Search for missing daughter
Sakie Yokota thinks about her daughter Megumi constantly. She has for decades. "It's hard not to believe she's still doing well, because she was such a cheerful girl like in these pictures," says Sakie, looking at Megumi's photos.
She recollects the painful days she lost her daughter. She painted Megumi's portrait at that time, trying to figure out her feelings. "I was in a state of confusion every day. I kept asking, "Where are you, where are you, Megumi?" Sakie remembers.
Megumi was heading home from badminton practice at her junior high school in 1977 in a coastal city. Soon after saying goodbye to her friends, North Korean agents grabbed her just a few hundred meters from her home.
"My husband and I often went to the coast to search. We were crying, screaming and calling her name. Every time something was found on the beach, even a shoelace, we went to check if it was hers," says Sakie. But they found nothing.
Memories of those left behind
Junko Nezu is one of those who await Megumi's return. She taught Megumi music in elementary school. Nezu remembers Megumi was just an ordinary girl who loved music.
One of her most vivid memories of Megumi is of her singing. Nezu assigned Megumi a solo part at a school event. Megumi gave a brilliant performance. "It was very impressive. She had such a beautiful, clear, and high voice. Everyone in the classroom admired it," Nezu recollects.
Along with Megumi's former classmates, Nezu holds a charity concert every year, praying for her return. But she's concerned the issue is fading from people's memories. "Young people don't know much about the issue. They ask me whether it really happened. So I always say let's get younger generations involved in the concert," Nezu says. She says she believes the next concert will surely be one welcoming her back home.
Unending rescue efforts
Megumi isn't the only one who is missing. At least 16 other Japanese citizens went missing in the 70s and 80s. They were taken to North Korea by boat from coastal areas.
Pyongyang sent 5 of them back to Japan when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2002. It also gave what it claimed were ashes of Megumi, saying she committed suicide. But a DNA test conducted by Japan confirmed that was false and that the ashes belonged to someone else.
Megumi's parents feel their daughter is still out there. "We will continue to fight as we believe she is still alive," says Sakie.
Over the years, they've tried to raise awareness and repeatedly called on North Korea to carry out a fresh investigation.
US President Trump shone a spotlight on the couple's plight when he visited them last year. Sakie made a desperate appeal to Trump for help. He showed strong sympathy toward the issue and said he would make an effort to bring back the abductees.
As promised, Trump raised the issue at the summit with Kim Jong Un on June 12. A Japanese government source says Trump told Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Kim was open to meeting with Japan about the issue.
Abe has promised he will seek an opportunity for direct talks with Kim by building mutual trust, saying, "A Japan-North Korea summit should help resolve the abduction issue. That's how I plan to respond to the matter."
Sakie welcomed the idea of a possible meeting between the leaders. "It's extremely significant that the North Korean leader has received the clear message that the abduction issue remains unresolved," says Yokota.
But the Yokotas also feel they've reached their limit in campaigning. Sakie is worried about what will happen if they are unable to take advantage of this opportunity. "We, the families of abductees, are all aging and in poor health," she says. She told the prime minister that the only thing the abductees' families are wishing for is to be reunited with their loved ones as soon as possible.
Sakie's pinning her hopes on ongoing diplomatic exchanges with North Korea, praying she can once more hold her daughter in her arms.