‘It Was Hell’, Freed Japanese Journalist Narrates Syria Kidnap Ordeal

Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda, who had been kidnapped in Syria, is pictured after his release in Hatay October 24, 2018. Photo: Huseyin BOZOK / DHA / AFP

A Japanese journalist who was held in Syria for more than three years before being freed this week has described his lengthy captivity as “hell.”

Jumpei Yasuda was freed earlier this week and taken to Turkey, where Japanese government officials confirmed his identity before announcing Wednesday that he was free.

He boarded a plane bound for Tokyo on Thursday, speaking briefly to journalists in an interview broadcast by Japanese media.

“It was hell,” he said, sporting a long beard peppered with grey hair.

“Not only physically, but mentally as well. The thought each day that ‘I’m not being released today either’ left me losing control over myself bit by bit.”

Yasuda, who is expected to arrive in Tokyo on Thursday evening, spoke calmly but appeared slightly overwhelmed and tired, if otherwise healthy.

“For about 40 months, I have not spoken a word of Japanese. Words don’t come to my mind easily,” he said.

“I am happy that I am returning to Japan. At the same time, I have no idea what will happen now and how I should conduct myself. I am at loss and don’t know what to think.”

Yasuda was kidnapped in Syria in June 2015 and was reportedly initially a hostage of the group previously known as the Al-Nusra Front, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

But the group’s current iteration, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, denied any involvement in his kidnapping in a statement earlier this week.

There was only sporadic news of Yasuda throughout his captivity, including a bizarre video that emerged in August showing him and a man identified as an Italian called Alessandro Sandrini.

Both men appealed for their release, dressed in orange jumpsuits, as masked, armed men stood behind them.

Yasuda gave his name as Omar and described himself as South Korean, but his wife Myu confirmed that it was her husband in the video.

The video did not identify who was holding the men or what their demands were. There has been no word on the fate of Sandrini since.

Yasuda told journalists he believed he was held for all of his captivity in Idlib, a province in northwestern Syria that is one of the last parts of the country still held in part by rebels and jihadists.

The details of how Yasuda was freed have remained murky, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, saying a ransom was paid.

But Japan’s government has denied that.

In 2015, militants from the Islamic State group beheaded Japanese war correspondent Kenji Goto and his friend Haruna Yukawa in Syria.

The Japanese government was criticized for what detractors saw as its flat-footed response to the crisis at the time, including apparently missed opportunities to free both men.

But other Japanese hostages who have been freed and made it home safely have also faced heavy public criticism for what some have deemed reckless behavior.


Bayern Munich Partner Japanese FA On Training Youths

(L-R) Bayern Munich’s Goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, Bayern Munich’s defender Mats Hummels and Bayern Munich’s defender Jerome Boateng are pictured during a car handover event at the Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt, southern Germany. Christof STACHE / AFP


German champions Bayern Munich and the Japan Football Association (JFA) on Monday announced a partnership agreement with a focus on youth talent and the exchange of training knowledge.

“We are fascinated by the opportunity for our biggest talents to be introduced to the level that is required of young players in European top leagues,” said JFA president Kozo Tashima.

As part of the deal, coaches from both Bayern and the JFA will have the chance to work in the other country.

Friendlies between FC Bayern and JFA youth teams as well as joint training camps both in Germany and Japan are also planned.

Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge says the deal will help the German club to expand further into the Japanese market.

“The Japanese market is highly interesting for FC Bayern,” explained Bayern board member Joerg Wacker, who is responsible for the club’s international strategy.

“The enthusiasm for football is impressive and the quality of young players is very high.

“That is why we founded the FC Bayern Football School in Japan, near Hiroshima, a few years ago.

“Now we want to add another building block to our global strategy with the partnership with the JFA.”

Bayern have run a coaching school in Japan since 2016 and several male and female players have gone on to be chosen for national youth teams.


Japanese Kimono Makers Seek To Revive Declining Industry

This photo taken on March 30, 2018 shows Kahori Ochi (L), owner of a kimono rental shop, fitting a kimono to Dutch tourist Ruby Francisco (C) at her shop “Sakae-ya” in Tokyo.
Toshifumi KITAMURA / AFP


At a century-old workshop in a quiet Tokyo neighbourhood, craftsman Yuichi Hirose brushes dye across meticulously hand-cut stencils laid on fabric, using a traditional technique to produce contemporary kimono patterns.

Demand for the elaborate, elegant centrepiece of the Japanese wardrobe is in decline, but a handful of artisans and entrepreneurs like Hirose, 39, are trying to revive it.

“The kimono has become something that is very far removed from our daily lives,” said Hirose, who joined his family business after university.

He specialises in “Edo Komon” — a kimono pattern hand-dyed with a Japanese washi paper stencil, which dates back to the Edo period between the 17th and late 19th centuries.

It’s a deeply traditional craft that requires great skill to master, he said, “but we need to create something that is accepted in this modern time”.

Hirose’s innovations include developing new designs to adorn the kimono, including tiny sharks or even skull motifs.

Once a standard of the Japanese wardrobe, the kimono is now often a garment reserved for special occasions, such as weddings and coming-of-age ceremonies, and is mostly worn by women.

They can be hugely expensive and women often hire experts to dress them because the outfit requires seemingly endless nipping, tucking and strapping.

The modern kimono industry peaked in 1975 with a market size of 1.8 trillion yen ($17 billion), according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

But by 2008 it had shrunk to 406.5 billion yen and further to just 278.5 billion yen in 2016, according to a survey conducted by Yano Research Institute.

“There are many hurdles” to buying a kimono, said Takatoshi Yajima, vice chairman of the Japan kimono promotion association, and a kimono manufacturer.

“It’s expensive. It’s difficult to wear. It’s too delicate to wash at home,” he said.

– Affordable and wearable –

“We need to make kimonos that are affordable and wearable. If we do that, I believe more young consumers will buy kimonos.”

He has nearly doubled his number of customers in the past 15 years by selling more kimonos under the 100,000-yen ($930) price tag, well below the many thousands of dollars a high-end piece can cost.

“The industry will grow if we can create a market in which as many people as possible will buy a kimono,” he said.

A complete kimono outfit starts with an undergarment known as a nagajuban, over which the kimono is layered, held in place with a thick obi belt and string.

The outfit is completed with tabi, ankle-high white socks divided at the big toe to allow feet to slip into thick-soled sandals called zori.

But beyond the basic framework, designer Jotaro Saito says there should be room for experimentation.

“What’s fabulous, what’s unfashionable and what’s cool change every year. It’s wrong that kimonos don’t change even if everything else is changing,” said the Kyoto-based designer, whose work has been worn by American singer Lady Gaga.

“Kimonos are not something old. Wearing a kimono is the coolest and the most fun thing.”

At Tokyo fashion week in March, Saito, who calls himself “a risk taker,” showcased kimonos for men and women, mixing traditional and unconventional motifs and colours.

“I want to present kimonos as a wardrobe in which people can truly feel joy,” he said.

– ‘An honour to wear’ –

And while demand for kimonos is falling among Japanese, services renting the garments to foreign visitors are booming.

Interest is expected to expand, according to the Yano Research Institute, with more tourists visiting Japan and looking for cultural experiences.

Kahori Ochi serves around 500 foreign tourists a year at her kimono rental store in the trendy Harajuku area of Tokyo.

They pay around 9,000 yen ($80) to be dressed in a kimono worth about 300,000 ($2,750) yen.

“Kimono is a piece of Japanese culture. I really wanted to experience that,” said Ruby Francisco, a Dutch tourist who rented a pale green kimono at Ochi’s shop.

“It’s special. It’s like an honour to wear,” the 33-year-old said, adding that she would post photos of herself in the kimono on social media to show her friends.

Ochi’s mother ran a shop selling high-end kimonos, but she didn’t expect to follow in her footsteps.

“My mother told me the kimono business is risky and volatile,” she said, adding that her mother’s shop struggled after the bubble economy ended in the early 1990s.

“I used to think kimonos were not cool and practical.”

But Ochi changed her mind after spending a summer in Norway, where people complimented her kimono.

She decided to join her mother’s shop, but being the owner’s daughter came with no privileges.

“She said ‘no salary for you,'” Ochi laughed, recalling her mother’s surprise at her sudden interest in the industry.

But now, she says, business is booming and she expects the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will drive new demand as tourists flock to Japan.

“But my goal is not to expand the business,” she added.

“I hope to meet more people who want to understand Japanese culture.”

Families Of Japanese ‘Kidnapped By N. Korea’ Seek ICC Probe

Japanese families who believe their relatives were abducted by North Korea want the International Criminal Court to investigate the disappearances and punish the country’s leader, a support group said Friday.

They will submit a petition to the court next week, at a time when attention is already heavily focused on Pyongyang and its nuclear weapons and missile drive.

North Korea admitted in 2002 that it had dispatched agents to kidnap 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s who were tasked with training its spies in Japanese language and customs.

Five of the abductees were allowed to return to Japan but Pyongyang has insisted — without producing solid evidence — that the eight others are dead.

Tokyo says at least 17 people were abducted, but a support group for relatives believes the disappearance of up to 470 Japanese may be linked to North Korea.

Families of the missing, and their supporters will submit a petition “seeking punishment of (North Korea’s) Kim Jong-Un and request a probe” into the suspected abductions of at least 100 Japanese, support group official Kazuhiro Araki told AFP.

The draft petition alleges that “not a small percentage” of the abductees are still alive, and “their freedom is severely restricted,” the Kyodo news agency reported.

The move comes as regional tensions remain high over North Korean threats.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe discussed the issue in Tokyo on Thursday, pledging to push for the conclusion of a major new bilateral security pact.

Japan’s government has said it is “cooperating closely” with the families and supporters over their petition.

A 2014 UN report on human rights in North Korea estimated that 200,000 people from other countries had been abducted by its agents over the decades.

Most of them were South Koreans left stranded after the 1950-1953 Korean War, but hundreds of others from around the world — including women from Lebanon, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Romania and France — were taken or disappeared while visiting the country between the 1960s and 1980s, the report said.


Japanese Crime Boss Held In Thailand After ‘Yakuza’ Tattoos Go Viral

This handout photo taken on January 10, 2018 and received by the Royal Thai Police shows retired Japanese crime boss Shigeharu Shirai (C), 72, being paraded to show his gang-style tattoos to reporters at a police station after his arrest in the central Thai province of Lopburi. Handout / THAI ROYAL POLICE / AFP

A retired Japanese crime boss has been arrested in Thailand ending more than 14 years on the run after photos of his ‘yakuza’ tattoos and a missing little finger went viral.

The fugitive, Shigeharu Shirai, 72, was arrested by a SWAT team on Wednesday in the sleepy central Thai market town of Lopburi while he was out shopping.

Japanese authorities have called for his arrest over an alleged role in the shooting of a rival in Japan in 2003, after which he fled to Thailand, married a Thai woman and drifted into a seemingly peaceful retirement.

That was until a Thai local posted some photos of the diminutive, frail-looking retiree playing a streetside checkers game with his intricate gang tattoos on full show and a missing little finger — yakuza members often slice off the tip of a finger to atone for an offence.

The photos were shared more than 10,000 times online and caught the attention of Japanese police, who asked the Thai authorities to move in.

“The suspect admitted that he was the leader of the Yakuza sub-gang Kodokai,” Thai police spokesman General Wirachai Songmetta said, referring to an affiliate of Japan’s largest yakuza gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi.

The yakuza emerged in the chaos of post-war Japan turning into multi-billion-dollar criminal organisations involved in everything from gambling, drugs and prostitution to loan sharking, protection rackets and white-collar crime.

They were long tolerated as a necessary evil to keep order on the streets and getting things done quickly – however dubious the means.

Unlike the Italian Mafia or Chinese triads, yakuza are not illegal and each group has its own headquarters in full view of police.

Shigeharu Shirai stands accused of shooting dead the boss of a rival faction for which seven other members of his gang were caught and imprisoned for between 12 and 17 years.

“The suspect has not confessed to murder but has admitted that the victim used to bully him,” the Thai police spokesman added.

The mobster boss kept a “low profile” during his stay in Thailand, police said, receiving money two or three times each year from a visiting Japanese man.

With no passport or visa, he was officially arrested for entering Thailand illegally and could be extradited to face prosecution in Japan as early as Friday.

Around 70,000 Japanese live in Thailand and Japan is the country’s biggest investor, largely in the automobile and electronics sectors.

In 2017, Japanese spent more than $4 billion in Thailand, nearly half of all foreign direct investment.

Japanese Teenager Sues School Over Forceful Change Of Hair Colour

A Japanese teenager is suing a local government over claims that teachers forced the student to dye her naturally brown hair black, an official said Friday.

The 18-year-old student dyed her hair several times to comply with school rules that ban hair colouring, but teachers said it was not enough and banned her from class, the Asahi newspaper said.

The girl has not attended school since September 2016 and claims that she suffered damage to her scalp from the dyeing process, local media reported.

The school reportedly told the girl that even a “blonde-haired foreign-exchange student would have to dye their hair black” under school rules.

An official with Osaka prefecture confirmed the first hearing of the case was held Friday and that the girl is seeking 2.2 million yen ($19,300) in compensation.

“But we cannot give more details because we’re in the middle of the trial,” he told AFP.

Japanese schools tend to have strict rules about appearance, including hair colour, makeup and uniforms.

Many forbid students from dyeing or bleaching their hair, with some insisting on getting proof that their lighter coloured hair is natural.


Japanese PM Kicks Off ‘Difficult’ Election Battle

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gestures as he speaks during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on September 25, 2017. Abe called a snap election, hoping to capitalise on rising support as tensions with nearby North Korea reach fever pitch.

Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, dissolved parliament Thursday, effectively kicking off a national election campaign where he faces an unexpected and formidable challenge from the popular governor of Tokyo.

Members of the lower house raised their arms and shouted “Banzai” three times — the Japanese equivalent of “three cheers” — after the speaker read out a letter officially dissolving the chamber.

Voters in the world’s third-biggest economy will go to the polls on October 22, as Abe seeks a fresh popular mandate for his hardline stance on North Korea and a new tax plan.

“A difficult battle starts today,” Abe told reporters, shaking his fist.

“This is an election about how to protect the lives of people,” said the premier. “We have to cooperate with the international community as we face the threat from North Korea.”

Abe asked for public support for his “strong diplomacy” on Kim Jong-Un’s regime, which has threatened to “sink” Japan into the sea and fired missiles over its northern Hokkaido island twice in the space of a month.

“We need to fight for our children’s future.”

– ‘Party of Hope’ –

Abe stunned Japan on Monday with a surprise call for a snap election, seeking to capitalise on a weak opposition and a boost in the polls, as voters welcome his hawkish policy toward Pyongyang.

But Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has upended Japanese politics in recent days, stealing Abe’s limelight with her newly launched “Party of Hope” that seeks to shake up the country’s lethargic political landscape.

Koike’s new party, formally unveiled Wednesday, has attracted an influx of lawmakers from a wide range of ideological backgrounds and has succeeded in unifying opposition to Abe, presenting Japanese voters with a credible alternative to the premier.

Japan’s main opposition Democratic Party later Thursday decided not to run candidates in the election, effectively joining forces with Koike’s juggernaut.

For the moment, although Koike is leading the party, she is not running for a seat in parliament, preferring to concentrate on governing the world’s most populous city in the run-up to the 2020 Olympic Games.

“I’ll focus my energy on Tokyo. Leading Tokyo will be a plus to the whole of Japan,” Koike told reporters.

But pundits say the charismatic former TV presenter, 65, could yet go all-in on her high-stakes gamble if she thought she could deflect criticism for ditching her current job after only a year.

“The party may gain some seats in the Tokyo area, but a risk for her is that voters may feel betrayed as they voted for her as Tokyo governor and now she is working in national politics,” Kensuke Takayasu, professor of political science at Seikei University, told AFP.

– ‘Vacuum’ –

Surveys show that Koike’s gambit is starting to put pressure on Abe, 63, who until recently seemed to be a shoo-in for a fourth term at the helm.

Abe enjoyed a healthy lead in the polls of more than 30 points only a week ago but the gap appeared to have narrowed following Koike’s high-profile announcement.

A survey in the Mainichi Shimbun suggested that 29 percent of voters would cast ballots for Abe’s conservative LDP, while 18 percent would vote for the Party of Hope.

Polls also suggest there are a large number of undecided voters, giving some hope to Koike’s party that it can bridge the gap.

Abe returned to power in December 2012 and has pushed a nationalist social agenda as well as his trademark “Abenomics” economic policy — big-spending and easy money — to end deflation and to kick-start the once world-beating economy.

The scion of a political dynasty, Abe had promised to achieve two-percent inflation and stable growth in two years, but nearly five years later, he has failed to deliver on those pledges.

He said on Monday he would use a planned hike in consumption tax from eight percent to 10 percent for new social spending, such as free early childhood education, while pushing back his pledges to restore the nation’s fiscal discipline.

Critics argue that Abe called the election to divert attention from an series of scandals in recent months that weighed on his popularity, including allegations of favouritism to a friend in a business deal — which the premier strongly denies.

The timing of the election, amid the North Korean crisis, has also faced questions, including from Koike, who said it created a “vacuum” at a time of national tension.


China Arrests Japanese Citizen Suspected Of Spying

File Photo

Chinese authorities on Monday arrested a Japanese citizen suspected of spying, state media said.

The arrest was made in the port city of Dalian in the northeastern Liaoning province, which borders North Korea, the official Dalian Daily’s online report said.

The report said Ken Higuchi was being investigated by the Dalian City National Security Bureau on suspicion of spying against China, and that prosecutors had approved his arrest.

The character given for Higuchi’s first name could also be-be the names Takeshi or Takeru.

China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Lu Kang said, “Based on my understanding, relevant Chinese departments are carrying out investigations into a Japanese citizen suspected of attempting to endanger the security of the People’s Republic of China, in accordance with the law.

“At this point, I must point out that we immediately informed the relevant Japanese consular authorities in China in accordance with consular agreements between China and Japan.”

It was unclear from the report, however, whether Higuchi was a new case or whether he had been detained earlier, and the latest development was his formal arrest.

Reuters was unable to contact Japan’s foreign ministry by telephone. Monday was a national holiday in Japan.


Japanese Corporations Indicate Interest To Invest In Nigeria

Heads of Japanese corporations have expressed interest in locating factories and projects in Nigeria following their evaluation of the Federal Government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP).

Citing the work of the Presidential Council on ease of doing business in Nigeria, the Minister of Trade, Industry and Investment, Okechukwu Enelamah, stressed that Nigeria is a prime business destination, adding that Nigerians must benefit holistically from new investments.

Japan’s ambassador to Nigeria, Sadanobu Kusaoke, however stated that while the Federal Government’s plan excites investors, they are closely watching the 2017 budget formulation process before making final assessments.

Obama Says World Leaders Are Rattled By Trump’s Candidacy

Barack Obama, Donald Trump, G7President of the United States, Barack Obama, says the leaders of the world he spoke with are “rattled” by Mr Donald Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 US presidential contest.

President Obama disclosed this to journalists on Thursday after the first day of the G7 2016 Ise-Shima Summit in Japan.

He said that the world was paying close attention because “the United States is at the heart of the international order”.

The US President said that the leaders of the world’s seven wealthiest nations were not sure how seriously to take some of the Republican presidential candidate’s pronouncements.

He said on Voice of America that Trumps’ statements “display either ignorance of world affairs, or a cavalier attitude, or an interest in getting tweets and headlines”.

Meanwhile, the world leaders attending the G7 summit have visited the Shinto religion’s holiest site.

The host, Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, said that the visit was to help world leaders “understand the spirituality of Japanese people”.

However, the visit to the shrine was controversial because critics said Mr Abe was catering to his conservative supporters who want to revive traditional values.

Fire At Kawasaki Steel Plant In Japan Near Haneda Airport

japan fire near haneda airportA large fire has broken out at a steel plant near Haneda airport, south of the Japanese capital, Tokyo.

Japanese officials said that there have been no reports of injuries.

A fire official also told a foreign news agency that the blaze started at a two-metre-tall (6.7ft) cooling tower at a factory owned by a unit of Nippon Steel.

Haneda airport is about 25km (15.5 miles) from central Tokyo. The steel plant is situated in the city of Kawasaki, which is next to the airport.

Passengers at the airport uploaded pictures of the fire on social media showing large plumes of black smoke.

One Twitter user wrote (in Japanese): “I was about to board my flight at a gate at Haneda airport when I realised many people were looking outside the window so I went over and realised there was a huge fire”.

“Our flight was delayed by 15 to 20 minutes, and the pilot said it was partly because of the fire (but no major issue).

“Because of recent news about explosions in Yokosuka and China, I started wondering if it was something similar and people were looking nervous.

“The pilot also said they received a lot of inquiries about whether there was any accident.”