It was a scene like this on November 15th 41 years ago when the young Megumi Yokota suddenly disappeared from her hometown in the prefecture. The 13-year-old was on her way home from junior high school badminton practice, and it was already dark as she made her way along the 600 meter route. A police investigation using a sniffer dog found that her tracks abruptly ended at a corner just 100 meters from her house. A full search and investigation continued, but she was nowhere to be found.
Two decades later, it came to light that young Megumi had been abducted by North Korean agents.
Her disappearance has consumed her family as they struggle to get her back, and has consumed the country in a diplomatic row with North Korea over this and other abductions.
41 years of parental agony
It is now known that from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the regime in North Korea regularly kidnapped Japanese nationals and forced them to instruct North Korean agents in the Japanese language and other activities. At the first ever summit between Japan and North Korea in 2002, then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted to the practice.
Five of the people kidnapped have since been returned home. The whereabouts of 12 more is still unknown. Megumi is one of them.
Her parents cherish a photograph they took of her when she entered junior high school just a little over 6 months before she was abducted. She is a young girl in school uniform, standing in the foreground of blooming cherry trees. Megumi had fallen ill and was unable to attend her school entrance ceremony, so a few days later, her father, Shigeru, had gone out with her to the school grounds to take her photo.
"I was very moved as I took that picture, realizing she had grown into a wonderful girl," he said later, never imagining the photo would be used by police 6 months later for the investigation of her disappearance.
Megumi's parents have since dedicated their lives to securing the rescue of their daughter and the other abductees. They have traveled across Japan giving thousands of speeches, convinced that only public support, both in and outside Japan, will bring their daughter back.
Megumi's father turns 86 this month. The day before his daughter was abducted, he celebrated his 45th birthday. Megumi had given him a comb as a present and he continued to carry it with him while working at the forefront of rescue efforts. He is no longer physically able to continue that work and has been hospitalized due to problems walking. He keeps Megumi's photo at his bedside and continues to wait for his daughter's return.
On the day of her abduction, Megumi's mother Sakie had cooked a stew and was waiting for her daughter to come home.
"When Megumi comes home I want to cook the stew she didn't get to eat that day," said Sakie, now 82 and also physically weakened. On the balcony of their home, the rubber tree Megumi bought continues to grow. It was less than 50 centimeters tall when she bought it. It's now taller than her mother Sakie. Time is running short for Megumi's aging parents.
Their message is unchanged
When I first met Megumi's parents 12 years ago, I was deeply moved by their modesty and their soft-spoken way. They are an ordinary family tied up in an extraordinary crime of state-sponsored abduction. I remember them always saying calmly, "We just want our daughter back....We want to hear our daughter say 'I'm home.'" It has been their constant refrain.
"What we want is to have the abductees back. That's all," said Sakie. Their words have not changed since I first met them. You might think that having their daughter suddenly torn apart from them and not even being able to hear her voice for all these years would engender unspeakable hatred in their hearts for the North Korean leadership. But they have no such hatred. They only repeat, "Please bring our child back."
Kim Jong Il, North Korean leader for the duration of the abductions, died in 2011. Shigeru and Sakie have since been calling for a "decision" from his son and successor, Kim Jong Un. They do not harbor hopes for the collapse of the North Korean regime. They say they only wish that the new leader decides to release all the abductees, and that Japan-North Korea relations become peaceful.
Supreme leader's decision
The situation on the Korean peninsula has changed recently. The first ever summit meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea took place earlier this year. Both the US and South Korean presidents raised the abductions issue with Kim Jong Un. The challenge for the Japanese government is to make use of these changing circumstances to secure the return of the remaining abductees.
North Korea has continuously disappointed these families in every discussion with Japan. Perhaps Pyongyang is concerned about the remaining abductees exposing information about its secret services. The families pledged last year that both they and the abductees would not reveal such secret information if all the abductees were returned. It would seem that the families have done all they can.
It's now up to the Japanese government to create an environment that elicits a decision from Kim Jong Un to return the remaining abductees. The issue will not be resolved in a genuine sense if the abductees are not returned before their parents pass away. Nevertheless, the Japanese government needs to convince Kim Jong Un that it is more advantageous to deal with the issue sincerely.
Megumi’s Tokyo Olympics
Megumi was born 5 days before the opening ceremony celebrating the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The much-anticipated, plump, dark-haired infant weighed 3,260 grams at birth.
I got a postcard from Sakie recently. It said: "My dramatic life is now in the final stages....My husband and I will keep working hard until we meet our daughter."
Megumi came into being in the year of the first Tokyo Olympics. Her parents now hope they will be able to meet their daughter for the first time in 41 years and enjoy the next Tokyo Games with her in 2 years' time.
"All we want is to have our child back."
It is my sincerest hope that these unchanged words finally find their way to the heart of the North Korean leader.