Lunch with the FT: Noriaki Imai
By David Pilling
Published: July 16 2004 19:49 | Last Updated: July 16 2004 19:49
The first time I saw Noriaki Imai was in a hotel room in Osaka in April when I switched on the television to watch the evening news. There, on top of the polished drinks cabinet where the television rested, were the fuzzy images of an 18-year-old Japanese boy cowering on the ground. Next to him were two equally terrified Japanese people, a young man and woman. All three were blindfolded. Behind them stood Iraqi militiamen, brandishing guns and knives. A message in Japanese moved slowly across the screen: unless Tokyo pulled its troops from Iraq within three days, Imai and the two other "children of Japan" would be burned alive.
Unlike Kim Sun-il, the 33-year-old South Korean beheaded by Iraqi militiamen a few weeks later, the death sentence on Imai and his fellow hostages was never carried out. For days, the hostages' families appeared on television, pleading for their children's lives. All three had gone to Iraq for humanitarian reasons, they said. None supported the dispatch of Japanese troops. Eight excruciating days later, the hostages were released unharmed.
It was then that the trouble really started. Japanese public opinion, which at first had rallied in sympathy, turned against the three. They were blamed for recklessly going to Iraq and dragging their government into negotiations with armed lunatics. The phrase jiko sekinin, roughly "self-responsibility", sprang from television news discussions into daily parlance. It meant the three had struck out alone, and should face the consequences.
Families of the hostages were bombarded with hate mail. The government flew the three back to Tokyo, but billed them for the airfare. Arriving at Haneda airport, their heads bowed low in shame, they shuffled past hostile placards including one that read simply: "You got what you deserve."
A few weeks later, Imai agreed to meet for lunch. After a period in virtual hiding in his native Hokkaido, he was in the process of recovering his self-composure and sorting out what had happened - both in Iraq and in Japan. Boyish and handsome, he apologised for being late. Actually, he was five minutes early.
Standard Japanese etiquette aside, Imai was no longer the meek, harrowed-looking boy I had seen at a press conference after his return. Then, he had fled the cameras after mumbling a few short answers to written questions.
Now, dressed in a cycling top and jeans, he has an aura of confidence. "I'm recovered now. I'm not going to bend low anymore," he says. At the time of the press conference he hadn't been coping well. "One of my biggest fears was that the flash of the camera would bring everything back. The flash makes you lose the will to live."
I turn the menu around to face him. By Tokyo standards, this is not a particularly expensive restaurant, but his eyes widen at the prices and he selects the cheapest option. He has chosen an upscale version of the bento lunch boxes filled with savouries that children carry to school and salarymen eat at their desks. As is common in Japan, I order the same as my guest.
Imai asks for ice coffee and exhibits some amazement that I - a journalist at an upstanding newspaper - should have ordered a lunchtime beer. "Sugoi", he says, employing the overworked word for "amazing".
As he pours liquid sugar into his tall glass of coffee, I ask him what he made of the public hostility. "It was a huge surprise. People were saying I needed to take responsibility for my own actions," he says. "But it sounded to me as if they were saying they wished I'd died. To my mind, the meaning was: 'You should have died in Iraq and come back a corpse.'"
The food arrives in three neatly stacked lacquer boxes. The waitress, dressed in a simple kimono, slides in and out of the room, bringing separate bowls of thick red miso soup and white rice. "Sugoi," says Imai, surveying the ornate arrangement: tiny portions of raw fish, steamed vegetables and meat, grilled eel, pickles and tofu. "I've never eaten anything so luxurious in my life."
As he prods at a succulent piece of raw sea bream and mixes a little green wasabi mustard in soy sauce with the end of his chopsticks, I tell him that a version of events is circulating that the hostages faked their own kidnapping to force Tokyo to withdraw its troops. "Why do people say such things? I can't believe it," he says, losing his composure for an instant.
He says the government, aided by much of the media, deliberately discredited the hostages. True enough, a close adviser to prime minister Junichiro Koizumi had told me privately that the hostages' families were communists and had sullied their case by pressing for the withdrawal of troops. Koizumi's government is extremely prickly about criticism of the deployment, which is an open challenge to Japan's pacifist constitution. "They did not want us to be heroes," says Imai.
He had gone to Iraq, over the initial objections of his parents, to study the effects of depleted uranium shells on the health of civilians. Over the internet, he had made contact with Nahoko Takato, a 34-year-old Japanese volunteer working with Iraqi street children. She was to become a fellow hostage.
I wondered what had made him political when so many Japanese are wary of expressing opinions. "Up until third grade, I had never even read a book. I was a gamer," he says, surveying the lacquered boxes for the next delicacy. But September 11 and its aftermath was a turning point. "From October 7, the bombing of Afghanistan started and I felt very empty and useless." He wandered the internet in search of answers. He researched the Balkan and Rwandan wars to determine when outside intervention might be justified; studied depleted uranium; read up on the arms industry; and looked into the scramble for coltan metal, used in Japan's ubiquitous mobile phones and blamed by some for fuelling conflict in the Congo.
"I'd like to find out more about these things," he says, momentarily choking on some wasabi. "But in Japan, people don't know much about such topics," he continues when he has recovered. "We don't know anything about Angola or Sudan. Most young people are losing interest in social affairs."
Imai set out to explore things for himself, but within days of leaving the safety of Japan he was being bundled into a car by armed men. "These guys were carrying rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs," he recalls. "They had a hand-grenade right in front of my face in the car and I thought: 'Oh no, these guys are suicide bombers.'"
When the kidnappers discovered their captives were not soldiers but a motley crew of aid worker, photo-journalist and depleted-uranium researcher, they promised not to kill them. They asked the three to cry as they filmed a video later released to the al-Jazeera network, a fact seized on by sceptics as proof that the whole kidnapping was a set-up.
Imai says there was nothing fabricated about their fright. At one point during the filming a knife was put to his throat. "It was terrifying. It's true that [later] they promised, many, many times we would be freed. But it kept not happening, and so mentally we became worn down."
Yet he does have sympathy for his kidnappers. "Although they had weapons in their hands, some of them became close with us. They dealt with us sincerely," he says. Captors and captives talked over tomato and cucumber salad, chicken and sickly orange pop. When they were released, they shook hands. "We had had many discussions about whether there is a way to fight without weapons. They really weren't altogether happy about fighting like that. They even said: 'We want to find another way. What should we do?'"
Now back in Japan and dashing out a book on his experiences, he is often stopped in the street. "Sometimes people criticise me, saying mean things straight to my face," he says, repeating a Japanese word that my dictionary translates as "pert, sassy boy". (My friends say it's more like: "You little shit.") But Imai says that for every person who swears at him, several more express support.
Finishing his grapefruit, he makes ready to leave. "Look me up next time you're in Hokkaido," he says, heading for the door. He turns to bow. Not the low bow of contrition or regret. But the polite bow of a Japanese boy taking his leave, and venturing out into the world beyond.
David Pilling is the FT's bureau chief in Tokyo
Wadakura, Palace Hotel, Tokyo
Cheese sponge cake
Konyakku in miso sauce
Bonito and bream sashimi
Boiled taro, beef and carrot
Fried crab and tofu, soya beans and lotus root
Rice, pickles and red miso soup
1 x ice coffee
1 x beer
Total: ¥14,519 (£72.20)