TOKYO – In Japan, where conformity takes precedence over individuality, one of the most important values is to avoid "meiwaku" — causing trouble for others. And sympathy aside, the two Japanese purportedly slain by the Islamic State group are now widely viewed as troublemakers.
So is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Many Japanese feel that if the hostages had not ignored warnings against travel to Syria, or if Abe had not showcased Tokyo's support for the multinational coalition against the Islamic State militants, Japan wouldn't have been exposed to this new sense of insecurity and unwelcomed attention from Islamic extremists.
"To be honest, they caused tremendous trouble to the Japanese government and to the Japanese people. In the old days, their parents would have had to commit hara-kiri (ritual suicide) to apologize," said Taeko Sakamoto, a 64-year-old part-time worker, after first expressing sympathy over the deaths of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.
Sakamoto also sees Abe as part of the problem, for not being more mindful of the risks at a time when he had already been pushing to expand Japan's military role, which is limited to its own self-defense under the U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution after its defeat in World War II.
"I don't want Mr. Abe to do anything else that may be seen as provocation, because that's what would put us at a greater risk," Sakamoto said.
Japan until recently had not become directly involved in the violence surrounding Islamic State militants, who now control about a third of Syria and neighboring Iraq. Days after Abe announced during a Middle East trip last month that Japan would give $200 million in non-military aid to support the fight against Islamic State, the militants demanded a $200 million ransom for the two hostages.
The hostage crisis came to a grisly end with news Sunday that Goto, a journalist, had been beheaded by the extremists. The killing of Yukawa was announced earlier.
In the video posted on militant websites that purportedly shows Goto's slaying, a man says, "Abe, because of your reckless decision to take part in an unwinnable war, this knife will not only slaughter Kenji, but will also carry on and cause carnage wherever your people are found. So let the nightmare for Japan begin."
Abe has been adamant about his commitment to fight terrorism as part of an international effort. On Thursday, Japan's lower house, the more powerful of the two parliamentary chambers, unanimously endorsed a resolution condemning the Islamic State group's "beyond dastardly act of terrorism" against the two Japanese nationals.
In the resolution, Japan also vowed to expand humanitarian support for the Middle East and Africa, and to strengthen anti-terrorism efforts with the international community.
Japan's tensions with other countries have been largely limited to its neighbors China and South Korea. The Middle East is an unfamiliar, distant, dangerous place.
"That's where the two men dared to go and that's probably why many people see them causing trouble," said Koichi Nakano, international politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
The public's response to the hostages was chilly from the beginning. Few seemed to sympathize with Yukawa, a 42-year-old gun aficionado and adventurer who was taken hostage in August. Media attention toward his case quickly faded and he was largely forgotten until Jan. 20, when militants made their ransom demand in a video that showed Yukawa and Goto in orange gowns and kneeling beside a masked militant.
Goto's reputation as a veteran journalist whose reports focused on children and refugees in war-torn areas won him more sympathy and small rallies by his friends and other supporters. According to his wife and others who had spoken with him, Goto had gone to Syria late last year to try to save Yukawa.
Still, to address the "meiwaku" problem, both victims' families apologized repeatedly to the government and the people for "the trouble" their sons caused, even after they died.
Just two days after Abe's office put a national flag at half-staff to mourn for the pair, a senior member of his ruling party cast Goto as a troublemaker, not a tragic hero.
Masahiko Komura, vice president of the Liberal Democratic Party, said Wednesday that Goto ignored the government's repeated warnings against his trip to Syria.
"I must say that was reckless courage, not true courage, no matter how high his aspirations might have been," Komura told reporters, reminding them not to cause trouble by following Goto's path.
Criticizing the dead in public is extremely rare in Japan, and Komura's comment reflects how individuals are expected to act in line with the national interest.
When three young Japanese were taken hostage in Iraq and later freed in 2004, they faced nationwide bashing as troublemakers. They had to cover their own medical examinations and part of their chartered flights home.
Some critics accuse the government of promoting the "self-responsibility" idea as a way to shirk its own responsibility to protect Japanese citizens.
"It's a dangerous trend and we must watch," said Taku Sakamoto, a journalist and Middle East expert.
While Abe, his party's lawmakers and other nationalists say the terrorist threat justifies Abe's push for a tougher military posture, others say it is exactly that sort of policy that is putting Japan at greater risk of attack.
"The hostage crisis is causing a tremendous impact on Japanese society, and has polarized views about which direction Japan should go in terms of national security," said Nakano, the professor. "In a way, people saw what could happen under Abe's security policy."
Some Japanese, like Toshihiko Ozeki, a 67-year-old pensioner, say Japan should be strong enough to defend itself, and that he supports Abe's push to expand Japan's defense role.
"Mr. Abe has gone a bit too far, trying to make Japan look tough," said a 55-year-old man who would provide only his family name, Arai, because he is afraid of being targeted by the Islamic militants. "We don't want to be seen in that image, and we don't want to have anything to do with combat."