Love her or hate her...
One woman's single-handed efforts to make the world a better place are an inspiration to many. But when she faced execution as a hostage in Iraq, her fellow Japanese overwhelmingly heaped scorn and derision upon her
By Nao Shimoyachi
Nahoko Takato became famous on the night of April 8 this year, when the Arab satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera aired video footage of her and two other Japanese held blindfolded at gunpoint in Iraq.
The 34-year-old volunteer worker had been captured in Fallujah -- along with photojournalist Soichiro Koriyama and freelance writer Noriaki Imai -- by militiamen who demanded the withdrawal of Japan's Self-Defense Force troops from Iraq as a condition of their release.
With public opinion in Japan already split down the middle by the dispatch of those troops in February, the plight of the three civilian hostages took center stage in a renewed national debate over the government's decision to contribute to U.S. President George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing.''
However, despite the Japanese government rejecting the captors' demand, the hostages were released unharmed after being held for nine days. During that time, Takato repeatedly pleaded that she had been working to help Iraqi children and was not an enemy of the Iraqi people.
Her release, though, was not to be the end of Takato's ordeal. After returning to Japan, she suffered severe stress disorder caused not so much by having been a captive, but more because of harsh public criticism that the three had been irresponsible to enter Iraq despite a Japanese government warning to civilians not to do so.
A native of Chitose in Hokkaido -- the home base for most of the initial contingent of troops sent to Iraq -- Takato grew up in an environment where, in her 40-student elementary-school class, "all but two were from SDF families." Four years ago, at age 30, she quit her job running a karaoke shop and went to Calcutta in India to do volunteer work with the Missionaries of Charity founded by the late Mother Teresa. She also spent time at hospices for AIDS patients in Thailand and Cambodia.
Takato went to Iraq for the first time in May 2003. Since then, she has worked with local people to organize the provision of medical supplies to hospitals in cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, and has also helped street children in Baghdad. It was during her fourth stay in Iraq that she was taken hostage.
Takato has recently resumed her work for Iraqi people, using some of the 8 million yen left from money sent to the three former hostages from people across Japan. Although the volatile security situation now prevents her entering Iraq itself, she spent both August and October in Amman, Jordan, coordinating her new projects to rebuild schools in Fallujah and provide job training for street children in Baghdad.
While now being deeply wary of the Japanese media, Takato granted The Japan Times this exclusive interview before flying out once more to Jordan in late September. This week, she also responded by telephone to comment on last weekend's execution of the 24-year-old Japanese hostage Shosei Koda in Iraq.
It is roughly six months since you were taken hostage in Iraq. How do you feel now about your time in captivity?
A still from a video broadcast April 8, 2004, shows a blind-folded Naoko Takato (center) kneeling beside fellow hostages Noriaki Imai (left) and Soichiro Koriyama (right). Their captors threatened to execute them after three days unless Japan withdrew its troops from Iraq.
Before that, I was always asking myself what I could do. But now, I feel more like, "You have to do this." I feel more obligations. Even if I get a job here in Japan, or go back to India, or wherever I go, the experience of having been taken hostage will never leave me.
I was derided by the Japanese people. I was told, "You are sticking your nose into something you have not been asked to do." But if I tried to avoid such criticism in the future, I would never be able to move on, never feel at ease, never get back to my normal life. I can't even fall in love in this state. Things are different now.
Are you still struggling with all that?
The incident had a huge impact and made me aware of a lot of things. One is how Japanese regard people who work for other countries. Yes, I had been told that I was neglecting domestic issues. There is that kind of a culture here. But even when I helped to make Braille books and read out aloud for blind people in Japan, I was told -- in a sarcastic tone -- "How admirable!"
I have also become more aware of the value of human life. I knew about other people's deaths: those of friends and AIDS sufferers. Then, that became about my life too, and I have started thinking about human life through my own life. When I grasped the hands of those dying whom I cared for in India, Thailand and Cambodia, I could feel that human souls never die even if their bodies do.
This feeling has become stronger after the [kidnapping] incident because I might well have been killed. But we -- Imai, Koriyama and I -- all knew too well that our captors had suffered a lot in the past year, too.
Is that what you were thinking when you were being held? Weren't you scared?
Of course I was scared. I couldn't stay rational when I was captured. I froze. When you are in real shock, you can't do anything. The most horrible part was the video shoot. Before that, we [three hostages and our Iraqi captors] were in a good mood, talking about local restaurants and other stuff. I had a hope that we might be able to get out soon. Then, heavily armed men came in and they were so angry! I was scared, but I had known Iraqis were in a terrible situation since before I entered Iraq.
When I learned in an Internet cafe that two Japanese diplomats were killed in Tikrit last November, I cried a lot and Iraqis in the cafe asked me why I was crying. When I told them why, they asked me back, "Do you know how many Spanish were killed on the same day? What about Iraqis? Americans?" They told me that's what a war is about. I was ashamed of myself because that reminded me I was acting like a foreigner, even after I had witnessed so many Iraqis dying terrible deaths.
You avoided appearing in the media very much, and stayed at home for months after the incident. What were you thinking during that period?
The only people I could share my feelings with were those who knew Iraq, who had been there. When I started talking about Iraq, I couldn't control myself. I kept talking about what was happening in Fallujah and how many died in Fallujah, things like that.
There was a critical information gap. Fallujah is seen as a den of vice by the rest of the world. I wanted Japanese people to know what was really happening there.
Fallujah was the first city I visited when I went to Iraq for the first time in May 2003. There, I heard from Iraqis who had been marching peacefully in protest against Americans occupying a local elementary school, about their being shot at by American troops. About 18 people were killed. How can Americans do that? I have American friends. I could not believe what I saw at the hospital there.
What I most wanted to convey during the period when I largely shut myself away at home was why the hostage-taking happened: the background to it. People kept asking me about the incident, but I wanted to talk more about why it happened.
Hostage-taking continues in Iraq, and some hostages have been killed, including Shosei Koda who was beheaded last weekend. What is your view on this, and what do you think of the hostage-takers?
I never met Shosei Koda. I don't know how and with what feelings he entered Iraq. So, I can't comment on that. When I was captured, many different people -- old friends I hadn't seen for ages, and people I had never even met -- spoke about me. The result is a totally different Nahoko Takato. I don't want to do the same thing to other people myself.
What I believe is that there are no national boundaries where human life is concerned. You can't say which life is good and which life is bad. This is an issue of human life.
As for the hostage-taking in general, it isn't known who is really behind it. I guess our case was one of a few, including the one in April involving Junpei Yasuda and Nobutaka Watanabe, that were the result of pure resistance -- I mean resistance movements by local Iraqis. In the cases after that period, such as the killing of South Korean Kim Sun Il in June, I think foreign fighters were playing no small part. Things are getting complicated.
Let me make this clear. Fallujah was the first place where, as early as April, people stood up against American occupation after the fall of Baghdad. I guess foreign fighters crept in around that time, taking advantage of the mess and lack of international attention.
Why do you think the situation in Iraq has become so bad?
That's because all foreigners -- the occupation forces, the foreign radicals and people like me -- just haven't cared enough about the condition of postwar Iraq. We should have noticed that the situation never improved after the war. A faint sign was there early on, but no one paid attention. Information has been very limited and international opinion stands by the aggressors: the Japanese, the Americans, the British, all of them.
I blame myself for not having made enough effort to let people know the facts. I was shocked that some reporters did not know the name of Fallujah until the hostage incident, whereas the city had always been at the center of the Iraq problem.
Why did you start volunteer work?
From being young, I never had a clear image of any profession I wanted to follow. They always ask you what you want to become when you grow up, you know. I had a clear image of what I wanted to be, but that was not connected to a particular profession. I have great respect for Seiho Tajiri [head of the Japanese-African American Society in Atlanta, Ga., who had been living in the U.S. for 40 years when, in 1993, Takato says she "learned how to live" by following him around "carrying his bag" for a year] and Mother Teresa, whose ways of life do not fall into a certain category of profession. I was also interested in Buddha, not the religious Buddha but the private Buddha when he was still Siddhartha: how he agonized over people's suffering, poverty and illness and forsook everything he had to search for the meaning of life. I wanted to find an ideal way of life rather than live for a profession.
Why did you choose to go to India?
I had several other options. I wanted to go to Africa very much, and I was interested in Vietnam, too. When I quit my job at 30, I made up my mind that I would stay someplace for at least a year. Then I saw a video of Mother Teresa, which greatly inspired me. Plus, her organization accepts all people regardless of religion. If you want to work there, all you have to do is turn up and give your name and address. Of course, you have to listen to what they have to say before starting your work, though (laughs).
What motivates you to offer your own time, money and effort to other people?
Former Baghdad street youths who Takato helped to find jobs learning the trade of joinery.
In the end, it is all for myself and, perhaps, for my family. We never went a day without quarrels. My parents and I were very bad at expressing love. We can't be honest about our feelings when we are close. When we are apart, I think about my parents and write letters to them. Things go smoothly.
In Japan, I was wearing "armor," especially when I was running the karaoke shop. I was in fighting mode because, you know, I had to make a profit (laughs). I got really tired of controlling my feelings in such a way, and I started wanting to be alone.
I stopped wearing that armor when I went to India. When you are with lovely orphans and see people dying, you can't control your feelings. Lots of feelings just poured out of me: I wanted to love those kids, I felt sad, I felt lonely. And I didn't have to control those feelings. I finally found myself at ease.
But it was more than that this time [after her captors released her and Takato returned to Japan]. I have never cried so hard before.
What do you mean?
I had a lot of feelings swirling around inside me. I cried when thinking about the people in Fallujah. I was very frustrated and sad. I felt powerless. I also felt sorry for my family. I was sad when Japanese people spurned me. I cried and cried. I didn't know anyone could cry as much as I did. The only memories I have about that time are of me crying. I don't remember what I was doing or where I was sleeping at home. I don't even remember that Imai came to see me. There is an SDF drill site just across from my house and the sounds of the SDF exercises and shells brought back what happened in Iraq. I would pull a duvet over me to try to shut out the noises.
How else were you affected by the criticism you faced in Japan?
I can't help feeling powerless when I think of people in Fallujah. I survived while thousands of people died. I survived, but I had been shutting myself away at home. I blame myself when I read news reports about Fallujah.
I fell into a cycle of self-disgust and started feeling that the people who accused me were right. All I had done in Iraq felt meaningless. My soul was completely destroyed. I wondered why I had to live. I was nothing more than a physical object in which blood was circulating.
How did you recover from that state?
I received a lot of letters of encouragement, not only from Japan but from abroad. There were Americans who even asked me to come over to their homes for a change. But the biggest factor was when I opened my e-mail inbox for the first time in a while and found e-mails from Iraqis.
Why do you act as an individual rather than participating in a group?
People often say they can't help because they can't speak English, because they don't belong to an NGO, because they don't have nursing qualifications. I was labeled as a "volunteer activist" by the media. What is that? "Volunteer" and "activist" have totally different meanings. When I saw those news articles, I was afraid people might think I was doing that kind of stuff because I am an activist. I hated it. Our daily lives are connected with international society: Every action, from drinking juice to eating a hamburger. After they had killed 1.5 million people, the United Nations recently lifted the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. Who are the member states? It's us. Even if you are not a doctor, nurse or NGO member, there should be something you can do. I wanted to be sure and show that there was something I could do.
Do you think an individual can make a difference?
Individuals run organizations. An organization involves "dry" parts, such as fundraising and info-collection. Take a humanitarian operation -- you can't do anything with that dry part alone. When you don't have a tractor and need one, you might have to negotiate with local people. There are a lot of "wet" parts. And I think those wet parts are very important.
The same can be said of a nation. The government thinks from the point of view of the national interest. But at the same time, it shouldn't neglect individuals. A nation is not only about a flag. It has to include individuals.
What do you think of the Japanese government deploying the SDF troops in Iraq?
There is no doubt that Iraqis need international assistance. But I feel the military side is too prominent in delivering humanitarian assistance in Iraq. For Iraqis, a military force is a military force. When a U.S. Humvee arrived at a local school to deliver notebooks, kids stepped back. Teachers and staff members went home. The American soldiers were not going to kill them, they were doing humanitarian work. But, still, they were scary. The same can be said of Iraqis. I saw Iraqi girls shrink away when they saw Mujahedeens holding guns. Men in military fatigues with guns are scary for Iraqis because they have had so many horrible experiences due to the military.
So, what do you think Japan should do?
I think there are a lot of things Japan can do as the sole victim nation of atomic bombs. My friends asked Iraqi students about depleted uranium, and 90 percent of those asked knew about it: that it causes diseases and that it affects farm products that harm our bodies if we eat them. As the only nation to have experienced the horror of atomic bombs, Japan should help to study the situation, find out ways to solve the problems and clear the contamination all over the land -- if the SDF has that ability.
What are you going to do in Jordan?
I have two projects. One is to rebuild schools in Fallujah. I wanted to do something at the place where I was taken hostage and where, at the same time, a lot of people were being killed. This is a kind of tribute project to the people of Fallujah. But we can't enter Fallujah. The situation is getting worse and worse. The aerial bombing never stops and Iraqi friends tell me half the population has fled and now live in poultry sheds and suburban resort hotels. We were scheduled to start work on a school on Aug. 31, but we could not. One of the important purposes of this project is to create jobs and stop young Iraqis from becoming fighters in the war. So I didn't want our project to be stalled. As a result, we are thinking of rebuilding a school in Ramadi where the situation looks calm now. And when the situation improves in Fallujah, we will move there and rebuild schools there.
The other project is giving vocational training to street children in Baghdad. Our job-training programs for them have taken off -- at a barber's shop, a carpenter's shop, a steel factory and a blacksmith's workshop. Some are learning how to cook.
Do you want to go back to Iraq someday?
Yes. I do very much because I have such a strong tie to Iraqis now. This is more than sympathy for Iraqis. It was a fatal encounter. If I look at the hostage incident in a positive way, I think I was shaken by Iraqis who said, "You saw the tragedy of Fallujah. You heard the tragedy of Fallujah. Now it is time for you to understand it with your body."
My connection with Fallujah is such that I can never ever say goodbye just because security is bad in Iraq. My dream is to attend the weddings of the boys [street children she has cared for]. I really want to be there when they get married.
What are your long-term plans?
Other than Iraq? My mind is now preoccupied with Iraq. But I think I will live in Japan in the future. It's just that I am not strong enough to live in Japan now. I don't get complained about in India and Iraq for what I do. But in Japan I can't bear it when people keep asking me, "Why do you have to go abroad?" "Are you crazy working in a dangerous country like Iraq?" "What is volunteer work?"
What would you like to do in Japan?
I want to open a free school for drug users and dropouts. Then, I want to do agriculture and farming. I don't mean commercial agriculture, but growing some vegetables and milking cows in a field near my house. This is to do with my own experiences. I think I must consider why I needed glue-sniffing and pills and why it was that I was able to quit them.
When did you take drugs?
I started when I was a sixth-grader. I quit when I was 16. At my junior high school many of the boys belonged to motorcycle gangs and girls started working or got married soon after graduation. I was among the few who went to high school. I was angry at everything around me: parents, teachers and society. I realized that when I saw street boys in Baghdad yelling, "There is nothing interesting in the world!" I was able to get out of that game when I found something interesting other than sniffing glue. It was a music band I joined at high school. A natural high makes you far happier than using drugs.
Is that what you tell the street children in Baghdad?
No way! Hopped-up boys would never listen to a story like that. I don't get mad if I catch them sniffing glue. But I blow up when I catch them wasting food or breaking a promise. I overdo it, using broken Iraqi, because I believe it's important to make them understand that I am angry.
But you are trying to straighten those Iraqi boys out, aren't you?
I didn't set out to help them directly. I just showed them there is an exit. The first step was to win their trust. I visited the boys every day, sitting next to them, listening to their stories, smoking and singing together. I had to show that I wasn't going to abandon them. That seriousness and devotion was necessary. Then I rented a house and invited them over to have them take a shower. I told them to wash their clothes, fold them and wear them again. When you live in the streets, you don't wash your clothes. You throw away things easily. I tried to get them to understand a rehabilitation process through washing. When they clean themselves up, they become interested in fashion. They go to the market to find nice clothes. Adults see them differently, which gives the boys confidence. As a result, they now spend less time sniffing glue.
What would you do if you were captured in Iraq again? How would you want your family and the government to act?
I will probably be dead next time. But even if I was killed, I think my family would happily tell you that they had no complaint about that because Nahoko knew what she was doing.
The Japan Times: Nov. 7, 2004Posted by Hannah at November 7, 2004 09:38 AM