Deadly Mistake?

01.25.15 4:31 PM ET

Japanese Government Error May Have Two Hostages ‘Lost in Translation’

Did Tokyo’s failure to hire competent translators lead ISIS to misunderstand Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cairo speech?

The deadline to pay the $200 million ransom to free journalist Kenji Goto and self-proclaimed military contractor Haruna Yukawa, ended with the release of a new video Saturday night of Goto holding a photo of the beheaded Yukawa and a recording of someone claiming to be Goto and laying out the new terms: the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, a female suicide bomber who was captured by Jordanian authorities in 2005. It appears the worst-case scenario is coming true, but is it possible that the crisis was exacerbated from the beginning by a simple misunderstanding. Did Japan’s “good intentions” get lost in translation?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated Sunday morning that the credibility of the latest video is likely “high.”

“Unfortunately, at this point, we are analyzing the picture, but we cannot help but say that the credibility of it is high,” said Abe on an NHK program called “Nichiyo Toron.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an official statement from Prime Minister Abe in English on the evening of Jan. 25 in Japan, noted as “provisional translation,” which states: “We have been pursuing every possible means including all available diplomatic channels, first and foremost, to save lives of the two Japanese nationals. It is under these circumstances that an image in which Mr. Haruna Yukawa seems to have been murdered, was uploaded online.
 Fully aware of unbearable pain and sorrow that his family must be feeling, I am simply left speechless.
 Such act of terrorism is outrageous and impermissible, which causes me nothing but strong indignation. Thus I express resolute condemnation.”

The English translation includes links to the original Japanese statement, and a statement in Arabic.

The government seems certain the video is real but some are questioning the authenticity of the video because it does not have an ISIS logo or footage of Yukawa’s execution. Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, claims that the voice in the audio doesn’t sound like her son, who speaks fluent, clear English.

“I’m simply stunned. I can’t believe that it’s real. I only believe that Kenji will soon come back to me,” she said from her home in Tokyo.

It’s not clear whether the Japanese government, which has no direct contact with ISIS, will comply with the new demand, or even if they can—al-Rishawi is in Jordanian custody. Negotiations are going poorly and mistranslations may have worsened the situation. While Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga claimed that Prime Minister was “trying his best” to resolve the crisis, there is no official word that any negotiations between the Japanese government and ISIS have happened.

As previously reported in The Daily Beast, the crisis could possibly have been averted last year if the Japanese government had not detained freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, who was scheduled to travel to Syria last October to mediate Haruna Yukawa’s trial and secure his release.

Nikkan Gendai, a daily newspaper in Japan, quotes a former Japanese diplomat’s critique of the way the administration has handled negotiations so far.

“The Abe Administration’s sense of diplomacy and lack of negotiation ability was made clear in this hostage crisis,” Amaki Naoto, a former diplomat, told Nikkan Gendai.

“I was shocked by how Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga indicated his awareness that the ‘deadline is at 2:50 PM on the 23rd’ even though they were in the middle of negotiating [the hostages’ release]. It would at least be better if they had taken a firm attitude that “the deadline is when the conclusion is made” but it’s unprecedented that the side whose hostages were taken would set their own deadline. Why show the other side, the cards you’re holding? It’s out of the question.”

In that same article, Nikkan Gendai also suggest ISIS’s decision to kill Yukawa and Goto unless the $200 million ransom was paid could have been sparked by Abe’s Jan. 17 speech in Cairo. In that speech, Abe pledged $200 million in non-military humanitarian aid to countries and refugees in the Middle East, but the paper reports the government didn’t hire a competent English translator and no Arabic translation was even attempted.

In an English version of the speech provided on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ homepage on Jan. 18, Abe states, “We are going to provide assistance for refugees and displaced persons from Iraq and Syria.” The text refers to ISIS by the other acronym ISIL.

In the next paragraph, he adds, “We are also going to support Turkey and Lebanon. All that, we shall do to help curb the threat ISIL poses. I will pledge assistance of a total of about 200 million U.S. dollars for those countries contending with ISIL, to help build their human capacities, infrastructure, and so on.”

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This seems to have led ISIS to believe Japan was providing military aid.

On the initial video released from the Islamic State, their spokesman, dressed completely in black, like a man in a discount ninja costume, justifies the group’s actions as follows: “To the Prime Minister of Japan: Although you are more than 8,500 kilometers (5,280 miles) from the Islamic State, you willingly have volunteered to take part in this crusade. You have proudly donated $100 million to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of the Muslims. To the Japanese public, just as how your government has made the foolish decision to pay 200 million to fight the Islamic State, you now have 72 hours to pressure your government in making a wise decision by paying the 200 million to save the lives of your citizen.”

But we had professional translator, Jennifer Crandall do a translation of Abe's statement. Here’s how she rendered it:

“In Palestine, we will put measures in place to help provide stability for the citizens’ livelihoods, in areas such as healthcare, water supply maintenance, and refugee aid in the West Bank and Gaza.”

“In order to help reduce the threat ISIL poses, we will offer our support to Turkey and Lebanon and also provide aid to the refugees and displaced persons of Iraq and Syria. To those nations struggling with ISIL, we pledge a total of 200 million USD to aid in the development of human resources and infrastructure.”

Here it is clearer that Japan is not offering military assistance, but rather, donating money to purely help the refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

This is clarified in a separate statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the first video threatening Goto and Yukawa was released, on Jan. 20. That statement reads, “Prime Minister Abe’s trip to the Middle East this time is intended to send a message that Japan will actively contribute to the stability of the Middle East region. Japanese assistance, which we have announced and amounts to approximately 200 million USD, is for humanitarian assistance and infrastructure development, and it is non-military in nature.”

While the statement as a whole—like Abe’s speech in Egypt—is awkwardly written and desperately needs a proofreader to revise it, it’s clear that Japan’s intention in the first place was to never go to war with ISIS. The second statement also includes a translation in Arabic.

The Daily Beast tried to reach the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comments on the Nikkan Gendai article and possible issues with their translations so far but has not received a response yet.

It is, of course, possible that in their troll-like fashion, ISIS deliberately misinterpreted their message to justify shaking down the Japanese government. ISIS is undoubtedly the bad guy in this situation. But it’s also likely that the Japanese government failed to take the extra step to have any English translations of their announcements and speeches proofread, which is evident by the numerous awkwardly prosed press releases on their websites. But they now seem to be making an effort to double-check English translations and include Arabic translations as well to prevent further misunderstanding.