The mystery of Shosei Koda

Unsurprisingly, people were quick to dismiss Shosei Koda as a flaky, clueless tourist who got himself killed. Early descriptions in the international press of him as a "drifter" and "high school dropout" certainly suggest that the media fell back on stereotypes from the start.

I never figured him for a dimwit or a daredevil, because he was clearly doing his best to be calm under an extraordinarily frightening circumstance in the first video. I thought perhaps that he was a 24-year-old who had been caught up in the excitement and freedom of being on the road for the first time in his life, a moth to a flame. But what I found from Japanese-language news sources was a more intriguing portrait than I could have guessed.

Shosei Koda was the second son of a construction worker and a nurse. The family is Christian. His father was injured on the job some years ago, and the family subsisted on the mother's income and disability pension. He was forced to drop out of high school due to financial reasons, but went on to complete his high school equivalency at night school while working day jobs (mostly physical labor) to supplement the family's income.

Koda's dream was to become a prosthetics engineer and design artificial limbs for civilians who had been injured in war zones. He managed to save Y2.5 million over 7 years or so and was planning to move to the U.S. in Fall 2004 to pursue this very specialized course of study. While he spoke passable English, he needed immersion learning; this is why he went to New Zealand for the summer.

What happened next is uncertain, but Koda decided on an impulse to visit Israel. It was not an unusual destination for a Christian who literally wore his devotion on his sleeveā€”he had a cross tatooed on his arm. From Israel he moved on to Jordan. By all accounts, he was not a risk-taker, which makes his insistence on entering Iraq something of a mystery.

The only clue seems to be his choice of future profession. Those who knew him paint a picture of a serious young man who wanted to heal people, and had a need to keep it a personal mission. Perhaps he felt that whatever the danger, he needed to witness war for himself so that he would remember in his engineering classes why he was there. Perhaps he felt an ambivalence towards moving to a country that was conducting a war he opposed, and wanted to see Iraq before he set foot in the United States. The only person who knew for sure is now dead.

The Israeli stamps in Koda's passport and the cross tatooed on his arm doomed what little chance he had of release. P.M. Koizumi couldn't disavow the young hostage fast enough, and the government's almost relieved reaction to an inexplicably misidentified body earlier in the day probably rid his captors of any idea that their prisoner may be more valuable alive.

The Japanese pathologist who conducted the autopsy noted that the expression on Koda's face was peaceful.

Posted at 04:57 PM 11.13.2004
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