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Japanese Hostages Come Home To Much Criticism and Blame

By Norimitsu Onishi

The New York Times -- TOKYO

The young Japanese civilians taken hostage in Iraq returned home this week, not to the warmth of a yellow-ribbon embrace but to a disapproving nation’s cold stare.

The first three hostages, including a woman who helped street children on the streets of Baghdad, first appeared on television two weeks ago as their knife-brandishing kidnappers threatened to slit their throats. A few days after their release, they landed here on Sunday, in the eye of a peculiarly Japanese storm.

“You got what you deserve!” read one hand-written sign at the airport where they landed. “You are Japan’s shame,” another wrote on the Web site of one of the former hostages. They had “caused trouble” for everybody. The government, not to be outdone, announced it would bill the former hostages $6,000 for air fare.

Beneath the surface of Japan’s ultra-sophisticated cities lie the hierarchical ties that have governed this island nation for centuries and that, at moments of crises, invariably reassert themselves. The former hostages’ transgression was to ignore a government advisory against traveling to Iraq. But their sin, in a vertical society that likes to think of itself as classless, was to defy what people call here “okami,” or, literally, “what is higher.”

Treated like criminals, the three former hostages have gone into hiding, effectively becoming prisoners inside their own homes. Dr. Satoru Saito, a psychiatrist who has examined the three former hostages twice since their return, said the stress they were enduring now was “much heavier” than what they endured during their captivity in Iraq. Asked to name their three most stressful moments, the former hostages told him, in ascending order: the moment when they were kidnapped on their way to Baghdad, the knife-wielding incident, and the moment they watched a television show the morning after their return here and realized Japan’s anger with them.