Japanese journalist Yasuda returns home after captivity in Syria

Jumpei Yasuda, who described his detention in Syria as painful, was reunited with family after three years in captivity.

    Yasuda told state broadcaster NHK that the time he spent in Syria was like being in hell, not just physically but also mentally [Mert Ozkan/Reuters]
    Yasuda told state broadcaster NHK that the time he spent in Syria was like being in hell, not just physically but also mentally [Mert Ozkan/Reuters]

    A Japanese freelance journalist has arrived home three years after rebels in Syria captured and held him in what he described as a physical and mental "hell".

    Jumpei Yasuda was reunited with family and friends after he arrived at Narita airport in Tokyo on Thursday evening.

    "I am happy that I can return to Japan. At the same time, I don't know what will happen from here or what I should do," a gaunt and tired-looking Yasuda told Reuters as he travelled to Ankara from southern Turkey where he had crossed from Syria after 40 months in captivity.

    The release of the 44-year-old journalist, who quit his job as a reporter on a Japanese newspaper to cover the Iraq war in 2003, has rekindled debate in Japan about reporting from war zones that some see as reckless adventurism and others as courageous journalism.

    Yasuda told state broadcaster NHK that the time he spent in Syria was like being in hell, not just physically but also mentally.

    "Day by day, it became difficult to control myself, just thinking that I would not be released today," he said. "I began to feel like a life in a solitary cell was now a norm. I was surprised at that feeling and to feel that way in itself is a very sad thing."

    He was, he added, struggling to speak Japanese.

    The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) once held large swaths of Syria and Iraq, but years of multilateral military operations have loosened their grip [Stringer/Reuters]

    Japanese government officials had earlier travelled to southern Turkey to confirm his identity.

    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thanked Turkey and Qatar for their help in freeing Yasuda, the Japan Times reported.

    His capture in Syria was not the first time he has been held by rebels in the region.

    Yasuda travelled to Iraq in late 2002 using his paid leave at the Shinano Mainichi newspaper where he had written about environmental problems, food safety and family issues.

    Frustrated that his paper wouldn't send him on assignment there, he quit in 2003 and in 2004, on another trip to Iraq, was captured near Baghdad by rebels, who held him for three days.

    In a book he published the same year, he explained that he had undertaken the assignment because he wanted to show the suffering caused by the war.

    "I could not see faces of people living in the country which was called part of an 'axis of evil' from any information provided by Japanese media, which only reported diplomatic matters and inspections by the United Nations," he wrote.

    Yasuda returned to Iraq in 2007 to work as a cook at an Iraqi army training camp and in 2010 published a book in Japan about war zone labourers.

    'Yasuda is tough'

    His last trip to the region was in 2015. Apart from a few brief videos released by his captors, little is known about what happened to him after he disappeared. Other Japanese captured there have been killed.

    In 2015 veteran Japanese war correspondent Kenji Goto and a friend he had tried to free, Haruna Yukawa, were beheaded by fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Both were lambasted in Japan for their decision to travel to Iraq.

    Japan is careful to stay out of disputes in the Middle East and tries to maintain friendly ties with countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia that are at loggerheads.

    Some have accused the Japanese government of paying a ransom for Yasuda's release.

    The Japanese government however, has denied the accusation.

    "There was bashing before and it appears it is already happening this time," freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, a friend of Yasuda, told Reuters in a telephone interview. "Yasuda is tough and has great mental strength. I'm not worried he will be hurt."

    This criticism could make it difficult for journalists to cover the region in future, according to Yoshihiro Kando, a former Asahi newspaper reporter.

    "I am worried that the atmosphere becomes such that one should not go because it is dangerous and the trend is toward self-restraint," he wrote on the website for the Association of Japanese Journalists Working in Dangerous Areas. 

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency