Nobody in sleepy Asahikawa could have guessed that Imai would resurface two months later—not at another smoky Ginneko gathering, but on television screens worldwide as one of three Japanese hostages taken captive in Iraq last week by a previously unknown group called the Mujahedin Brigade. The kidnappers' warning, which came with a video showing the blindfolded hostages—two humanitarian workers (Nahoko Takato and Imai) and a photographer (Soichiro Koriyama)—surrounded by armed men, was chillingly clear: "Three of your sons have fallen into our hands. We offer you two choices: Either pull out your forces or we will burn them alive."
Like the rest of the world, Asia has been transfixed by the horror of Iraq: the mounting casualties, the suicide bombings, the growing sense of anarchy. Until last week, the chaos seemed reassuringly distant from the daily concerns of life in Asia. Then, in the space of just a few days, civilians from Japan and South Korea—as well as Canada, Britain, the U.S., Italy and Israel—were taken hostage across Iraq. The collective message of the kidnappings was as acute as a knifepoint: America and your allies, get out. On Sunday, just hours before the deadline to kill the Japanese hostages, the kidnappers reportedly promised to release them. But with the violence intensifying and the insurgents beginning to define their enemy targets more broadly, Asians are being forced to realize that this kind of nightmare is likely to recur—and that is leading many to reconsider the danger of getting caught in the cross fire. Yi Sung Phil, an official with South Korea's left-leaning Democratic Labor Party, sums up what is an increasingly widespread sentiment in Asia: "This is a fight between the United States and the Iraqi people, so we should stay out of it."
The Asian soldiers in Iraq, of course, are not combat troops. But even though Asians have been assiduous in showing Iraqis they are there to rebuild the country, not fight a war, all Asian solders ultimately serve under U.S. command in the "coalition of the willing." And many Asian troops—the Thai, Mongolian and Filipino soldiers, in particular—are deployed in some of the most incendiary parts of Iraq. It's not hard, then, to imagine how a band of discontented Iraqis might target, say, an Asian medic or aid worker as a substitute for an American soldier. "The kidnapping [of the Japanese] is an attack on the U.S.-led coalition," says Chiharu Takenaka, a professor of international politics at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama. "They know that America is too strong for them to deal with, so they're cutting off the weakest link."
Reinforcing that link will be the job of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who began a weeklong Asia tour on Saturday. His first stop: Tokyo, where thousands of antiwar demonstrators flooded onto the streets to amplify tearful pleas by the families of the three captives for immediate Japanese troop withdrawal. Just hours after news of the hostage crisis became public, the Japanese government vigorously rejected pulling out its soldiers. For Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, keeping the troops in Iraq is in part a matter of pride. The 550 members of the country's Ground Self-Defense Force in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah are the first Japanese soldiers to serve in a full-fledged combat zone since the end of World War II, after which the defeated nation signed a peace constitution forbidding an offensive military. Beyond fixing water-purification plants, the Japanese soldiers are emblems of a country whose leader is determined to normalize its military after more than a half-century in purgatory. Still, with a key parliamentary election coming up in July, Koizumi is in danger of gambling all his political capital on a faraway quagmire. As he knows, the last Spanish government's stance in favor of the war was a major reason why it lost the recent general election.
Domestic politics is also an issue in South Korea, which has promised to send about 3,000 more troops to Iraq by the end of June. The nation will go to the polls this week to choose a new National Assembly, and while voters are currently more focused on the impeachment crisis surrounding President Roh Moo Hyun, Iraq might be the first big test for the postelection government, regardless of who leads it. Already, the public mood is turning against deploying more South Korean troops, especially after the brief kidnapping of seven missionaries last week. These evangelicals—part of a band of some 150 Korean Christians spreading their Gospel throughout the Middle East, according to the Korean NGO Global Civic Sharing—were stopped at a checkpoint early on April 8 and accused by a group of Iraqis of being American spies. (Pastor Byun Kyung Ju told TIME that at the same checkpoint she saw another group of Asians in a car in front of them also being detained. Their luggage was set on fire by the side of the road, and the group was then hustled into another car and driven off.) Afraid to admit they were missionaries, the South Koreans insisted to their interrogators that they were just doctors and nurses. To prove their cover, another pastor even gave the head captor a healing massage, kneading the kidnapper's pressure points in the middle of the dusty Iraqi landscape. The group was finally released after seven hours.
The new South Korean administration will have to balance anti-American public sentiment with a harsher geopolitical reality: Seoul needs U.S. troops on its soil to protect against a possible North Korean military threat. In the meantime, it's monitoring what other Asian nations are doing. "If the Japanese go, Korea might go," says Mo Jongryn, an international-relations expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. A similar calculus is being assessed in Thailand, which has 443 troops in Iraq and has already suffered two soldier casualties. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra says he will consider pulling out Thai troops if the situation deteriorates.
Political considerations notwithstanding, there are compelling economic rationales for Asian militaries to stay in Iraq. Japan imports more than 85% of its oil from the Middle East and is counting on preferential oil contracts as Iraq's petroleum industry gets back on its feet. Last year Mitsubishi signed a deal to procure 40,000 barrels of crude per day from the southern city of Basra. In South Korea, top firms like Hyundai Construction and LG Electronics are hoping to reap rewards in Iraq. Hyundai has already won two contracts worth $240 million to build a hospital and repair dams. And the need to bolster economic relations with the U.S. was a major factor for Thailand to send troops to Iraq. Since dispatching soldiers, Thailand, which sells 20% of its exports to the U.S., has received a basket of goodies from America, including a bilateral free-trade treaty and eligibility to bid for reconstruction projects in Iraq.
Still, Thaksin knows that rosy trade numbers might not salvage his popularity if the terror threat hits closer to home. Some analysts connect a rising wave of violence in Thailand's predominantly Muslim south with the country's troop deployment in Iraq. "There are many people down here who use the issue [of Thai soldiers in Iraq] to whip up hatred of the Americans and the Thai government that supports them," says Wairoj Pipitpakdi, an opposition legislator in the southern province of Pattani where most of the 50 casualties of recent sectarian violence lived. Last week the U.S. and Australia told their citizens to avoid the Thai south, and Britain issued a warning about the country as a whole. And as terror attacks metastasize across the globe, many are worried that an Asian capital may be next—particularly given that the Madrid train attack prompted the new Spanish government to pledge to withdraw its troops from Iraq. South Korea has beefed up security on its trains, planes and other public transport, while Thailand has done the same at Bangkok airport, foreign embassies and so-called soft targets such as the tourist resorts in Pattaya and Phuket.
Likewise, in the Philippines, where the government has been battling a Muslim insurgency in the south, some fear that the posting of Filipino troops in Iraq might persuade more local extremists to link up with al-Qaeda or its regional proxy Jemaah Islamiah. "Why should the Philippines absorb the enemies of other countries?" asks former Senator Raul Roco, who is running for President. "We have enough problems." If soldiers and civilians from the continent continue to be targeted in Iraq, more people will begin to wonder if this mission is worth the price in Asian blood.