Thursday, September 30, 2004

Takato Nahoko: former hostage, still an aid-worker

Japan Focus has an interesting article about Takato Nahoko, one of the three Japanese people taken hostage in Iraq earlier this year. They were criticised at the time by the Japanese government and media.
Takato talks about her nightmarish ordeal, as well as disclosing details of the diary she has kept since visiting Iraq for the first time, in "Senso to Heiwa: Soredemo Iraku-jin o Kirai ni Narenai'' (War and peace: Even now I can't hate the Iraqi people; Kodansha). [I have corrected the article's translation of the title.]
Since the book was published early last month, Takato and her family have received letters from people apologizing for criticizing her and misunderstanding her good intentions, she says. The senders were, of course, referring to the "personal responsibility'' that the Japanese government demanded from the hostages.
Although Takato says she has always been aware of the need to take responsibility upon entering war zones, she felt that she and the government didn't see eye to eye on exactly what "personal responsibility'' meant. But she intends to repay the government for her ticket from Baghdad to Dubai as soon as her lawyers settle other issues with the Foreign Ministry.

Prime Minister Koizumi has not apologised for his remarks which strongly suggested that he resented the trouble the hostages had put him to. Pretty arrogant for a public servant.

Also of interest are Takato's remarks about her background, not least for the light they shed on life in a fairly average Japanese town:
People still wonder why Takato risked her life to help the street children of Iraq. Quite simply, she saw herself in those children, she said in an interview after the Tokyo news conference. The kids, some as young as elementary school age, smoking cigarettes and inhaling paint thinner from dawn until dusk, reminded her of her own youth.
As a child, Takato was a troublemaker who started smoking at 12, got hooked on paint thinner at 13 and soon afterward tried hashish.
It wasn't until she moved to metropolitan Tokyo to attend university that she began to get an idea of what she wanted to do with her life.
"I used to hate children,'' says Takato, who admits she often risked being stabbed with a butterfly knife when she managed a karaoke joint in Chitose that served as a hangout for juvenile delinquents.
But ever since she set off to India on her first humanitarian mission at age 30 to give herself a break from the day-to-day grind of working at the karaoke club, she has found children in need of compassion and affection everywhere she has visited, including Cambodia, Thailand and Iraq. When she returns to Japan to earn travel expenses, she works at a ramen joint and at a cattle ranch.

Ironically, when she visits her hometown now it exacerbates the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder she is suffering from: "the roar of fighter planes and the sound of cannon fire at the nearby Self-Defense Forces Chitose Air Base, was like reliving the war in Iraq, she says."

Still, she has managed to achieve a lot since her release:
Though she hasn't yet set foot in Iraq again since her release, she returned to Amman, Jordan, for a month from the end of July to aid the Fallujah reconstruction effort. Between her April release and July, the 34-year-old aid worker helped establish the Iraq Hope Network, whose members include numerous Japanese volunteer groups and individuals, who share information and resources to enable more effective support.
With the help of local volunteers and nongovernmental organizations, the three former hostages and their families decided to contribute some of the 8 million yen in donations they received from benevolent Japanese to rebuild a school in Fallujah, she says. Creating jobs, especially for young men, and schools to keep children occupied will help keep them away from militia recruitment and the violent anti-American movement, she explains.

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