was taken — the China Xinhua News listed Absolute JP Porn as one of the 3,301 Twitter users it was following.

There is no indication whether this is a prank by a third party or if Xinhua’s verified account is following, for news and research purposes, a feed that claims to link to pornographic images of Japanese women on a daily basis.

Several other suspect accounts, featuring profile photos of attractive women, appear among the list of Twitter users followed by Xinhua.

Relations between China and Japan have been mired with bitterness for decades in the wake of the atrocities committed by the Japanese military on Chinese soil during World War II. But perhaps a thaw is finally taking place across the East China Sea.

TIME

New Deadline Approaches in ISIS Hostage Crisis

A poster showing ISIS-held Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, seen on a street pole in Amman, Jan. 29, 2015.
A poster showing ISIS-held Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, seen on a street pole in Amman, Jan. 29, 2015. Nasser Nasser—AP

The cases of the Japanese hostage, the Jordanian pilot and the Iraqi prisoner held in Jordan have become intertwined in recent days

(TOKYO) — A sunset deadline was approaching Thursday in the Middle East for Jordan to release an Iraqi prisoner or face the death of a captured Jordanian air force pilot, according to the latest threat purportedly issued by the Islamic State group.

The audio message was read in English by a voice the Japanese government said was likely that of Kenji Goto, a Japanese hostage also held by the militant group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq.

It was released online after Jordan offered Wednesday to hand over the prisoner, an al-Qaida-linked would-be suicide bomber, in exchange for Jordanian air force pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh.

The Associated Press could not independently verify the contents of the recording, which was distributed on Twitter by Islamic State-affiliated accounts.

The cases of the Japanese hostage, the Jordanian pilot and the Iraqi prisoner held in Jordan have become intertwined in recent days. The prisoner is Sajida al-Rishawi, a woman convicted of involvement in deadly Amman hotel bombings in 2005.

The recording says the pilot will be killed if the prisoner is not presented at the Turkish border in exchange for Goto’s life by sunset. It’s not clear what would happen to Goto if the Iraqi woman is not returned by the deadline.

In Tokyo, government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Thursday the government was in close communications with the Jordan government. He said Japan was doing its utmost to free Goto, working with nations in the region, including Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

“As the situation is developing, I shouldn’t comment on details. But, Japan and Jordan are dealing with the matter based on an extremely trusting relationship,” Suga told reporters.

Efforts to free al-Kaseasbeh and Goto gained urgency after a purported online ultimatum claimed Tuesday that the Islamic State group would kill both hostages within 24 hours if Jordan did not free al-Rishawi.

Japan has scrambled to deal with the crisis that began last week with the release of a video by the Islamic State group showing Goto and another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa, kneeling in orange jumpsuits between a masked man who threatened to kill them within 72 hours unless Japan paid a $200 million ransom.

That demand has since shifted to one for the release of al-Rishawi. The militants have reportedly killed Yukawa, 42, although that has not been confirmed.

“This heinous terrorist act is totally unforgivable,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in parliament Thursday.

Goto, a freelance journalist, was captured in October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue Yukawa, who was taken hostage last summer.

In Tokyo, Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, has been desperately pleading for the government to save her son.

“I know Mr. Abe is someone who can handle this matter. I trust Mr. Abe and I can do nothing but rely on him,” she said.

Releasing the would-be hotel bomber linked to al-Qaida would breach Jordan’s usual hard-line approach to the extremists and set a precedent for negotiating with them.

It would also be a coup for the Islamic State group, which has already overrun large parts of neighboring Syria and Iraq. Jordan is part of a U.S.-led military alliance that has carried out airstrikes against the extremist group in Syria and Iraq in recent months.

The Islamic State group has not publicly demanded prisoner releases before and Jordan’s main ally, the United States, opposes negotiations with extremists.

Jordanian King Abdullah II faces growing domestic pressure to bring the pilot home. The pilot’s father said he met on Wednesday with Jordan’s king, who he said assured him that “everything will be fine.”

The pilot’s capture has hardened popular opposition among Jordanians to the air strikes, analysts said

“Public opinion in Jordan is putting huge pressure on the government to negotiate with the Islamic State group,” said Marwan Shehadeh, a scholar with ties to ultra-conservative Islamic groups in Jordan. “If the government doesn’t make a serious effort to release him, the morale of the entire military will deteriorate and the public will lose trust in the political regime.”

Jordan reportedly is holding indirect talks with the militants through religious and tribal leaders in Iraq to secure the release of the hostages. In his brief statement, al-Momani only said Jordan is willing to swap al-Rishawi for the pilot. He did not say if such an exchange is being arranged.

The 26-year-old pilot, al-Kaseasbeh, was seized after his Jordanian F-16 crashed in December near the Islamic State group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria. He is the first foreign military pilot the militants have captured since the coalition began its airstrikes in August.

Previous captives may have been freed in exchange for ransom, although the governments involved have refused to confirm any payments were made.

The Islamic State group broke with al-Qaida’s central leadership in 2013 and has clashed with its Syrian branch, but it reveres the global terror network’s former Iraqi affiliate, which battled U.S. forces and claimed the 2005 Amman attack.

___

Laub reported from Amman, Jordan. Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, and Kaori Hitomi, Mari Yamaguchi, Emily Wang and Koji Ueda in Tokyo contributed to this report.

TIME Iraq

Japan’s Abe Calls Latest Hostage Deadline ‘Despicable’

PM Abe instructs ministers to work as one over hostage crisis
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with reporters on Jan. 28, 2015. Kyodo

Islamic State threatens to kill remaining Japanese hostage and a Jordanian pilot, which the Japanese PM calls "an extremely despicable act"

(TOKYO) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed outrage at the latest threat purportedly by Islamic State militants to kill a Japanese journalist, as secret talks in Jordan sought the release of the man and a Jordanian pilot also being held hostage.

The effort to free Japanese freelance reporter Kenji Goto and Jordanian Lt. Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh gained urgency with the release of an apparent ultimatum late Tuesday from the Islamic State group.

In the message, the extremists say the two hostages will be killed within 24 hours — late Wednesday night Japan time — unless Jordan frees Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman sentenced to death in Jordan for her involvement in a 2005 terrorist attack on a hotel that killed 60 people.

“This was an extremely despicable act and we feel strong indignation. We strongly condemn that,” Abe said. “While this is a tough situation, we remain unchanged in our stance of seeking help from the Jordanian government in securing the early release of Mr. Goto.”

A government spokesman, asked about the message, said there was no reason to believe the video was not authentic.

“I think the Jordanian government would respond on their own,” said Katsunobu Kato, a deputy chief cabinet secretary.

In Jordan, the pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh, beseeched the government “to meet the demands” of the Islamic State group.

“All people must know, from the head of the regime to everybody else, that the safety of Mu’ath means the stability of Jordan, and the death of Mu’ath means chaos in Jordan,” he told The Associated Press.

About 200 of the pilot’s relatives protested outside the prime minister’s office in the Jordanian capital of Amman, chanting anti-government slogans and urging that it meet the captors’ demands.

A member of Jordan’s parliament said the country was in indirect talks with the militants to secure the hostages’ release. Bassam Al-Manasseer, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, told Bloomberg News the negotiations are taking place through religious and tribal leaders in Iraq, adding that Jordan and Japan won’t negotiate directly with IS and won’t free al-Rishawi in exchange for Goto only.

A prisoner exchange would be contrary to the policy of Jordan’s main ally, the U.S., which opposes negotiating with extremists. Manaseer’s comments were the strongest suggestion yet that Japan and Jordan might be open to a prisoner exchange.

Japan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama was in Amman to coordinate hostage-release efforts with Jordan, but refused comment on details of the talks early Wednesday.

Goto’s mother expressed hope for his release, but also desperation.

“What has my child done wrong?” she said. “There’s no more time.”

The militants reportedly have beheaded one Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa, and the crisis has stunned Japan.

Although many in Japan are critical of the two men for going to Syria, Goto’s friends and supporters have launched a social media campaign calling for his release.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has protested his plight, demanding his release.

In the group’s blog, Henry Tricks, a correspondent for The Economist who met Goto while working in Japan, said the independent journalist “covers wars with a difference.”

“Instead of focusing on who is winning or losing, he tells the stories of ordinary people, especially children, who are forced to endure conflict and the horrors surrounding them,” he writes.

Tuesday’s video resembled a message released over the weekend showing a still photo of Goto holding what appeared to be a photo of Yukawa’s body. It withdrew a demand for $200 million in ransom for Goto and Yukawa made in an earlier message.

The AP could not independently verify any of the videos, and the latter two lack the logo of the Islamic State group’s al-Furqan media arm. But some militant websites affiliated with the Islamic State group referenced the latest video and posted links to it Tuesday.

The latest message condemns Jordan for not releasing al-Rishawi, saying that unless she is freed within 24 hours, the pilot, followed by Goto, will be killed. It says it is the group’s last message.

“I have only 24 hours left to live and the pilot has even less,” says the audio, purportedly from Goto.

Messages from other Western hostages held by the group have been read by the captives on camera and it is unclear why the group released only a recording and still picture.

Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, 26, was seized after his Jordanian F-16 crashed near the Islamic State group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in December. He is the first foreign military pilot they have captured since a U.S.-led coalition that includes Jordan began its aerial campaign against the Islamic State group in August.

This is the first time that the group has publicly demanded the release of prisoners in exchange for hostages. Previous captives may have been released in exchange for ransom, although the governments involved have refused to confirm any payments were made.

Goto, a freelance journalist, was caught in October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue Yukawa, 42, who was taken hostage last summer.

Securing the release of al-Rishawi would be a major propaganda coup for the Islamic State and would allow the group to reaffirm its links to al-Qaida in Iraq.

The mother of another Jordanian prisoner, Ziad al-Karboli, said her family was told the Islamic State group also wants his release as part of a swap, but it is unclear if that was related to a possible deal involving the Japanese hostage.

Al-Karboli, an aide to a former al-Qaida leader in Iraq, was sentenced to death in 2008 for killing a Jordanian citizen.

TIME Japan

Japan Special Envoy Hopeful About Release of Hostage, Pilot

APTOPIX Japan Islamic State
A woman, along with other protesters, holds a placard and chant "Free Goto" during a rally outside the Prime Minister's official residence in Tokyo on Jan. 27, 2015 Eugene Hoshiko—AP

Japan is coordinating with Jordan to secure the release of Japanese Kenji Goto and a Jordanian pilot

(TOKYO) — Delicate negotiations were underway Tuesday to secure the release of a Japanese hostage and a Jordanian pilot held by Islamic State militants, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faced questions over his government’s handling of the crisis.

A Japanese envoy in the Jordanian capital, Amman, voiced hopes late Monday that both Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and the Jordanian pilot would be able to return home.

“I hope we can all firmly work hard and join hands to cooperate between the two countries (Japan and Jordan), 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 smiles on their faces,” said Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy foreign minister and lawmaker who was sent to Amman to coordinate efforts to save two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group.

It was the first mention by a Japanese official of Jordanian pilot 1st Lt. Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, who has been held by the extremist Islamic State group after crashing in December. It was unclear when the pilot’s possible release became part of the discussion, and reports in Jordan said some officials thought the militants may be aiming at the release of other prisoners.

But the issue of a prisoner swap is sensitive, given Jordanian concern over the pilot, and Nakayama had no fresh news when he emerged from the Japanese Embassy on Tuesday.

“There are other parties involved, so I don’t want to comment on details of the negotiations,” he said.

Goto, a journalist, was seized in late October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, an adventurer who was captured by the militants last summer.

Over the weekend, an unverified video surfaced showing a still photo of Goto, 47, holding what appears to be a photo of Yukawa’s body. It included a recording of a voice claiming to be Goto, saying his captors wanted the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, 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 in ransom for the two Japanese, made in an earlier online message, and said Yukawa had been killed. It threatened to kill Goto unless al-Rishawi was released.

Japanese officials are treating the video released over the weekend as authentic and thus accepting the likelihood that Yukawa was killed. However, the new message varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group, and The Associated Press could not verify its contents and whether they actually reflect the group’s demands.

The Japanese side has avoided direct references to al-Rishawi and a possible prisoner swap, while emphasizing its hopes for cooperation from Jordan and longstanding ties with its government and its royal family.

Securing the release of al-Rishawi would be a propaganda coup for the Islamic State, enabling the group to reaffirm links to al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Rishawi fled but was captured after her explosive belt failed to detonate in the attack in Jordan. She pleaded not guilty.

The mother of another Jordanian prisoner, Ziad al-Karboli, told AP on Tuesday that her family was told that the Islamic State group was also seeking his release as part of a swap. It was unclear whether it was related to a possible deal involving the Japanese hostage.

Al-Karboli, an aide to a former al-Qaida leader in Iraq, was sentenced to death in 2008 for killing a Jordanian citizen.

In Tokyo on Tuesday, an interfaith gathering of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians holding placards and banners reading, “Free Goto” and “I am Kenji,” gathered outside the parliament.

“Islam is not about someone calling himself Muslim and committing the crime of killing. This is not Islam,” said Muhammad Yusuf Othman, a Muslim teacher.

In Japan, some are critical of Goto and Yukawa for traveling to the risky area.

“It’s not that they were in Japan living peacefully and were kidnapped out of the blue. They decided to go to Syria and were seized by the militants,” said Kenji Arai, 46, an accountant.

“Do you think taxpayers would agree that they should save the hostages’ lives?” he said.

Some also are unhappy that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking a more active role in Middle East affairs.

In parliamentary debate, lawmaker Seiji Maehara of the opposition Democratic Party questioned Abe on how the government has handled the hostages’ cases since Yukawa was seized in August.

He noted Abe’s explicit mention of the Islamic State in an announcement of $200 million in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the extremists — a move mentioned in the videos issued by the militants.

Japan has no military role in the conflict, but Abe has been pushing to expand the role for Japan’s troops — one that has remained strictly confined to self-defense under the pacifist constitution adopted after the nation’s defeat in World War II.

Abe defended his performance. Japan’s aid is “providing food and medicine to save the lives of more than 10 million people, including refugees and children who have lost their homes, shivering in cold and suffering from illnesses,” he said.

“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,” Abe said. “Our country will never bow to terrorists. We will continue our humanitarian support in our own unique way.”

Abe has pointed to the hostage crisis as a reason for Japan to improve its defense.

Japan relies heavily on Middle Eastern oil and gas, but its diplomatic pipeline in the region is thin, experts say.

“When it comes to Islamic affairs and Islamic law, the government’s expertise and connections are extremely weak,” said Ko Nakata, a Muslim convert and former Islamic expert at the Japanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia. Last week, he offered to try to help secure the hostages’ release but there was no public response from the government.

Abe’s envoy Nakayama, 44, is a sports science graduate and former advertising agency employee who studied in the United States and France. He has scant experience in Middle East affairs, though he has served as deputy foreign minister several times and has joined defense and national security panels.

___

Associated Press writers Omar Akour in Amman, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Ken Moritsugu, Kaori Hitomi, Koji Ueda and Emily Wang in Tokyo contributed to this report.

TIME Terrorism

Failed Iraqi Bomber Named in Islamic State Hostage Crisis

Sajida al-Rishawi
In this Nov. 13, 2005 file photo, Iraqi Sajida al-Rishawi, confesses on Jordanian stat- run TV about her failed bid to set off an explosives belt inside one of the three Amman hotels targeted by al-Qaeda. Jordanian TV/AP

The woman the Islamic State wants in exchange for Japanese hostage Kenji Goto is Iraqi citizen Sajida al-Rishawi

(BEIRUT) — In the moments after her husband blew himself up in the ballroom of a Jordanian hotel as part of an al-Qaida plot, Sajida al-Rishawi fled the scene of chaos wearing her own explosive belt.

The 2005 assault on three hotels in Amman, the worst terror attack in Jordan’s history, killed 60 people. Al-Rishawi, an Iraqi, was sentenced to death. But now, almost a decade later, she has emerged as a potential bargaining chip in negotiations over Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group, a breakaway group from al-Qaida in Iraq that orchestrated the Jordan attack.

The Islamic State group last week threatened to kill Kenji Goto, a 47-year-old journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer fascinated by war, unless it received a $200 million ransom.

On Saturday, a day after a 72-hour deadline for the ransom passed, an online message purportedly issued on behalf of the Islamic State group claimed Yukawa had been beheaded and demanded the release of al-Rishawi, 44.

“They no longer want money,” the message said. “So you don’t need to worry about funding terrorists. They are just demanding the release of their imprisoned sister Sajida al-Rishawi.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told national broadcaster NHK on Sunday that the online message likely was authentic, though he said the government still was reviewing it. U.S. President Barack Obama later called Abe to offer his condolences over what he called the “brutal murder” of Yukawa.

The Associated Press could not verify the contents of the online message, which varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group.

But securing the release of al-Rishawi would be a major propaganda coup for the Islamic State, following months of battlefield setbacks — most recently in the northern Syrian town of Kobani where Kurdish fighters on Monday managed to drive out the extremists after months-long fighting and hundreds of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

It would also allow the group to reaffirm its links to al-Qaida in Iraq, which battled U.S. troops and claimed the Jordan attack. The Islamic State group had a brutal falling out with al-Qaida’s central leadership, but still reveres the global terror network’s onetime Iraqi affiliate and its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006.

On Nov. 9, 2005, al-Rishawi and her newlywed husband, Ali al-Shamari, entered the ground-floor ballroom of the Raddison SAS hotel in Amman, which was hosting hundreds gathered for a wedding reception. Al-Shamari set off his explosive belt among crowd. Al-Rishawi fled.

Al-Zarqawi later claimed the attack and mentioned a woman being involved, leading Jordanian officials to arrest her. Several days later, al-Rishawi appeared on Jordanian state television, opening a body-length overcoat to reveal two crude explosive belts.

“My husband detonated (his bomb) and I tried to explode (mine) but it wouldn’t,” al-Rishawi said during the three-minute television segment. “People fled running and I left running with them.”

Later at the trial, al-Rishawi pleaded not guilty and said through her lawyer that she never tried to detonate her bomb and was forced to take part in the attack. But an explosives expert testified that the trigger mechanism on al-Rishawi’s belt had jammed.

Al-Rishawi was sentenced to death by hanging and an appeals court later ratified her sentence, describing her as “guilty beyond doubt of possessing explosives and having had the intention and the will to carry out terrorist attacks whose outcome is destruction and death.”

Her sentence can be overturned by Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Dana Jalal, an Iraqi journalist who follows jihadi groups, said the Islamic State group could be demanding al-Rishawi’s release because she is a woman and comes from a powerful Iraqi tribe that claims many senior Islamic State group members.

“Sajida was close to al-Zarqawi and this gives her special status with Daesh,” Jalal said, using an alternate Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

TIME Japan

Japan Seeks Jordan’s Help in Gaining Hostage’s Release

Video of one hostage's death remains unverified as Japan scrambles to save another

(TOKYO) — Japan sought help from Jordan and other countries Monday in its race to save a hostage held by the extremist Islamic State group, with no signs of progress on securing his release.

The chief government spokesman refused direct comment on the contents of talks with Jordan, where a Japanese envoy is coordinating regional efforts to save hostage Kenji Goto.

The Islamic State group said in an online video on Jan. 20 that it had two Japanese hostages and would kill them within 72 hours unless it paid $200 million.

Over the weekend, a new, unverified video showed a still photo of Goto, a 47-year-old journalist, holding a picture of what appears to be the body of fellow hostage Haruna Yukawa. It included a recording of a voice claiming to be Goto, saying his captors want a prisoner exchange instead of ransom.

Asked if the latest demand, which brings Jordan into the picture, makes the situation more complex, Suga avoided a straight answer. But he said, “Naturally, Jordan has its own thoughts.”

“The government is doing its utmost as the situation is still developing,” he told reporters. “We are seeking cooperation from every possible party toward a release (of the remaining hostage).”

Japanese officials have indicated they are treating the video released over the weekend as authentic and thus accepting the likelihood that Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer captured in Syria last summer, was killed.

“It was an extremely dastardly act,” Suga said.

In Amman, Yasuhide Nakayama, the Japanese deputy foreign minister in charge of the crisis, emerged from meetings with no fresh progress to report.

“Due to the nature of is problem, please understand why I cannot disclose information such as with whom I had meetings,” he said.

Nakayama vowed to “absolutely not give up until the end.”

The Associated Press could not verify the contents of the weekend video message, which differed from earlier videos released by the Islamic State group, which now holds a third of both Syria and Iraq.

News of the likely killing of Yukawa drew international condemnation, and outrage in Japan. Goto is thought to have been seized in late October after going there to try to rescue him.

Some in Japan are critical of the two men for taking such risks. Some Japanese also are criticizing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, saying it may have contributed to the crisis.

Abe has pushed to expand the role for Japan’s troops — one that has remained strictly confined to self-defense under the pacifist constitution adopted after the nation’s defeat in World War II.

While on a visit to the Middle East earlier this month, Abe announced $200 million in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the militants.

TIME

Japan in Shock at Video Said to Show 1 Hostage Killed by ISIS

JAPAN-IRAQ-SYRIA-CONFLICT-HOSTAGE-ABE
People look at a large TV screen in Tokyo on Jan. 20, 2015 showing news reports about two Japanese men who have been kidnapped by the Islamic State group. Yosjikazu Tsuno—AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said video was likely authentic

From the prime minister to ordinary people, Japanese were shocked Sunday at a video purportedly showing one of two Japanese hostages of the extremist Islamic State group had been killed.

With attention focused on efforts to save the other hostage, some also criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive for a more assertive Japan as responsible for the hostage crisis.

A somber Abe appeared on public broadcaster NHK early Sunday demanding the militants release 47-year-old journalist Kenji Goto unharmed. He said the video was likely 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.

Abe declined to comment on the message in the video, which demanded a prisoner exchange for 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 criticize such acts.”

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 Yukawa and offered condolences to Abe. Obama’s statement didn’t say how the U.S. knew Yukawa was dead.

“The U.S. intelligence community has no reason to doubt the authenticity of the video,” said Brian Hale, spokesman for the U.S. director of national intelligence.

On a visit to India, Obama said the United States will stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Japan and called for the immediate release of Goto.

French President Francois Hollande also said condemned the killing and praised Japan’s “determined engagement in the fight against international terrorism.”

The Associated Press could not verify the contents of the video message, which was removed from websites soon after it appeared and varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group, which now holds a third of both Syria and Iraq.

Criticism of Abe has touched on his push for an expanded role for Japan’s troops — one that has remained strictly confined to self-defense under the pacifist constitution written after the nation’s defeat in World War II.

About 100 protesters, some of them holding placards that read, “I’m Kenji” and “Free Goto,” demonstrated late Sunday in front of the prime minister’s residence, demanding Abe save Goto.

Demonstrator Kenji Kunitomi, 66, blamed Abe as 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, Abe announced $200 million in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the militants. The Islamic State group addressed Abe and demanded the same amount of money as ransom for the two hostages.

Jun Hori, an independent journalist, bemoaned Abe’s directly mentioning the Islamic State in announcing the aid.

Reflecting widely held sentiments here, Hori believes Japan, restricted by its constitution, has held a slightly different position from the U.S. and Europe on the Middle East, and had up to now fared better at avoiding Western-style terrorist attacks.

“Japan has its own path of peaceful diplomacy that it should take,” Hori said.

Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, was skeptical about the voice on the video claiming to be her son’s.

“I’m petrified,” Ishido told NHK. “He has children. I’m praying he will return soon, and that’s all I want.”

Yukawa was captured last summer, and Goto is thought to have been seized in late October after going to Syria to try to rescue Yukawa.

Kent Calder, director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS/Johns Hopkins University in Washington, said the “communalistic” and conformist aspects of Japanese society makes events like the hostage crisis particularly emotionally disturbing for its people.

“That trauma is compounded by the fact that I don’t think most Japanese saw this coming,” he said in an email. “Many will realize out of this that they too are a part of global society, rather than an isolated island nation.”

Toshiko Okada, 68, who used to run an English school in a Tokyo suburb, has been stunned by the news and praying for the hostages’ lives.

“I feel Abe’s misguided shallow acts have trigged this ransom demand,” she said. “Maybe he should be attending to problems at home.”

TIME Japan

Japan Attempts to Verify ISIS Hostage Message

Japan Islamic State
A passer-by watches a TV news program reporting two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto, left, and Haruna Yukawa, held by the Islamic State group, in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. Eugene Hoshiko—AP

The purported message claims one hostage has been killed and demands a prisoner exchange for the other

(TOKYO) — A visibly shaken Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said early Sunday that Japan was working to free two hostages held by the extremist Islamic State group, calling a new online video purporting to show that one had been killed “outrageous and unforgivable.”

The message claimed one of the Japanese hostages, Haruna Yukawa, had been killed and demanded a prisoner exchange for the other, Kenji Goto. But the post was deleted quickly Saturday, and militants on a website affiliated with the Islamic State group questioned its authenticity.

The Associated Press could not verify the contents of the message, which varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group, which now holds a third of both Syria and Iraq.

The Islamic State group had threatened on Tuesday to behead the men within 72 hours unless it received a $200 million ransom. Kyodo News agency reported that Saturday’s video was emailed to Goto’s wife.

Citing the release of the photo claiming to show hostage Yukawa had been killed, Abe said after a late-night Cabinet meeting: “Such an act of terrorism is outrageous and unforgivable. We feel strong indignation, and vehemently condemn the act.”

Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said officials were trying to verify the video and the photo shown in it.

Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said U.S. intelligence officials were also working to confirm whether it was authentic. “We stand in solidarity with Japan and are coordinating closely,” he said, and called for the immediate release of people held by the Islamic State group.

Abe said the government of Japan will not succumb to terrorism and will continue to cooperate with the international community in the fight against terrorism. He said Japan is still taking every possible step to win the release of both hostages and will continue the effort.

Japan has been struggling to find a way to secure the release of Goto, a 47-year-old journalist, and Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer fascinated by war. Japanese diplomats left Syria as the civil war there escalated, compounding the difficulty of reaching the militants holding the hostages.

Abe spoke by phone with Jordanian King Abullah II on Saturday, the state-run Petra news agency reported, without elaborating on what they discussed. He also called the two hostages’ families.

Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, told Japanese public broadcaster NHK in a televised interview that in the purported message her son, “seemed to be taking seriously what may be happening to him as well.”

“This is no time to be optimistic,” said Ishido.

But Ishido also was skeptical about the voice claiming to be Goto. “Kenji’s English is very good. He should sound more fluent,” she said.

One militant on the Islamic State-affiliated website warned that Saturday’s new message was fake, while another said that the message was intended only to go to the Japanese journalist’s family.

A third militant on the website noted that the video was not issued by al-Furqan, which is one of the media arms of the Islamic State group and has issued past videos involving hostages and beheadings. Saturday’s message did not bear al-Furqan’s logo.

The militants on the website post comments using pseudonyms, so their identities could not be independently confirmed by the AP. However, their confusion over the video matched that of Japanese officials and outside observers.

Japanese officials have not directly said whether they are considering paying any ransom. Japan has joined other major industrial nations in opposing ransom payments. U.S. and British officials said they advised against paying.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said he planned to issue a safety warning to all Japanese citizens traveling outside the country through its embassies around the world.

The nightmarish situation had left him, “at a loss for words,” Kishida said.

Nobuo Kimoto, a business adviser to Yukawa, told the Japanese broadcaster NHK: “I don’t believe this. The world is far from a peaceful place,” he said. “I wish this was some kind of a mistake.”

TIME Japan

Japan Vows to Not Give Up on Hostages Held by ISIS

A TV news program reports on the two ISIS held Japanese hostages in Tokyo, Jan. 23, 2015.
A TV news program reports on the two ISIS held Japanese hostages in Tokyo, Jan. 23, 2015. Eugene Hoshiko—AP

The extremists gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe 72 hours to pay a $200 million ransom

(TOKYO) — Japan promised Saturday not to give up “until the very end” on efforts to rescue two Japanese hostages threatened with beheading by Islamic militants demanding a $200 million ransom, after a deadline passed with no word from the captors.

Militants affiliated with the Islamic State group posted an online warning Friday afternoon that the “countdown has begun” for the extremists to kill 47-year-old Kenji Goto and 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa. The extremists gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe 72 hours to pay the ransom, and the deadline expired Friday.

The posting, which appeared on a forum popular among Islamic State militants and sympathizers, did not show any images of the hostages, who are believed to be held somewhere in Syria.

Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy foreign minister sent to Amman, Jordan, said he was working around the clock to coordinate efforts to save the hostages.

“We will not rule out any possibility, and we are verifying all information thoroughly,” he said. “We will not give up until the very end to rescue the two so we can go home together.”

Yet, the fate of the two men remained unclear Saturday.

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga was asked about Friday’s message and said Japan was analyzing it.

“The situation remains severe, but we are doing everything we can to win the release of the two Japanese hostages,” Suga said. He said Japan is using every channel it can find, including local tribal chiefs, to try to reach the captors.

He said there has been no direct contact with the captors.

Abe met Friday with his National Security Council on the crisis.

Japan has scrambled for a way to secure the release of Goto, a journalist, and Yukawa, an adventurer fascinated by war. Japanese diplomats had left Syria as the civil war there escalated, adding to the difficulty of contacting the militants holding the hostages.

Worshippers at Tokyo’s largest mosque on Friday offered prayers for the two hostages.

“All Muslims in Japan, we want the Japanese hostages to be saved as soon as possible,” said Sandar Basara, a worker from Turkey.

Goto’s mother made an appeal for his rescue.

“Time is running out. Please, Japanese government, save my son’s life,” said Junko Ishido. “My son is not an enemy of the Islamic State.”

Ishido said she was astonished and angered to learn from her daughter-in-law that Goto had left for Syria less than two weeks after his child was born in October to try to rescue Yukawa.

Suga said earlier the government had confirmed the identities of the two hostages despite discrepancies in shadows and other details in the ransom video that suggested it might have been altered.

Japanese officials have not directly said whether they are considering paying any ransom. Japan has joined other major industrial nations in the Group of Seven in opposing ransom payments. U.S. and British officials said they advised against paying.

___

Associated Press writers Ashraf Khalil in Cairo, and Kaori Hitomi and Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this report.

TIME

Why Japan Lacks Sympathy for the Hostages Held by ISIS

People in Tokyo watch news on the Japanese ISIS hostages, Jan. 23, 2015.
People in Tokyo watch news on the Japanese ISIS hostages, Jan. 23, 2015. Nicolas Datiche—Sipa

While the clock ticks down for two Japanese hostages held by ISIS, their countrymen think they've brought the problem on themselves

Japanese government officials continued to press for the release of two Japanese citizens being held by Islamist militants in Syria late Friday, even as a presumed deadline for paying the $200 million ransom expired.

The hostage drama has dominated the news cycle since ISIS released a video showing two Japanese men being threatened by a masked militant with a knife. But in very Japanese fashion, much of the anger has focused on the hostages themselves, who are seen by many as having acted recklessly. “The public thinks these guys put themselves in harm’s way, and that it is their problem — not the government’s or the taxpayers problem,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

Haruna Yukawa, 42, a failed businessman who hoped to re-invent himself as a private military contractor, was kidnapped in August after entering ISIS-controlled territory. Kenji Goto, 47, an experienced freelance journalist, was captured in October after entering Syria in what he told friends was a quest to free Yukawa, whom he had met there earlier.

MORE Mother of Japanese Journalist Held Captive by ISIS Pleads for His Release

In the video released Tuesday, the militant accuses Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of taking sides in the Mideast conflict by pledging $200 million in aid to countries fighting against ISIS, which controls vast territory in both Syria and Iraq. The militant said the hostages would be killed if an equal amount was not paid within 72 hours – a deadline that Japanese officials presume expired Friday afternoon.

Abe has stressed that the aid money—which he pledged during a six-day trip to the Middle East that was interrupted by the hostage crisis—is for humanitarian purposes only and said his government is doing all that it can to secure the hostage’s release. But he has vowed not to “give in” to terrorists, and most analysts believe he will not authorize payment of the ransom—either openly or otherwise.

Comments on Japanese-language social media have been largely unsympathetic toward the two hostages—particularly Yukawa, who told associates that he once tried to commit suicide by cutting off his genitals and later changed his given name to Haruna, typically used for women. Goto is given credit for at least attempting to help someone in need.

MORE Japanese War Reporter Was Abducted by ISIS After Trying to Save His Friend

“They needed to know the possible results before going to that region, especially now. They’re responsible,” said a Twitter post that was re-tweeted more than 1,000 times.

“Neither Mr. Goto nor Mr. Yukawa went to Syria upon request from the Japanese government,” says another. “Maybe I’m heartless, but we cannot give in to the Islamic State group’s terrorist acts.

Japan withdrew all its diplomats from Syria in March 2012 as the civil war escalated, and warned all Japanese citizens against traveling there. The lack of an embassy hasn’t helped Tokyo as it tries to sort through the myriad government, rebel and ISIS forces fighting in the region. The advisory was in effect when Yukawa and Goto entered the country last year.

This is not the first time that Japanese hostages in the Middle East have drawn condemnation from their countrymen, rather than sympathy. Three aid workers and peace activists were pilloried in the press and nascent social media after they were kidnapped in Iraq in 2004. The government refused demands that they withdraw Japanese peacekeepers from southern Iraq and the hostages were released unharmed a week later. Nonetheless, the criticism in Japan was so severe that the former hostages were forced to go into voluntary seclusion.

“The public thought that because those citizens were working independently, and making independent comments critical (of the Iraq War), they were disloyal troublemakers putting Japan into world news for all the wrong reasons,” says Marie Thorsten, professor of international politics and media studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

The stakes could be high for Abe, who just won a commanding victory in a snap election held in December. A staunch conservative and nationalist, Abe promised to focus on Japan’s flagging economy, but increasingly has pressed for bigger defense spending, the easing of long-standing restraints on Japan’s military and the promotion of a policy of “proactive contributions to peace” overseas.

“This is the first time the public has seen Abe’s “proactive pacifism” at work and this is deeply unsettling,” says Kingston. “Until now, Islamic extremism was something that happened to other countries. People may get cold feet about Japan assuming a higher profile on global stage.”

Read next: ISIS Say Countdown for Japan’s Hostages Has Begun

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