The Tragedy of Islamic State’s Japanese Hostage
Bullying, attempted suicide and bankruptcy preceded Haruna Yukawa’s military fantasy
From the moment Islamic State sympathizers announced that they had taken Haruna Yukawa hostage in Syria, it was clear something strange going on. ISIS accused Yukawa of being a mercenary and a spy—and used his own words and photographs against him.
Japanese magazine journalists and Internet users unraveled the man’s background. They discovered a tragic story of self-harm, loss and delusion … and hints as at how, and why, Yukawa wound up a captive of a murderous Islamist militia.
On Aug. 17, Twitter user @ANS4R1 tweeted that ISIS militants had captured a Japanese citizen along with fighters of the rebel Free Syria Army in northern Aleppo. @ANS4R1, whose profile name is Abu Abdullah, claimed he wasn’t a member of ISIS but was simply passing on the news.
Soon thereafter another user—@OmarJerbi—announced that Islamic State fighters had captured and executed a Japanese “spy” who identified himself as Haruna Yukawa. @OmarJerbi’s profile—since suspended by Twitter—listed his location as Tunisia.
@OmarJerbi followed up with a video he uploaded to YouTube—now removed—which depicted the bloodied Japanese national being interrogated by an ISIS jihadi speaking broken English. Yukawa insisted he was a photographer and then implied he was a doctor. It was clear that his interrogators didn’t believe him.
The interrogators made it clear why they didn’t believe him. “You thief? Why you have gun? You kill soldier?”
Yukawa’s reply was simple and accurate. “I am no soldier,” he said.
After the video appeared online, amateur investigators scrambled to find out more about the captive. Japanese Internet users quickly found Yukawa’s Facebook account, haruna.pmc, which proudly lists him as “Chief Executive Officer at Private military company.”
Rui Yasue, a self-described Japanese-Arabic translator, replied to Abu Abdullah. “This Japanese guy is CEO of a private military company,” Yasue wrote. “He takes pictures while firing guns.”
Yasue added a link to Yukawa’s company blog. The banner displays the firms’ name, PMC Co. Ltd.—and below, in English, “Private Military Company.”
“Doesn’t look good for him,” is how Abdullah summed up Yukawa’s predicament.
Yukawa wanted to create the impression that he was the CEO of a private military company. His company’s name is unimaginative, and he rams home its meaning in the URL too—privatemilitary.jp.
The Website lists branches in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Africa. The blog also lists branch offices in India and Thailand. It’s all padding to hide a simple truth—Yukawa is the company’s sole employee.
Yukawa established PMC Co. on Jan. 16, 2014. His registration documents list an office in Odaiba, Tokyo. The address points to theSOHO, an office building with office-sharing facilities.
There’s no actual evidence of the company having an office there. Not even a simple sign. Building administrators told online magazine ZakZak that PMC vacated the building in June and that the administrators had not been able to contact Yukawa by phone.
The registration document includes a list of goals for the company. Most involve importing various goods for sale in Japan, including pet food. At the bottom of the list of imports, the focus switches to security work. There’s no mention of the private military contracts that the company’s Website suggest.
The Website states that the company’s business is “international private military work, international bodyguard, armed shipping escort, logistical support and conflict zone escorts.”
Yukawa’s plan to form a private military company is so blatant that it’s hard to imagine that government business administrators managed to let it slip through their checks. The registration documents don’t reflect the company’s real goal. And if they did, the government would probably take a much greater interest in the firm’s activities.
Yukawa seems to be an unlikely candidate for running a private military company. He has no formal combat training, although he does appear to have been interested in airsoft replica weapons and militaria in general.
Yukawa was manager of Hidakaya International Co. Ltd., an online import shop dating back to 1997 and registered at an office in Chiba. Through Hidakaya, Yukawa imported snow throwers, cheap jewelry and English language textbooks for kids.
There was one stumbling block for Japan’s amateur Internet investigators. The manager of Hidakaya clearly looks like Haruna Yukawa, but the Website lists his name as Masayuki Yukawa.
From Masayuki to Haruna
What we know about Yukawa’s life comes largely from his intimately honest blog and from statements his estranged father has made to the Japanese press.
Masayuki Yukawa was born in 1973 and grew up in Chiba near Tokyo. In 1997, he and some friends established his military clothing and accessories store Hidakaya. The company did well in its early years and expanded to a much larger office in 2002.
At 27 years old, Yukawa married a woman he had met through his store and moved away from Chiba. Buoyed by success, he worked on other projects besides Hidakaya … but things began to go downhill.
In 2005, Yukawa had to sell Hidakaya. He began moving around the country. The loss of his livelihood hit him hard, and by 2007 his mind had turned to suicide.
In June 2008, Yukawa acted on this impulse. He wrote about the incident in a blog post entitled, “A rather rare suicide experience.” Yukawa decided he would kill himself by cutting off his genitals, believing this would slice through a major artery and quickly bleed him out.
“I thought if I failed I would live as a woman and leave the rest to destiny,” Yukawa later wrote.
The blood slowly drained. Unable to stand but fully conscious, Yukawa had time to reconsider his actions. He didn’t want to die. Yukawa summoned the strength to raise his legs in order to staunch the bleeding. This kept him alive long enough for his wife to come home from work. Finding her bloodied husband lying at the foot of their sofa, she called an ambulance and saved his life.
The two weeks Yukawa spent in the hospital cost him $10,000. He sank into debt. Two years later, his wife passed away from lung cancer. Yukawa lost his home, his wife, his business and his will to live all in the space of just five years. He also lost the symbol of his manhood.
Gender issues had probably plagued Masayuki Yukawa all his life. He was bullied as a child for playing with flowers and other traditionally female pursuits. Then as an adult he chose suicide by emasculation. Now he was at his lowest. He made the brave decision to reinvent himself.
With the help of a fortune-teller, Yukawa chose a new feminine name—Haruna—and became increasingly obsessed with Yoshiko Kawashima, “the Eastern Mata Hari.”
Kawashima was a Manchu princess who grew up in Japan in the early 20th century. The Japanese took advantage of the princess’ close ties to the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, in order to persuade the emperor to rule the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria.
The spy Kawashina had a well-known penchant for cross-dressing—so much so that one news agency announced her arrest in 1945 with the following statement. “A long sought-for beauty in male costume was arrested in Peking by the Chinese counter-intelligence officers.”
Yukawa believed he was the reincarnation of Kawashima. His personal blog, Google+ account and YouTube account all reference her name. In the hours he devoted to learning about Kawashima—ostensibly so he could write a book about her life—Yukawa found his own purpose.
“I want to live my life to help many other people,” Yukawa wrote. “ I want to put my name in the history books for a second time!”
Yukawa’s blog reflects his growing interest in Japanese politics and concern about human rights in China and the Middle East. His feeling of kinship with Kawashima had propelled Yukawa down a path that would lead him into his Islamic States’ hands.
The origins of PMC Co.
Yukawa began planning for his new company in 2012 and set out to find $30,000 in start-up funding. To help recruit a board of directors, he expanded his social network by attending the meetings of nationalist groups such as Ganbarre Nippon!, headed by former Japanese air force chief Toshio Tamogami.
The misguided entrepreneur justified his desire to work in a military-related job with tangential experiences—importing goods for the Japanese military, going to military product trade shows. There is nothing to suggest he would be capable of running a private military company. But that didn’t stop him.
Yukawa had wanted to visit Iraq after the American invasion in 2003 but had been too busy at Hidakaya. “I would like to go to the battlefield as a military affairs journalist,” he wrote at the end of 2013. With each blog post, his military fantasy became more and more evident.
You have to give him credit. Even if only on paper, Yukawa managed to pull together the funds for a new company in a year’s time—and in doing so realized his dream of heading to a war zone as a journalist.
He approached several news organizations to sell the footage he planned to take in Iraq and Syria and then hopped on a plane to see what life is really like on the battlefield. He traveled with the Free Syria Army and seemed to enjoy living his dream.
Much of his video and photography captures the destruction wrought by Syrian government forces and Islamic State militants, but among these are photos and videos of Yukawa handling weapons. He couldn’t help indulging in his fantasy. He even boasted that he carried a weapon for protection.
In the horrific event that Islamic State executes him, it could be this mistake that sealed his fate—although, to be fair, the militants have murdered unarmed journalists, too.
As the Japanese public learns more about Yukawa, it has become socially acceptable to write him off as an idiot. His father has apologized to the Japanese people for his son’s poor upbringing. Taxpayers are openly asking why the government should waste their money trying to bring Yukawa home. His unusual background has not helped matters, either.
Ultimately the decision to go was Yukawa’s to make, but he went with good intentions. He tried hard to help the Free Syria Army, raise awareness back in Japan and to make a difference in one of the world’s bloodiest current conflict. But he should never have gone to Syria—he’s surely aware of that now.
The last words on his blog are chilling. “This time I think I’d like to photograph lots of combat scenes.”