A 40-year-old Kidnapping Continues to Haunt Japan

Japanese still obsess over Megumi’s fate

By: Todd Crowell

Shigeru Yokota died last week at age 87 without the chance that he would ever be reunited with his daughter Megumi, kidnapped by the North Koreans in 1977. Yokota and his wife Sakai were not the only parents of Japanese believed to have been abducted, but they were the most prominent among those pushing the government to pressure Pyongyang on the abductee issue.

The families of the victims, especially Megumi’s mother and father, have become celebrities, endlessly appearing on talk shows and press conferences. Many politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, wear little blue ribbons in their suit lapels to express solidarity, much as Americans used to wear bracelets with the names of POWs on them during the Vietnam War era, and still do

Theirs was a story that tugged at the hearts of many, a 13-year old schoolgirl snatched while she was returning from after-school badminton practice. The two appeared in numberless press conference and even an audience with President George W. Bush to advance their cause

To the end, the Yokotas always maintained that Megumi was still alive, and hoped that someday they would be reunited. That is still the official government position even through North Korea itself claims she died of suicide when she was about 30.

The abduction issue has complicated Japan’s diplomacy, North Korea being the only country in the world Tokyo doesn’t formally recognize. Any resolution of issues between the two countries can make no progress until the abduction issue is resolved, says Tokyo.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime ministers, came into office promising to resolve the abduction issue but has made very little progress. But one possibility of opening some kind of resolution never really got off the ground.

Authorities think they know exactly what happened to Megumi. She was walking home from her badminton club practice with two school chums on that November, 1977 evening. Her companions peeled off one by one to go home. Then she was snatched by North Korean agents and hustled to a seaside submarine rendezvous just 300 meters from her home.

In 2002 North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il told Japan’s then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that, yes, his country had kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s including Megumi. Kim said that 12 Japanese had been kidnapped, of whom five were returned to Japan and the other eight died while in North Korea. 

Later, the North delivered what was purported to be her cremated remains, but Japan asserts that the North literally cooked the evidence by using an abnormally high temperature to cremate the remains in the mistaken belief that it would make DNA identification difficult or impossible. Japanese technicians did manage to make the matchups and say the remains belonged to other people, not Megumi.

The Japanese universally believe or profess to believe that Megumi is still alive somewhere in North Korea. If this is true, she would now be in her mid-50s. This is not just popular sentiment; it is an official government policy. Tokyo demands a full accounting, repatriation and extradition of the kidnappers – some of whom are named with Interpol arrest warrants outstanding – extradited to Japan.

Megumi has become the poster girl for a Japanese obsession with North Korean abductions that only gains in force here as time passes. The obsession is fed by other provocations such as clashes with North Korean “spy ships” in coastal waters, not to mention Pyongyang’s recent firing of multi-stage rockets that passed over northern Honshu on its way to the North Pacific.

It is easy to see why Megumi continues to tug at Japanese hearts. At 13 she was the youngest of the abductees. She was no nameless street vagrant but the beloved daughter of a Bank of Japan official and amateur photographer. So there are plenty of heartrending pictures: Megumi: in her school uniform; Megumi wearing her kimono on Girls’ Day; Megumi looking at cherry blossoms or frolicking with her younger twin brothers.

Initially, the police pursued the usual suspicions, that she had run away or was kidnapped for money or sex. But soon all the leads (such as they were) turned cold. It was if she had “disappeared in a puff of smoke,” said her mother Sakie. It would be 20 years after her disappearance before they finally learned her fate through North Korean defectors.

It is assumed that that the victims were snatched from Japan against their will in order to provide Japanese language and culture training for secret agents. Former North Korean agent Kim Hyon-hui, convicted and then pardoned in the bombing of a Korean Airlines plane over the Indian Ocean in 1987, claims she was taught Japanese by one of the abductees.

In Megumi’s case, the authorities surmise that the North Korean agents were returning from an unsuccessful mission (the Sea of Japan coast is only 300 meters from where she was believed to have been kidnapped). They spotted Megumi walking alone and fearing that they might be recognized or perhaps worried about returning empty-handed, they snatched her only a couple hundred meters from the safety of her home. Tragically, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.