TOKYO (Reuters) - When Haruna Yukawa was captured in Syria earlier this month, a video apparently released by his captors showed them pressing the Japanese man to answer questions friends say he had struggled with for years: Who are you? Why are you here?
In fact, Yukawa, 42, had first traveled to Aleppo four months earlier on what amounted to a hardship course in self-discovery, according to people who know him and his account.
Changes in Yukawa’s life in suburban Tokyo had been fast and disorienting. Over the past decade, he had lost his wife to lung cancer, lost a business and his house to bankruptcy and been forced to live in a public park for almost a month, according to Yukawa’s father and an online journal he maintained.
The hard times led to soul searching. By his own account, he had changed his name to the feminine-sounding Haruna, attempted to kill himself by cutting off his genitals and came to believe he was the reincarnation of a cross-dressing Manchu princess who had spied for Japan in World War Two.
By late 2013, Yukawa had also begun a flirtation with Japan’s extreme right-wing politics and cultivated a new persona as a self-styled security consultant, according to his Facebook page and blog posts, though he never did any work as a consultant.
He borrowed money to travel to Syria and dreamed of providing security to big Japanese companies in conflict areas like the coast of Somalia. The Syrian civil war was a new start – and his last chance to make a success in life, he told friends and family. Later this year, he planned to head to Somalia “where the danger factor will be amped up”.
“He felt his life had reached its limit,” said Yukawa’s father, Shoichi, 74.
Yukawa’s capture by fighters believed to be with Islamic State has pulled Japan into a scramble by various governments to free dozens of foreigners held hostage in Iraq and Syria. The incident marks the first hostage situation for the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since January 2013 when 10 Japanese were killed by Islamist militants at a gas complex in Algeria.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry has declined to identify the captured person or to comment on reports. “We are doing our best to gather information,” a spokeswoman told Reuters.
The picture of Yukawa that emerges from his writing and the accounts of his father and people who had met him in Japan and in Syria is at odds with the tough image he tried to cultivate in video posts from Syria in black t-shirt and fatigues.
“He was a very friendly, gentle guy. I hosted him at my house for five days,” said Fadi Qarmesh, who met and spent time with Yukawa in Abril in northern Iraq in June. Qarmesh showed pictures from that time of Yukawa holding a girl on his shoulders.
Two months earlier, Yukawa had been in Syria and was stopped and briefly detained for questioning by fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and he befriended an Asian member of the group, according to Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist who met Yukawa then. Reuters could not verify this aspect of the account.
In Syria, Yukawa said he became particularly close to a part-Korean, part-Japanese fighter who had been born in Yugoslavia. Over time, Goto said, the FSA fighters took a liking to him, sharing meals and introducing him to their families in refugee camps. He was also given an Arabic nickname.
For his part, Yukawa spoke of wanting to bring badly needed medicine and shoes to Syrian hospitals and developed an interest in Islam, according to his father and Yukawa’s blog.
After his first visit to Syria in April, Yukawa had a short stay back in Japan before returning to the Middle East, first to Iraq with Goto in June to observe the veteran reporter and learn how to work in a conflict zone and then to Syria again in late July after traveling through Turkey.
Although he had never learned to handle a weapon and described himself as a “very gentle” person, Yukawa portrayed himself online as a soldier of fortune. A visit to the Tokyo address of his paper company, Private Military Company, revealed a building with numerous small, unmarked offices. The firm was set up for a range of businesses including handling pet goods, according to a company registry.
In effect, it existed only on the Internet.
In video blogs shot from Syria and loaded to the company website, Yukawa showed himself awkwardly firing an AK-47 in Aleppo. “My bodyguards are five minutes away so I keep this for protection,” he said in one posting, picking up an assault rifle to show the camera.
But it was his gentle personality that helped Yukawa win over FSA rebels, said Goto, who first met Yukawa in Aleppo in April. “Yukawa has this soft, non-threatening approach that makes people trust him and puts them at ease,” said Goto. In his online journal, Yukawa talked about how he and the Asian FSA fighter talked until three in the morning.
“The friendship between the two was a big factor in Yukawa forming a bond with the other soldiers,” said Goto.
In a blog post from October, Yukawa said his cheerfulness was something he learned from being bullied as a child. “I would pretend to be happy even if I felt lonely or in pain so that others couldn’t read my mind,” said Yukawa. “Hiding my true feelings became my second nature. It also came in handy in business later.”
Yukawa’s road to Aleppo started in a sleepy suburb of Chiba, about an hour’s drive east of Tokyo. After graduating from high school, Yukawa, then still known as Masayuki, started a military surplus store selling helmets, belts and other equipment.
But Yukawa’s store failed around 2005, leaving him in debt, his father said. Around 2008, Yukawa described an attempt to kill himself by cutting off his genitals, an act he likened to the ritual suicide of a samurai.
“I thought if I failed I would live as a woman and leave the rest to destiny.”
Yukawa was saved by the intervention of his wife who rushed him to a hospital. She died some two years later, according to Yukawa’s father, who said he was forced to sell an apartment he had bought for the couple to pay off his son’s debts.
Yukawa did not return to his father’s house until last year. When he came home again, he looked different, his father said. With rounder cheeks and long brown hair, he told his father that he had consulted a fortune teller and decided to change his name from the masculine Masayuki to Haruna.
Over the next few months, Yukawa attended events of the Japanese nationalist group Gambare Nippon – Stand Firm, Japan, which has made several trips to the islands at the heart of a territorial dispute between China and Japan. The group wants Japan to stand up to China and the United States and promotes a return to what it calls Japan’s traditional values, including reverence for the Emperor.
Yukawa posted photos posing with Toshio Tamogami, a former Japanese air force chief of staff sacked in 2008 for saying Japan was not the aggressor in World War Two. Yukawa also persuaded a local leader of the nationalist group, Nobuo Kimoto, 70, to become an adviser to his company, Kimoto said.
Yukawa was looking forward to his final, solo trip to Syria.
“It seems like the Free Syrian Army soldiers are all waiting for me. I‘m very happy and I too want to quickly meet up with them,” he said in a blog post from June. “I want to devote the rest of my life to others and save many people. I want to make my mark on history one more time.”
On August 14, the fighters with Yukawa were overrun by the Islamic State militant group. Amid the fighting, Yukawa suffered a leg injury and was captured, Goto said, citing information he had been given by local contacts. At the time, Goto was already back in Japan.
In a YouTube video uploaded by an unidentified person this month of an interrogation that followed Yukawa’s capture, he can be seen lying on the sand, his face bleeding as he is questioned by a group of unidentified men. Yukawa tells them his name. The men press him on why he has a gun. “You thief? Why you have gun? You kill soldier?,” one of the men says. In the exchange, Yukawa tells them he is a photographer and “half doctor”.
“I am no soldier,” Yukawa says.
Additional reporting by Jiro Minier; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Mark Bendeich