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What attracts Japanese women to 'Islamic State'?

Reports from Iraq suggest that as many as five Japanese are among those detained after the fall of an "Islamic State" stronghold near Mosul. Why did they leave safe and peaceful Japan to live in a war zone?

Japan has been shocked by reports that a handful of Japanese women have been detained in Iraq, apparently after travelling to the region to marry fighters for the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) - although there seems to be little sympathy for their plight.

Media reports from Iraq specify that more than 1,330 foreign women and children are currently being held at a camp for displaced people in northern Iraq. The foreign nationals, who according to the Associated Press were families of "IS" fighters, surrendered to Kurdish forces in late August after the "IS" stronghold in Tal Afar near Mosul was captured. The foreign nationals are believed to be from 14 countries, with Japan's Shukan Bunshun news magazine reporting that five are Japanese citizens.

No additional information has been provided by the Japanese authorities, such as the names, genders or ages of the five people. There is speculation, however, that at least one of the women travelled to Iraq to marry an Islamic State fighter. It is also possible that children may be among the five detainees.

The reports have stunned Japan, where the only previous suggestion that anyone was attempting to join IS came when a student from a university in Hokkaido was detained after claiming he was planning to join the revolution.

Japanese just as susceptible to 'IS' 

Irak | Frau mit Kind in einem Lager in der Nähe von Mossul

A woman and child in a tent camp for 'IS' families captured in Mosul, Iraq in August 2017

The reports of Japanese women travelling to live with IS fighters is a similar story told many times in Europe, where cases of young women travelling to Iraq to marry IS insurgents have drawn a lot of attention.

The narrative centers on how impressionable young women were groomed through social media and convinced to leave a peaceful and stable life to live in a war zone.

Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, told DW that a similar approach would have been used on Japanese women, and that they would have been just as susceptible.

Read more: German teenage runaway suspected of joining IS found in Iraq

"Young people in Japan have become deeply disconnected from society as a result of the Internet and social media," he said, adding that youth have a network of friends on social media, yet remain absent from a large part of society and are isolated and disconnected.

"These people are lonely and often trying to find an identity for themselves," said Watanabe. "This is why they often believe everything they are told when they come into direct contact with, for example, someone from Islamic State on a chat site or some other internet page."

"They have become distant from society and have questions," Watanabe added. "Those questions can include religion and god and the answers they get online can be quite appealing."

There has also been a minor boom in interest among some young Japanese in Middle Eastern culture, arts, history, cuisine and religion, with a number of young people - primarily women - being sufficiently interested to take part in events at the mosque in Tokyo's Shibuya district.

A spokesman for The Japan Muslim Association said he was unaware of reports of Japanese women heading to Iraq to join IS and declined to comment on their possible reasons.

Parallels with Aum cult

Watanabe believes there may be parallels between people joining IS and those who joined Aum Shinrikyo, the apocalyptic Japanese cult that planned to overthrow the government and set up its own state. Its aims were thwarted after some of its followers released sarin nerve gas on Tokyo's subway system in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring a further 4,000.

"The people who joined that cult were trying to find a place and meaning to their lives and were attracted by an organization with a strong creed that eventually grew into Aum, so there are definite similarities with young Japanese who feel an affiliation with Islamic State," he said.

Whatever their motivations, the women who have married Islamic State fighters they have only met online cannot expect a warm welcome when they return to Japan, even though the authorities are unlikely to prosecute them.

Read more: Japan PM vows justice after IS beheading of Goto

Read more: 'Islamic State' claims killing of Japanese national in Bangladesh

Ignored in Japanese media

"This has not been talked about in society or the media at all until now, as far as I can tell," said Watanabe, who believes that domestic media have ignored previous reports that Japanese women were heading to the Middle East to marry Islamic State fighters. He added that this may be because they self-censored their reporting on the grounds that it reflected badly on Japan.

This approach contrasts dramatically with media coverage in Europe, where cases of young women going to the Middle East to join IS insurgents they met online have been widely reported.

An alternative explanation, Watanabe suggested, would be that the Japanese media is far more interested in local scandals involving a Japanese politician or TV star, adding that there is also a strong possibility that the government intervened and ordered media companies not to broadcast the news.

Watch video 03:13

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