TOKYO, April 22 — The young Japanese civilians taken hostage in Iraq returned home this week, not to the warmth of a yellow-ribbon embrace but to a disapproving nation's cold stare.
Three of them, including a woman who helped street children on the streets of Baghdad, appeared on television two weeks ago as their knife-brandishing kidnappers threatened to slit their throats. A few days after their release, they landed here on Sunday, in the eye of a peculiarly Japanese storm.
"You got what you deserve!" read one hand-written sign at the airport where they landed. "You are Japan's shame," another wrote on the Web site of one of the former hostages. They had "caused trouble" for everybody. The government, not to be outdone, announced it would bill the former hostages $6,000 for air fare.
Beneath the surface of Japan's ultra-sophisticated cities lie the hierarchical ties that have governed this island nation for centuries and that, at moments of crises, invariably reassert themselves. The former hostages' transgression was to ignore a government advisory against traveling to Iraq. But their sin, in a vertical society that likes to think of itself as classless, was to defy what people call here "okami," or, literally, "what is higher."
Pursuing individual goals by defying the government and causing trouble for Japan was simply unforgivable. But the freed hostages did get official praise from one government: the United States.
"Well, everybody should understand the risk they are taking by going into dangerous areas," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "But if nobody was willing to take a risk, then we would never move forward. We would never move our world forward.
"And so I'm pleased that these Japanese citizens were willing to put themselves at risk for a greater good, for a better purpose. And the Japanese people should be very proud that they have citizens like this willing to do that."
In contrast, Yasuo Fukuda, the Japanese government's spokesman offered this about the captives' ordeal: "They may have gone on their own but they must consider how many people they caused trouble to because of their action."