ISIS militants' death threat stirs anger, shock in Japan

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants' threat to kill two Japanese hostages for ransom provoked fear and outrage among a cross section of the nation's society, from commuters around Tokyo's main train station to people commenting on social media.

"Once Japanese become targets, it could happen here in Japan too," said Mio Nakashima, 26, an IT devices saleswoman waiting at Tokyo Station. "I was thinking terrorism is something happening outside Japan."

Video footage of a masked fighter in black standing next to two shackled men in orange jumpsuits appeared on YouTube just days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to extend US$200 million (S$270 million) to countries confronted by the al-Qaeda breakaway group.

Abe said he would not change Japan's policy of cooperating with a coalition of countries against the militant group and demanded the men's immediate release.

"We'll do our best to rescue their lives," Abe told reporters in Jerusalem, where he was as part of a trip to the Middle East. "International society should never surrender to terrorism." The video titled "Message to the government and people of Japan" identifies the hostages as Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto Jogo. The men will be killed within three days if Japan doesn't pay ransom equivalent to the pledged aid, according to the video.

"I feel like Abe's decision to provide US$200 million is just an excuse to attack Japan," said Youkou Imada, a 32-year- old construction company employee walking around Tokyo station. "I'm just wishing Abe would focus on the Japanese economy rather than committing us to those complicated situations outside the country."

A militant group calling itself ISIS has taken over swaths of northern Iraq and bordering areas in Syria, killing thousands of civilians and staging videotaped beheadings of Westerners held for ransom.

The story about the threat drew more than 4,500 comments on Yahoo Japan, the day's heaviest traffic on the site, which counted five related articles as the five most-commented on within the past 24 hours. Yahoo Japan is the nation's most visited website.

Some comments expressed surprise that Japanese were even in the area.

"Why did these men visit such a dangerous place," asked someone going by the name of Edokko on the site. "I feel very sorry for them, but we should decline the ransom demand." Militants from the group calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq kidnapped and beheaded a Japanese man named Shosei Koda in 2004 after demanding withdrawal of Japanese troops sent to the country to help a US-led coalition.

Reactions at that time included some who blamed Koda for visiting the area without protection or authorisation. He went to the area to observe the war first hand, according to Kyodo News reports at the time.

Japan's residents last faced a major terror strike in 1995 when some members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a sarin- gas attack on Tokyo's subway that killed 12 people and sickened thousands. That attack helped shatter postwar myths of a united, peaceful Japan and prompted tougher security laws.

Japanese companies operating overseas also sought advice on what the threat means for their security, said Yusuke Inoue, chief of consultant company Security Support Inc.'s operation center.

"We're getting requests from companies for advice on how to handle potential threats in the region," Inoue said by phone. "We have advised companies to avoid areas anywhere near those controlled by the militants." The hostage drama may mark a turning point for some Japanese companies operating in affected regions, he said.

"Up to this point, the conflicts have not had that much of a negative effect."