15 November 1977, Niigata, Japan:
It was after sundown on a crisp November night when Megumi Yokota left her final badminton observe. Sharp winds chilled the fishing port of Niigata, and the gray sea rumbled at its brink.
The lights of residence had been seven minutes’ stroll away.
Megumi, 13, along with her book-bag and badminton racquet, mentioned goodbye to two buddies 800ft from her mother and father’ entrance door. But she by no means reached it.
As six o’clock turned seven and the quiet avenue failed to produce her daughter, Sakie Yokota started to panic. She ran to the fitness center at Yorii Middle School, anticipating to meet her en route.
“They left a long time ago,” the college’s night time watchman mentioned.
Police, tracker canine, torches splitting the darkness. They scoured a close by pine forest calling Megumi’s title. Sakie sped down the highway to the beach, frantically scanning each automotive parked close by.
It made sense to search the shoreline. But maybe one thing stronger and extra ineffable drove the mom to the water’s edge that night time.
Out on the Sea of Japan, out of Sakie’s sight, a boat manned by North Korean brokers was dashing in direction of the Korean Peninsula with a terrified schoolgirl locked within the maintain.
They left no proof, and never a single witness.
The crime was so brazen and weird that few would even think about it, not to mention remedy it. But through the years, it turned clear that Megumi was not the one sufferer.
The Japanese authorities says that from 1977 till no less than 1983, North Korean brokers kidnapped 17 Japanese residents. Some analysts imagine the true determine may very well be greater than 100.
In the yr that adopted Megumi’s disappearance, police poured 3,000 workers days into the search. A kidnapping unit occupied the Yokota home. Patrol boats cross-hatched the ocean.
The investigation drew an agonising clean.
Megumi’s father Shigeru paced the sand each morning. At night time, he cried within the bathtub. Sakie cried when she was alone, hoping Megumi’s brothers, twins aged 9, would not hear her.
A darkish sand-timer had turned over for the Yokota household. For years, they tried merely to endure the void.
But lacking Megumi was alive.
A North Korean spy who defected to the South in 1993 instructed Seoul intimately about an kidnapped Japanese lady who matched her description. “I remember her very clearly,” mentioned Ahn Myong-jin. “I was young, and she was beautiful.”
He mentioned one among her kidnappers – a senior spy-master – had instructed him her story in 1988:
The abduction was an unplanned blunder, he mentioned. No-one had meant to take a child. Two brokers ending up a spy mission to Niigata had been ready on the beach for a pick-up boat, after they realised they’d been noticed from the highway. Fearing discovery, they grabbed the determine. Megumi was tall for her age, and within the darkness they could not inform she was a youngster.
She arrived in North Korea after 40 hours locked in a pitch-black storage room, Ahn mentioned, her fingernails torn and bloody from making an attempt to claw her approach out. The brokers who took her had been chastised for his or her poor judgement. She was too younger; what use did they’ve for a little woman?
Megumi cried for her mom and refused to eat, unnerving her state minders. To soothe her, they promised that if she labored laborious and discovered fluent Korean, she could be allowed to go residence.
It was a lie to idiot a devastated youngster. Her captors had no such intention. Instead, North Korea would power Megumi to work as a spy coach, instructing Japanese language and behavior at an elite faculty for espionage.
For this to occur as soon as could be extraordinary. But the bungled abduction set a sort of precedent in North Korea.
The nation’s future chief Kim Jong-il, then head of its intelligence companies, needed to broaden his spy programme. Kidnapped foreigners weren’t simply helpful as academics. They may very well be spies themselves, or Pyongyang may steal their identities for false passports. They may marry different foreigners (one thing forbidden to North Koreans), and their kids, too, may serve the regime.
The seashores of Japan had been stuffed with peculiar individuals, ripe for abduction, who would stand no probability in opposition to highly-trained brokers.
“People think I don’t remember much about my sister… but I do clearly remember her, even though I was third or fourth grade in elementary school.”
When Megumi’s youthful brother, Takuya Yokota, and his twin Tetsuya had been 9, the police looking for Megumi confirmed them martial arts movies, urging them – “don’t get beaten – be strong.”
Every day for 43 years, he has tried to heed that recommendation. Now 52, he sits in a enterprise swimsuit holding a copy of a postcard his sister despatched earlier than her kidnapping. At the tip she wrote, “I’ll be home soon!! Please wait.”
“She was very chatty, very active and bright,” he says. “She was like a sunflower for our family.
“Without her on the eating desk, dialog was restricted. The environment received very darkish.
“I was very worried, but somehow I went to bed and got up in the morning – every day, to find that she was missing. I got up, and I still couldn’t find her.”
For the primary 20 years after Megumi disappeared, the Yokotas had nothing however a chilly case and their very own determined want to perceive what had occurred.
They tried to guess how she is likely to be ageing. She had been tall at 13; was she nonetheless? Had she stored her childhood dimples? A shadow hung over each query. They had no clue if she had survived that final November night time.
In coastal cities within the late Nineteen Seventies, rumours hovered like sea gulls. Locals spoke of unusual radio indicators and lights from unknown ships, or Korean cigarette packets discarded by the shore. In August 1978, a couple on a beach date in Toyama prefecture had been gagged, hooded and handcuffed by 4 males who spoke oddly formal, accented Japanese. They had been rapidly deserted when a dog-walker got here by and the canine barked, spooking their attackers.
Others had been much less fortunate.
On 7 January 1980, Japan’s Sankei Shimbun newspaper ran a front-page story: “Three couples on dates evaporate mysteriously along the coasts of Fukui, Niigata, and Kagoshima – is a foreign intelligence agency involved?”
But it took a convicted terrorist to lastly agency up the hyperlink to North Korea.
Kim Hyun-hui had killed 115 individuals by serving to to smuggle a bomb onto a South Korean passenger aircraft in 1987. Staring down a dying sentence in Seoul, she testified that she was a North Korean agent appearing on state orders. She mentioned she had discovered Japanese language and behavior so she may work undercover. Her trainer, she mentioned, was an kidnapped Japanese lady whom she lived with for nearly two years.
The testimony was compelling. But Japan’s authorities would not formally acknowledge that North Korea was stealing individuals. The two nations had a hostile historical past and no diplomatic relations. It was simpler to ignore the proof.
When Japanese negotiators tried to increase the problem privately, the North angrily denied any abductees existed and terminated talks.
It was 1997 – 20 years after Megumi went lacking – when Pyongyang lastly agreed to examine.
21 January 1997
“We have information that your daughter is alive in North Korea.”
Shigeru was shocked. A Japanese official named Tatsukichi Hyomoto, the non-public secretary to an MP, had contacted the Yokotas out of the blue. He had been probing abductions by Pyongyang for a decade, and needed to meet them as quickly as attainable.
Along with deep shock, a mad hope sprang again into the household’s hearts. The authorities believed Megumi was alive. So the query without delay turned: How will we get her again?
The Yokotas went public with their kidnap story. They had been terrified North Korea would kill Megumi to cowl up what had occurred, however her father argued the case could be handled as rumour except her title was revealed. They had to unfold the information throughout Japan, and beg the nation for assist.
The household appeared on primetime TV. Questions had been raised in parliament. In May, the federal government publicly confirmed that Megumi was not an remoted case: There had been extra just like the Yokotas, aching for stolen daughters, sons, sisters, brothers and moms.
Seven of those households fashioned a assist group to demand the rescue of their family members: the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.
They talked at size, pooling what little they knew. The abductions appeared opportunistic, however patterns quickly emerged. Most victims had been younger lovers of their twenties. Beaches throughout Japan had been recast as crime scenes.
On 12 August 1978, 9 months after Megumi disappeared, 24-year-old workplace clerk Rumiko Masumoto went to watch the sundown along with her boyfriend, Shuichi Ishikawa, 23, at a beach in Kagoshima Prefecture. Just a day earlier, she had shyly instructed her household about their relationship over dinner.
Their automotive was discovered locked on the scene, with Rumiko’s pockets and sun shades within the passenger seat. Her digicam was there too – full of footage the couple took of one another the day they disappeared. Police picked up one among Shuichi’s sandals not far from the water’s edge.
Every kidnapping was a personal tragedy. A cherished one who fell out of the world with out discover. Some of these left bereft had been pushed to the sting of insanity by their loss.
The press and the general public weren’t all the time sympathetic. News stories referred to the abductions as “alleged”. Several Japanese politicians believed the claims had been South Korean disinformation unfold to discredit the North.
But because the households drew up petitions, crammed the airwaves, and lobbied the federal government, the reality was gathering weight like a rolling snowball.
Five years later, in North Korea, it might cease on the ft of Kim Jong-il himself.
17 September 2002
“As the host, I regret that we had to make the prime minister of Japan come to Pyongyang so early in the morning,” mentioned North Korea’s chief.
But his companion’s anger had nothing to do with the time.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had flown in to talk about normalising Japan’s relations with North Korea, hoping the step would enhance his flagging opinion ranking. Instead, he had walked into a diplomatic ambush.
After a brutal Nineties famine believed to have killed greater than two million North Koreans, Kim Jong-il needed meals support and funding, and an apology for Japan’s 35-year colonisation of Korea. Japan needed – and had refused to proceed with out – particulars of each citizen kidnapped by Pyongyang’s spies.
Half an hour earlier than the historic assembly, the listing of names appeared: North Korea admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese residents. But simply 5 had been mentioned to be alive.
The causes of dying given for the opposite eight included drowning, choking on the fumes from a damaged coal heater, a coronary heart assault in a lady of 27, and two automotive accidents in a nation the place personal residents hardly ever personal automobiles. Pyongyang claimed it couldn’t present their stays, as floods had washed away virtually all their graves.
Koizumi was aghast.
“I was utterly distressed by the information that was provided,” he instructed Kim Jong-il, “and as the prime minister, who is ultimately responsible for the interests and security of the Japanese people, I must strongly protest. I cannot bear to imagine how the remaining family members will take the news.”
Kim listened in silence, taking notes on a memo pad, then enquired: “Shall we take a break now?”
Debating their predicament in an anteroom, deputy Cabinet spokesman Shinzo Abe – who would grow to be Japan’s longest-serving prime minister – urged Koizumi not to signal the declaration committing to normalisation talks except Pyongyang formally apologised for the kidnappings.
When the delegates reconvened, Kim picked up a memo and skim: “We have thoroughly investigated this matter, including by examining our government’s role in it. Decades of adversarial relations between our two countries provided the background of this incident. It was, nevertheless, an appalling incident.
“It is my understanding that this incident was initiated by particular mission organizations within the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties, pushed by blindly motivated patriotism and misguided heroism.
“[…] As soon as their scheme and deeds were brought to my attention, those who were responsible were punished. This kind of thing will never be repeated.”
The dictator of Pyongyang mentioned the abductions had been designed to present its spies with native-Japanese academics, and false identities for missions in South Korea. Some victims had been snatched from seashores, sure – and others lured from research or travels in Europe.
He spoke of Megumi, the youngest named abductee by a few years, saying her kidnappers had been tried and located responsible in 1998. One was executed, and the opposite died throughout a 15-year sentence, he mentioned.
“I would like to take this opportunity to apologise straightforwardly for the regrettable conduct of those people. I will not allow that to happen again.”
Koizumi signed the Pyongyang Declaration.
Five alive, eight declared lifeless.
Back in Japan, at a Tokyo guesthouse owned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the abductees’ households had been ready anxiously for information.
Megumi’s mother and father sat down with the Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, Shigeo Uetake. He took a breath.
“I regret to inform you…”
North Korea says Megumi Yokota hanged herself in a pine forest on 13 April 1994, on the grounds of a Pyongyang psychological hospital the place she was being handled for despair.
This is her second dying date. The North initially claimed she had died on 13 March 1993, earlier than declaring that an error.
As proof, Pyongyang produced what it mentioned was a hospital “death registry”. It was a kind with the phrases “Registry of Patient Entering and Leaving the Hospital,” on the again of it. But “Entering and Leaving the Hospital,” had been crossed out a number of occasions and the phrase “Death,” written as an alternative. Japan instructed North Korea it discovered the doc extremely suspect.
Another kidnapped Japanese lady, Fukie Chimura, later mentioned that Megumi had moved in next-door to her and her husband in North Korea in June 1994, two months after Megumi’s supposed dying, and lived there for a number of months.
The Yokota household do not imagine Megumi killed herself. Still, Sakie finds the small print of Pyongyang’s story chilling.
“In Niigata, we had pine forests,” she instructed the Washington Post in 2002. “I’m sure she missed them. I’m sure she was very lonely. For a minute, I thought maybe she longed so much for us and she couldn’t come back that, in an instant, she [took her own life.]
“I cried. But within the subsequent minute, I mentioned no, that would not have occurred. I don’t need it to have occurred. I do not need her to have gone by that.”
Two years after declaring Megumi dead, Pyongyang handed over what it said were her ashes. They arrived on the 27th anniversary of her kidnapping. Her parents had kept their daughter’s umbilical cord when she was born – a Japanese tradition – and DNA tests were performed.
The samples didn’t match.
The scientist who tested the ashes would later say they could have been contaminated, making the result inconclusive. But North Korea had form for providing dubious remains. It had already sent bones it claimed were those of abductee Kaoru Matsuki, a man it said had died aged 42. They included a jawbone fragment which a dental expert said belonged to a woman in her sixties.
On 15 October 2002, the five abductees whom North Korea said were alive landed at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.
They stepped off the plane to Japanese flags and homemade “Welcome residence” banners, and sobbed on the runway in the arms of their families.
Pyongyang had agreed the five could visit Japan for a week to 10 days.
They would never set foot in North Korea again.
How do you rescue someone whose captor insists they are dead? Of course, the Yokotas weren’t the only family facing this nightmarish question.
Rumiko Masumoto, the young office clerk who disappeared with her new boyfriend, was also on the list of deceased.
North Korea says Rumiko died of a heart attack in her twenties. Her family don’t accept that. “There’s nobody in my household with coronary heart failure,” her brother says simply.
Teruaki Masumoto was 22 and studying fishery in Hokkaido at the time of his sister’s 1978 abduction. He is 65 now, retired from a job grading tuna at Tokyo’s main fish market.
He and Megumi Yokota share a birthday – 5 October – though they are nine years apart. Megumi would be 56 now, and his sister Rumiko 66.
Rumiko doted on her brother, the youngest of four Masumoto siblings.
“She was very sort to me,” he says. “Since our household wasn’t so prosperous, we lived in a single room with a household of six. Rumiko and I slept on the identical futon till I used to be about 12 years previous. She cherished me a lot. When I received scolded by my father, she cried and defended me.”
Teruaki has charted four decades of lost time on a precious gift from Rumiko: a watch she gave him when he got into university.
In recent years, the war of missing seconds has grown to feel ever more urgent.
Rumiko and Teruaki’s father, Shoichi, died of lung cancer in 2002. Their mother Nobuko made it to 90 before passing away in 2017.
For four decades she waited for her daughter to come home. But in her later years, she acknowledged that death might reach her first.
The search for a stolen child, dead or hidden in a pariah state, is a brutal legacy to leave. But it’s an issue many abductees’ families have been forced to address. With the parents’ generation now gone or in their twilight years, should they tell their present, living children to fight on with everything they have? Is it even a choice?
There was no formal handover, but Teruaki tends the dark sand-timer now.
“My father, when he was nonetheless alive again in round 2000, turned unable to come to Tokyo,” he says. “At the time he mentioned to me – ‘I’m sorry.’ And I felt type of puzzled and uncomfortable, as a result of I used to be doing this not due to my father however due to my lacking sister.
“My mother sometimes told me that she wondered if Rumiko would ever come back to Japan. So I think my mother half doubted that she would see her alive. But they didn’t say things like, ‘this is your time’ or ‘I want you to keep doing this rescue mission.’ No, they didn’t say that to me.”
They did not want to.
Megumi’s brother, Takuya Yokota, was nonetheless in his thirties when he felt the mantle deciding on his shoulders.
“When I went to the United States to see President Bush in 2006, I found my ageing parents had trouble spending a long time on a plane,” he says. “And in Japan too, if we went somewhere far from Tokyo, they would also have trouble travelling. At that time, I understood that my parents would not be able to go to far-away places any more.”
Only two of the victims’ mother and father stay alive. Sakie, the youngest, will flip 85 in February.
Megumi’s father Shigeru, softly-spoken however steely, died on 5 June 2020. He went into hospital in April 2018, and fought on daily basis that adopted to keep alive a little longer, together with his treasured daughter’s image by his mattress.
In Japan, the place everybody is aware of about “The Abduction Issue”, it isn’t attainable to shield a youngster with private ties for lengthy. Both Teruaki Masumoto and Takuya Yokota are fathers: Teruaki to a younger daughter, and Takuya to a son in his early twenties.
Takuya believes his son was in toddler faculty after they instructed him what had occurred to Aunt Megumi. “Probably when he was six or seven years old. I’m sure I had talked to him at the age of nine, the age I was when my sister got abducted.”
Teruaki’s daughter was youthful nonetheless.
“My daughter knows about Rumiko,” he says. “My wife told her before she entered kindergarten. There’s this festival in Japan in summer, in July, when we think a couple separated by the Milky Way meet once a year up in the sky. We write our wish on a short piece of paper and put it onto a tree. On that paper, my four-year-old daughter wrote, ‘I want to see my aunt.’
Not every abductee’s family has the luxury of insulating children from the burdens of loss and duty, as Teruaki knows.
Since 2004 he has campaigned alongside Koichiro Iizuka. The person stolen from Koichiro was his mother. He was 16 months old at the time.
Aged 22, Yaeko Taguchi was a nightclub hostess, and single mother to a baby son and three-year-old daughter. When she disappeared with no explanation in June 1978, her children were left abandoned in their Tokyo nursery.
Yaeko’s baby son was adopted by her brother, Shigeo Iizuka, and raised as his fourth child. Her daughter was cared for by an aunt.
Now 43, Koichiro Iizuka remembers nothing about his birth mother. He’s notably polite, calling her “Yaeko-san” – “Ms Yaeko”.
“Mum” and “Dad” are Shigeo and his wife Eiko. And until he reached 22, he had no idea his life was more complex than that.
“When I received a job I had the possibility to go overseas for coaching, and I wanted to apply for my passport,” he explains. “In order to do this I wanted to get a household registration paper. And I took it and checked out it, and located that I used to be adopted by Mr Iizuka.
“First I couldn’t imagine why they had kept this secret for so long; I just couldn’t imagine, so I needed some time. It took me a week before I went to my parents.
“When I got here residence, my mom was out of the home however my father was there. So I instructed him I had regarded on the household registration paper and had came upon I used to be adopted. And I requested him – what occurred to me?”
Shigeo took him to lunch and told him the truth. “He instructed me, because the paper says you are not my organic youngster. And I’ve this youngest sister – whose title is Yaeko – and you’re a youngster of hers.”
He held back the darkest part until they were home.
“He instructed me, there’s this particular person Kim Hyun-hui – the North Korean agent, the bomber of the KAL aircraft in 1987, and he or she mentioned she was taught by a Japanese trainer. Kim Hyun-hui was proven a number of footage twice [by Japanese police] – and he or she picked Yaeko-san, saying ‘that is my trainer.’ From that it was clear that she was one of many abductees in North Korea.”
The claim was corroborated by Fukie Chimura, one of the abductees returned to Japan, who said she had shared accommodation with Yaeko.
In 2004, two years after the five Japanese made it home from North Korea, Koichiro decided to reveal publicly that he was Yaeko Taguchi’s son. He was frustrated by the diplomatic impasse on rescuing the others, keen to do all he could to push the issue.
“This particular person Yaeko-san wasn’t actual in my reminiscence – she was like somebody in a story,” he says. “But this lady within the story gave beginning to me, so it was stunning to me that I would not have the opportunity to see her.
“My father was given a lecture by a foreign ministry official who said there was no proof to support North Korea saying that she was dead. And my father said he just couldn’t believe it – he couldn’t take the word of North Korea.
“So we thought – I assumed – that I needed to rescue her, assist her.”
The plane bomber Kim Hyun-hui had been sentenced to death for her crimes, but was ultimately pardoned by South Korea’s then president. In 2009, Koichiro and Shigeo Iizuka travelled to Busan, South Korea to meet her, and learn what they could about her time with Yaeko.
“She mentioned, I really feel that Yaeko-san is my sister, and I’m very joyful to see my sister’s son right this moment,” recalls Koichiro. “And I hope sometime that the 4 of us can meet at one time.”
Officially, North Korea says Yaeko Taguchi died in a car accident in 1986. But Ms Kim disputes that, saying she spoke to a driver who reported seeing her alive the following year. She would now be 65.
Koichiro knows he may ultimately be left searching for his mother, the missing stranger, without the backing of those who knew and loved her.
“Of course I really feel time is essential. Especially as a result of Yaeko-san has two siblings who’ve already died. My father is ageing. I need him to see her once more very a lot. Not solely my household, however the different abductees’ households… I can simply see they’re getting older. People who used to be very lively – a few of them are gone already, and a few are very frail.”
North Korea has never admitted it was behind the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, and maintains there is no such person as Kim Hyun-hui.
Yaeko Taguchi’s family fear that after tutoring Kim and spending her days surrounded by spies, Yaeko may simply know too much ever to be released.
All those caught up in this struggle share a common dread: That passing time will make a mockery of it, as the abductees age beyond reasonable hope of survival.
Would they have died of old age in North Korea by now? At time of writing – no. But it will fall to the current generation to address the question.
“Time passes equally for either side,” says Takuya Yokota. “Yes, they’re getting older too. And I believe spending a yr or 20 years in Japan or in England or the US has a completely different that means to spending the identical period of time in North Korea. In North Korea, it’s extremely laborious not solely to keep alive till tomorrow, however to maintain alive right this moment.”
For Teruaki Masumoto, not even their loved ones’ deaths would justify giving up.
“If their deaths had been confirmed then we might need their bones to be again with us. That’s the Japanese mentality. We would additionally proceed to maintain the Japanese authorities accountable for not having the ability to rescue the abductees. Even although there are 17 abductees ‘accredited’ by the federal government, I believe many, many extra are in North Korea – greater than a hundred. If there are different abductees, we must always have the opportunity to set up what occurred to them. So we’re not going to cease working any time quickly.”
In 2014, North Korea agreed to open an investigation into the fates of the eight acknowledged abductees it has not returned, despite having declared them dead. It was dragged out until 2016, then cancelled in a spat over nuclear test sanctions.
Megumi’s father dreamed of walking her through the lights and liveliness of Roppongi, Tokyo’s entertainment district. But in her mother’s prayers, they go to a field together where they can lie down looking at the sky, without anybody around, and just quietly and peacefully spend time.
Sakie writes open letters to her daughter, in the hope the words may somehow reach her.
Part of one, published by JAPAN forward last year before the loss of her husband, reads as follows:
“I know it might seem a bit strange that I am just casually reaching out to you. Are you well?
“[…] I’ve been making an attempt my finest to reside a full life, however I really feel my physique weakening, and on daily basis will get a little bit more durable. When I see your father on the hospital desperately doing his rehabilitation workouts, I’m overcome with an urgency to discover a approach for him to see you.
“This is the reality of ageing. It’s not just your father and me. We may be dealing with ageing, sickness, and weariness, but the families of all the victims in North Korea still go on yearning to see their loved ones back on native soil and hold them in their arms.
“We haven’t got a lot time left. We’ve fought lengthy and laborious with our hearts and souls, however we can not maintain out for much longer.
“[…]I want to celebrate my next birthday with you. Only the nation of Japan – the government – can make that happen. But sometimes I’m overcome with a sense of unease and am concerned that our efforts are futile when I see what’s going on in our government. I doubt they have the will to solve this problem and figure out a way to bring the victims home.
“[…] Somehow, I’ve managed to survive this raging storm. I’m grateful that you just even have survived, supported by a larger energy. We aren’t alone. And so I pray once more right this moment as I consider all of you.
“It will take more effort than ever before to bring all the victims back to Japan. Of course, Japan must stand up for itself, but we also need courage, love, and righteousness from around the world. (Those of you who read my letter, please take a moment to remember in your heart the abductees still trapped in North Korea. Please speak out for them.)
“Dearest Megumi, I’ll sustain the combat to convey you again residence to me, your father, and your brothers Takuya and Tatsuya. My resolve stays unshaken, even at age 84. So please deal with your self and by no means lose hope.”
All in-person interviews had been carried out prior to the coronavirus pandemic