TOKYO - The clock is ticking towards a deadline today imposed by Islamist militants threatening to kill two Japanese nationals, unless Tokyo pays a US$200 million (S$266 million) ransom.
The Japanese government said it was working to secure the release of freelance journalist Kenji Goto and self-employed contractor Haruna Yukawa, but with less than 20 hours to go yesterday, it admitted it still had not spoken to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.
"The government is doing everything it can, and saving lives is the top priority," said Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, adding that the government had no news on the safety of the hostages. Tokyo believes the deadline will expire at 1.50pm Singapore time today.
All eyes are now on Mr Goto, a war correspondent, and Mr Yukawa, a troubled loner, whose fates were tied together by an unlikely friendship.
Mr Yukawa, 42, was captured last August outside the Syrian city of Aleppo. Mr Goto, 47, returned to Syria in October to try to help his friend but then went missing.
Mr Yukawa first met Mr Goto, a father of two, in Syria last April and asked him to take him to Iraq. He wanted to know how to operate in a conflict zone, and they went together in June.
Mr Yukawa dreamed of becoming a military contractor, and travelling to Syria had been part of an effort to turn his life around after going bankrupt, losing his wife to cancer and attempting suicide by castration, according to associates and his own accounts.
"My journey will change my life," he wrote on his blog before his first trip to Syria. "I'm not going to be able to change Japan and the world if I go on with a relaxing life in Japan."
A unit at Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been seeking information on him since August.
But Mr Goto's disappearance was not reported until Tuesday's video was released apparently showing him and Mr Yukawa kneeling next to a masked ISIS militant wielding a knife.
Mr Yukawa had been taken hostage once by local Syrian militia on his first visit to the country. But he was released after Mr Goto intervened with his captors.
Still, Mr Yukawa returned to Syria in July on his own. Within weeks, he was captured again, this time by ISIS. A staunch Christian, Mr Goto was haunted by Mr Yukawa's abduction and felt he had to do something to help his "hapless" friend.
Mr Goto had expected to be able to travel in ISIS-held territory because of his nationality.
"As a Japanese journalist, he expected to be treated differently than American or British journalists," his business partner Toshi Maeda said. "Japan has not participated in bombing and has only provided humanitarian aid."
"Whatever happens, this is my responsibility," Mr Goto said on a video recorded before he set out for Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital. That was the last time he was seen before this week's video.
Among the public in Japan, there has been a sense of bafflement over the kidnapping. "Why Japan?" many are asking.
"We wish not to fight against the world of Islam. We want to help the more than 10 million refugees in the region," said Mr Suga. "We want them to understand this, and free the hostages immediately."
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE