After returning from an historical visit to Israel amid a hostage crisis in which two Japanese nationals have been threatened with beheading by Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted Wednesday it was a "race against time" to free them.
"This is a very tough race against time, but the government will do its utmost," he told reporters in Tokyo. The terrorists demanded $200 million within 72 hours to free the two, justifying the attack on Japan's promise to supply non-military economic aid to those affected by ISIS.
Abe concluded "I have ordered the government to use all diplomatic channels and routes possible…to ensure the release of the two people."
The Japanese government confirmed the identities of the two, seen in an ISIS video uploaded to jihadist internet websites, as freelance journalist Kenji Goto and self-employed military contractor Haruna Yukawa .
Video of Goto before he entered into Syria late last October from Turkey was released on Wednesday by the Japanese-language FNN News Channel. In it, he can be seen identifying himself as a journalist and saying he is heading for the Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah.
"It is said to be a base of the Islamic State, ISIS, and is very dangerous, but no matter what happens I will not bear a grudge against the Syrian people," he can be seen saying in Japanese. "No matter what happens, the responsibility is mine."
"Please, everyone in Japan, do not place any responsibility on the Syrian people," he says. Smiling, he adds "I'll definitely come back alive though."
A Syrian guide who was in contact with Goto told the Japanese news channel the journalist said he intended to find out about the whereabouts of Yukawa, who had already been abducted. The guide said he tried to convince Goto not to continue with his plans, but the Japanese journalist eventually entered Syria with another guide.
The guide said Goto was concerned about the Syrian people, and when asked about the ISIS threats to behead the two Japanese nationals his eyes teared up and he did not respond. The investigative piece, in Japanese, can be seen here:
Abe has vowed not to concede to terrorism, saying in a news conference before leaving Jerusalem on Tuesday "I strongly demand that they not be harmed and that they be immediately released. The international community will not give in to terrorism and we have to make sure that we work together."
Abe was due to meet senior ministers just before 9 a.m. GMT, media reported.
ISIS has murdered five Western hostages since August last year, but this is the first time it has threatened Japanese, or for that matter Asian, captives.
In the ISIS video the terrorist says the sum being demanded is equal to the aid that Abe pledged in support of those suffering under ISIS during his stop in Egypt on Saturday.
Japan has emphasized that it has offered non-military assistance for countries affected by ISIS's bloody expansion in Iraq and Syria, which has spurred an exodus of refugees to neighboring countries.
Constitutionally pacifist Japan has steered clear of the armed entanglements of the US, Britain and other Western nations in the Middle East.
The ensnarement of two of its citizens in ISIS's bloody ideological battle is deeply shocking to Japan, and there is likely to be considerable
domestic pressure on Abe to try to negotiate their release.
Japan confirmed the identities of the two Japanese nationals after analyzing the ISIS video, after concerns were raised that it may have been forged.
Film editor Genta Tamaki noted apparent discrepancies in the shadows cast by the hostages, which he said could indicate images of the two men had been inserted into the desert footage.
"In principle, these shadows do not look as one might expect in sunlight," he was quoted as saying.
This might occur if filming was done indoors using several lights and combined with the background later, he said, although he added it was not possible to be certain.
Outlets also noted clothes worn by Yukawa moved more than those Goto was wearing, and neither man flinched when their captor waved his knife near them.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said experts had examined the footage. He did not address the speculation, but said the Japanese government was assured of the identity of the men.
Hiromasa Nakai, chief spokesman for the Japan Committee for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), insisted Goto was a peace-loving man.
He "has been working hard for children in the Islamic world – not only in Syria but also in Afghanistan, Somalia and many other places," he told AFP. "It's an extreme shock to us. We hope he will return safe."
National Japanese broadcaster NHK said it had spoken to someone claiming to be in charge of "public relations" for ISIS, quotin ghim as saying "we don't need money."
"Islamic State is spending more than ($200 million) in one day. It's not an economic war but a spiritual war," the person said, repeatedly adding the group was confident "your government will pay the money."
The release of a video on the day Abe was in Jerusalem and due to give a major press conference is a grim reminder of ISIS's well-oiled PR machine.
It follows a pattern established last year with the killings of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, American aid worker Peter Kassig and British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines. All of them were beheaded.
The man who appeared in the video threatening the Japanese hostages spoke with a very similar southern English accent to the terrorist who appeared in the footage posted of the executions of the Britons and Americans.
Memories in Japan are still fresh of the 2013 Algerian gas plant crisis, in which ten Japanese lost their lives at the hands of terrorists.
The last Japanese citizen believed to have been beheaded by Islamist terrorists was tourist Shosei Koda, 24, who was killed in Iraq in 2004 after Tokyo refused demands to pull out troops engaged in reconstruction work.
AFP contributed to this report.