Protests and tears as Iraqi kidnappers test Japan's resolve

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It is hard to imagine three more blameless victims. Noriaki Imai, a fresh-faced 18-year-old peace campaigner and budding journalist who went to Iraq to study the effects of depleted uranium shells and had written an article criticising Japan's involvement. Nahoko Takato, a volunteer, who has spent much of her 34 years helping the poor children of Asia, and Soichiro Koriyama, 32, who left the armed forces in 1996 to work as a journalist for the liberal press.

It is hard to imagine three more blameless victims. Noriaki Imai, a fresh-faced 18-year-old peace campaigner and budding journalist who went to Iraq to study the effects of depleted uranium shells and had written an article criticising Japan's involvement. Nahoko Takato, a volunteer, who has spent much of her 34 years helping the poor children of Asia, and Soichiro Koriyama, 32, who left the armed forces in 1996 to work as a journalist for the liberal press.

They are the three Japanese hostages who are threatened with death unless their country pulls its non-combat forces out of Iraq by tomorrow.

Yesterday Japan was consumed by anguish and tearful protests as the country came to terms with the consequences of its riskiest military foray abroad since the Second World War.

Thousands of people massed across from the prime minister's residence to hold a candlelight vigil for the three hostages. Hundreds of protesters, including Buddhist monks with signs that read "No War" gathered outside the Diet calling for the soldiers to be pulled out. Some protesters claimed sending the troops to a war zone violated Japan's unique constitution prohibiting the use of international force to resolve disputes.

The Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who yesterday ruled out withdrawal, had the look of a man who had gambled big and lost, a once seemingly invincible leader with rock-star-like popularity who is facing the biggest crisis of his political career.

Mr Koizumi gambled that he could keep public opinion onside after sending Japanese soldiers to Iraq, despite enormous misgivings in this still strongly pacifist country. In the tortured debates leading up to Japan's first dispatch of troops to a combat zone since the Second World War, his government tried to quell this opposition by saying the Self Defence Forces (SDF) would be in a "safe" part of Iraq, and the Iraqi people would understand the 500 troops would be on a humanitarian mission.

Both of Mr Koizumi's arguments now lie in the dust of Samawah in southern Iraq, where the 500 untested Japan-ese soldiers nervously patrol their base camp after an apparent mortar attack on Thursday. And any remaining hope that Japan's reluctant role as a US ally would somehow spare it from the carnage unfolding in Iraq were destroyed by the harrowing sight of ordinary Japanese citizens with knives and swords at their throats.

Their captors, a group called the Mujahedin Brigades, have threatened to burn the hostages alive tomorrow unless the soldiers withdraw from Iraq.

The three hostages represent what most Japanese consider their most valuable contributions to the world since 1945: neutrality and compassion for others. Their predicament has stunned a country that has grown used to thinking of itself as being aloof from the messy world beyond its borders.

Pictures of the hostages ran all day yesterday on Japanese TV, with their distraught families pleading with the government to meet the captors' demands. Mr Imai's mother tearfully pleaded with the government to "immediately" pull the soldiers out. Ms Takato's father said: "I'm just praying for her return and that the government will solve this thing."

The secretary general of the main opposition, the Democratic Party, Katsuya Okada, which opposed sending troops to Iraq, was scathing. "The Prime Minister is to blame for this situation."

Newspaper editorials have carried more mixed messages: the right-leaning Yomiuri said that Japan should "stand firm against the cowardly threats", but unfortunately for the Prime Minister, much of Japan disagrees.Aside from those who want a complete withdrawal, many others believe the troops should wait in Kuwait or another country for the situation to ease.

The government seems set for collision with this public sentiment. Mr Koizumi said he would "not give in to these despicable threats", adding that the government's priority was to get the hostages freed. His chief spokesman, Yasuo Fukuda, bristled at the constant questions from reporters about a possible troop withdrawal. "Do you think it is okay to be swayed by terrorism and swallow their demands?" he said. "It is not that simple. We are there to help the Iraqi people."

The Prime Minister formed an emergency committee to deal with the crisis and sent a senior foreign ministry official to Jordan to try to rescue the hostages, but all of the activity served to emphasise how powerless his government is.

The stakes for Mr Koizumi will be upped today by a badly timed visit by the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, who will put pressure on him to stand firm for the sake of the 50-year-old US-Japan alliance. The Prime Minister will try to comply, while keeping a wary eye on the drama playing out on Japan's televisions. His political future may hinge on what happens in Iraq.

South Korea stood by plans to send 3,600 new troops, which will make it the biggest coalition partner in Iraq after the US and Britain, but banned its citizens travelling there after seven missionaries became the second group of South Koreans to be held this week. Thailand also had no intention of pulling its troops out, but would reconsider if more violence hampered its humanitarian work, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said.

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