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Japanese Officials Press for Hostage Release

Japanese leaders struggled on Thursday to make contact with Islamic militants in Iraq who took a Japanese traveler hostage as the 48-hour deadline approached for the young man's threatened beheading. Tokyo stood firm in its refusal to meet the kidnappers' demand to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Japanese government envoy Shuzen Tanigawa arrived early Thursday in Amman, Jordan, to coordinate diplomatic efforts to free 24-year-old Shosei Koda, whose captors — members of the Al Qaeda-linked (search) group led by terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) — threatened in a Web site posting Tuesday to kill him if Japan did not capitulate.

The government said it had few details on the kidnapping, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) acknowledged that leaders were hamstrung in their efforts.

"We are calling on other countries and those who are sympathetic to Japan, and the Iraqi people, but it remains difficult to figure out the situation," Koizumi said. "Mr. Koda is ... just an ordinary, curious young man, and we are really hoping for his release."

Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and senior officials were debating Thursday whether negotiating with Koda's abductors would be feasible. Media reports said Tokyo was trying to reach the militants through contacts in Jordan.

"We don't know details about when, where or how Koda was kidnapped," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima. "We will do our utmost to win his release, but we cannot speak about details for the safety of the hostage."

Japanese diplomats appealed to the United States, the Iraqi government and other countries neighboring Iraq for help in winning Koda's freedom. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said Japan had been in contact with 25 countries.

Late Wednesday, Machimura spoke with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who pledged the United States' help and welcomed Koizumi's assurances that Japan would not withdraw from Iraq.

Koda, who left Japan in January for a yearlong trip starting in New Zealand, told people he met traveling that he wanted to go to Iraq to see the country.

"He looked depressed and sad," said Samer Smeidi, a receptionist of the Cliff Hotel in Amman, Jordan. "I tried to cheer him up and to persuade him not to go to Iraq, but he kept his distance and preferred to stay alone."

Smeidi said that a Japanese film director who also stayed at the hotel warned Koda "that the situation in Iraq was very dangerous, but he wouldn't listen." Smeidi said Koda told him he only had $100 left for his travels.

Koda's father Masumi, 54, appealed for his son's life in a videotape aired Wednesday by Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite channel.

"What I want Shosei's kidnappers to understand is that he is not an activist supporting the stay of the Japanese troops in Iraq nor the American policy there," his father said.

Echoing a backlash against five Japanese who were taken hostage in Iraq in April but later freed unharmed, many Japanese have questioned Koda's judgment in entering Iraq despite multiple Foreign Ministry travel advisories.

"The Japanese taken hostage brushed aside words of restraint and went to Iraq. Wasn't this naive?" the Yomiuri newspaper said in an editorial Thursday.

By Thursday, Koda's family had received as many as 50 irate phone calls, said Masatoshi Norimatsu, the press officer for their hometown of Naogata, 560 miles southwest of Tokyo.

Norimatsu said some of the callers demanded to know why "the government had to waste taxpayers' money to try to rescue" Koda and why he went to Iraq knowing it was dangerous, Norimatsu said.

The crisis has come as support ratings for Koizumi's government have been sliding. Many Japanese oppose having about 500 troops in southern Iraq, saying the mission was too dangerous and violated the country's pacifist constitution.

A newspaper poll taken before Koda's kidnapping and published Tuesday showed 63 percent of respondents want the military contingent out of Iraq by year's end.