15 November 1977, Niigata, Japan:
It was after sunset on a crisp November evening when Megumi Yokota left her last badminton practice. Sharp winds chilled the fishing port of Niigata, and the grey sea rumbled at its brink.
The lights of home were seven minutes’ walk away.
Megumi, 13, with her book-bag and badminton racquet, said goodbye to two friends 800ft from her parents’ front door. But she never reached it.
As six o’clock became seven and the quiet street failed to produce her daughter, Sakie Yokota began to panic. She ran to the gym at Yorii Middle School, expecting to meet her en route.
“They left a long time ago,” the school’s night watchman said.
Police, tracker dogs, torches splitting the darkness. They scoured a nearby pine forest calling Megumi’s name. Sakie sped down the road to the beach, frantically scanning every car parked nearby.
It made sense to search the shoreline. But perhaps something stronger and more ineffable drove the mother to the water’s edge that night.
Out on the Sea of Japan, out of Sakie’s sight, a boat manned by North Korean agents was speeding towards the Korean Peninsula with a terrified schoolgirl locked in the hold.
They left no evidence, and not a single witness.
The crime was so brazen and bizarre that few would even imagine it, let alone solve it. But over the years, it became clear that Megumi was not the only victim.
The Japanese government says that from 1977 until at least 1983, North Korean agents abducted 17 Japanese citizens. Some analysts believe the true figure could be more than 100.
In the year that followed Megumi’s disappearance, police poured 3,000 staff days into the search. A kidnapping unit occupied the Yokota house. Patrol boats cross-hatched the sea.
The investigation drew an agonising blank.
Megumi’s father Shigeru paced the sand every morning. At night, he cried in the bath. Sakie cried when she was alone, hoping Megumi’s brothers, twins aged nine, wouldn’t hear her.
A dark sand-timer had turned over for the Yokota family. For years, they tried simply to endure the void.
But missing Megumi was alive.
A North Korean spy who defected to the South in 1993 told Seoul in detail about an abducted Japanese woman who matched her description. “I remember her very clearly,” said Ahn Myong-jin. “I was young, and she was beautiful.”
He said one of her kidnappers – a senior spy-master – had told him her story in 1988:
The abduction was an unplanned blunder, he said. No-one had meant to take a kid. Two agents finishing up a spy mission to Niigata had been waiting on the beach for a pick-up boat, when they realised they’d been spotted from the road. Fearing discovery, they grabbed the figure. Megumi was tall for her age, and in the darkness they couldn’t tell she was a child.
She arrived in North Korea after 40 hours locked in a pitch-black storage room, Ahn said, her fingernails torn and bloody from trying to claw her way out. The agents who took her were chastised for their poor judgement. She was too young; what use did they have for a little girl?
Megumi cried for her mother and refused to eat, unnerving her state minders. To soothe her, they promised that if she worked hard and learned fluent Korean, she would be allowed to go home.
It was a lie to fool a devastated child. Her captors had no such intention. Instead, North Korea would force Megumi to work as a spy trainer, teaching Japanese language and behaviour at an elite school for espionage.
For this to happen once would be extraordinary. But the bungled abduction set a kind of precedent in North Korea.
The country’s future leader Kim Jong-il, then head of its intelligence services, wanted to expand his spy programme. Kidnapped foreigners weren’t just useful as teachers. They could be spies themselves, or Pyongyang could steal their identities for false passports. They could marry other foreigners (something forbidden to North Koreans), and their children, too, could serve the regime.
The beaches of Japan were full of ordinary people, ripe for abduction, who would stand no chance against highly-trained agents.
“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 younger brother, Takuya Yokota, and his twin Tetsuya were nine, the police hunting for Megumi showed them martial arts videos, urging them – “don’t get beaten – be strong.”
Every day for 43 years, he has tried to heed that advice. Now 52, he sits in a business suit holding a copy of a postcard his sister sent before her kidnapping. At the end 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 at the dining table, conversation was limited. The atmosphere got very dark.
“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 first two decades after Megumi disappeared, the Yokotas had nothing but a cold case and their own desperate need to understand what had happened.
They tried to guess how she might be ageing. She had been tall at 13; was she still? Had she kept her childhood dimples? A shadow hung over every question. They had no clue if she had survived that last November night.
In coastal towns in the late 1970s, rumours hovered like sea gulls. Locals spoke of strange radio signals 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 were gagged, hooded and handcuffed by four men who spoke oddly formal, accented Japanese. They were hastily abandoned when a dog-walker came by and the dog barked, spooking their attackers.
Others were less lucky.
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 finally firm up the link to North Korea.
Kim Hyun-hui had killed 115 people by helping to smuggle a bomb onto a South Korean passenger plane in 1987. Staring down a death sentence in Seoul, she testified that she was a North Korean agent acting on state orders. She said she had learned Japanese language and behaviour so she could work undercover. Her teacher, she said, was an abducted Japanese woman whom she lived with for almost two years.
The testimony was compelling. But Japan’s government wouldn’t officially acknowledge that North Korea was stealing people. The two countries had a hostile history and no diplomatic relations. It was easier to ignore the evidence.
When Japanese negotiators tried to raise the issue privately, the North angrily denied any abductees existed and terminated talks.
It was 1997 – 20 years after Megumi went missing – when Pyongyang finally agreed to investigate.
21 January 1997
“We have information that your daughter is alive in North Korea.”
Shigeru was stunned. A Japanese official named Tatsukichi Hyomoto, the personal secretary to an MP, had contacted the Yokotas out of the blue. He had been probing abductions by Pyongyang for a decade, and wanted to meet them as soon as possible.
Along with deep shock, a mad hope sprang back into the family’s hearts. The government believed Megumi was alive. So the question at once became: How do we get her back?
The Yokotas went public with their kidnap story. They were terrified North Korea would kill Megumi to cover up what had happened, but her father argued the case would be treated as hearsay unless her name was revealed. They had to spread the news across Japan, and beg the country for help.
The family appeared on primetime TV. Questions were raised in parliament. In May, the government publicly confirmed that Megumi was not an isolated case: There were more like the Yokotas, aching for stolen daughters, sons, sisters, brothers and mothers.
Seven of these families formed a support group to demand the rescue of their loved ones: the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.
They talked at length, pooling what little they knew. The abductions appeared opportunistic, but patterns soon emerged. Most victims were young lovers in their twenties. Beaches across Japan had been recast as crime scenes.
On 12 August 1978, nine months after Megumi disappeared, 24-year-old office clerk Rumiko Masumoto went to watch the sunset with her boyfriend, Shuichi Ishikawa, 23, at a beach in Kagoshima Prefecture. Just a day earlier, she had shyly told her family about their relationship over dinner.
Their car was found locked at the scene, with Rumiko’s wallet and sunglasses in the passenger seat. Her camera was there too – filled with pictures the couple took of each other the day they disappeared. Police picked up one of Shuichi’s sandals not far from the water’s edge.
Every kidnapping was a private tragedy. A loved one who fell out of the world without notice. Some of those left bereft were driven to the edge of madness by their loss.
The press and the public weren’t always sympathetic. News reports referred to the abductions as “alleged”. Several Japanese politicians believed the claims were South Korean disinformation spread to discredit the North.
But as the families drew up petitions, filled the airwaves, and lobbied the government, the truth was gathering weight like a rolling snowball.
Five years later, in North Korea, it would stop at the feet 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,” said North Korea’s leader.
But his companion’s anger had nothing to do with the time.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had flown in to discuss normalising Japan’s relations with North Korea, hoping the step would boost his flagging opinion rating. Instead, he had walked into a diplomatic ambush.
After a brutal 1990s famine believed to have killed more than two million North Koreans, Kim Jong-il wanted food aid and investment, and an apology for Japan’s 35-year colonisation of Korea. Japan wanted – and had refused to proceed without – details of every citizen abducted by Pyongyang’s spies.
Half an hour before the historic meeting, the list of names appeared: North Korea admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens. But just five were said to be alive.
The causes of death given for the other eight included drowning, choking on the fumes from a broken coal heater, a heart attack in a woman of 27, and two car accidents in a country where private citizens rarely own cars. Pyongyang claimed it could not provide their remains, as floods had washed away almost all their graves.
Koizumi was aghast.
“I was utterly distressed by the information that was provided,” he told 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 become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister – urged Koizumi not to sign the declaration committing to normalisation talks unless Pyongyang formally apologised for the kidnappings.
When the delegates reconvened, Kim picked up a memo and read: “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 special mission organizations in the 1970s and 1980s, driven 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 said the abductions were designed to provide its spies with native-Japanese teachers, and false identities for missions in South Korea. Some victims were snatched from beaches, yes – and others lured from studies or travels in Europe.
He spoke of Megumi, the youngest named abductee by many years, saying her kidnappers had been tried and found guilty in 1998. One was executed, and the other died during a 15-year sentence, he said.
“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 dead.
Back in Japan, at a Tokyo guesthouse owned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the abductees’ families were waiting anxiously for news.
Megumi’s parents 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 mental hospital where she was being treated for depression.
This is her second death date. The North initially claimed she had died on 13 March 1993, before declaring that an error.
As evidence, Pyongyang produced what it said was a hospital “death registry”. It was a form with the words “Registry of Patient Entering and Leaving the Hospital,” on the back of it. But “Entering and Leaving the Hospital,” had been crossed out several times and the word “Death,” written instead. Japan told North Korea it found the document highly suspect.
Another kidnapped Japanese woman, Fukie Chimura, later said that Megumi had moved in next-door to her and her husband in North Korea in June 1994, two months after Megumi’s supposed death, and lived there for several months.
The Yokota family don’t believe Megumi killed herself. Still, Sakie finds the details of Pyongyang’s story chilling.
“In Niigata, we had pine forests,” she told 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 in the next minute, I said no, that could not have happened. I do not want it to have happened. I don’t want her to have gone through 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 home” 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 no one in my family with 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 kind to me,” he says. “Since our family wasn’t so affluent, we lived in one room with a family of six. Rumiko and I slept on the same futon until I was about 12 years old. She loved me so much. When I got 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 still alive back in around 2000, became unable to come to Tokyo,” he says. “At the time he said to me – ‘I’m sorry.’ And I felt sort of puzzled and uncomfortable, because I was doing this not because of my father but because of my missing 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 didn’t need to.
Megumi’s brother, Takuya Yokota, was still in his thirties when he felt the mantle settling 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’ parents remain alive. Sakie, the youngest, will turn 85 in February.
Megumi’s father Shigeru, softly-spoken but steely, died on 5 June 2020. He went into hospital in April 2018, and fought every day that followed to stay alive a little longer, with his treasured daughter’s picture by his bed.
In Japan, where everyone knows about “The Abduction Issue”, it’s not possible to protect a child with personal ties for long. Both Teruaki Masumoto and Takuya Yokota are fathers: Teruaki to a young daughter, and Takuya to a son in his early twenties.
Takuya believes his son was in infant school when they told him what had happened 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 younger still.
“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 got a job I had the chance to go abroad for training, and I needed to apply for my passport,” he explains. “In order to do that I needed to get a family registration paper. And I took it and looked at it, and found that I was 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 came home, my mother was out of the house but my father was there. So I told him I had looked at the family registration paper and had found out I was adopted. And I asked him – what happened to me?”
Shigeo took him to lunch and told him the truth. “He told me, as the paper says you’re not my biological child. And I have this youngest sister – whose name is Yaeko – and you are a child of hers.”
He held back the darkest part until they were home.
“He told me, there is this person Kim Hyun-hui – the North Korean agent, the bomber of the KAL plane in 1987, and she said she was taught by a Japanese teacher. Kim Hyun-hui was shown several pictures twice [by Japanese police] – and she picked Yaeko-san, saying ‘this is my teacher.’ From that it was clear that she was one of the 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 person Yaeko-san wasn’t real in my memory – she was like someone in a story,” he says. “But this woman in the story gave birth to me, so it was shocking to me that I wouldn’t be able 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 thought – that I wanted to rescue her, help 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 said, I feel that Yaeko-san is my sister, and I’m very happy to see my sister’s son today,” recalls Koichiro. “And I hope someday that the four 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 feel time is very important. Especially because Yaeko-san has two siblings who have already died. My father is ageing. I want him to see her again very much. Not only my family, but the other abductees’ families… I can easily see they’re getting older. People who used to be very active – some of them are gone already, and some 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 both sides,” says Takuya Yokota. “Yes, they are getting older too. And I think spending a year or 20 years in Japan or in England or the US has a different meaning to spending the same amount of time in North Korea. In North Korea, it’s very hard not only to stay alive until tomorrow, but to keep alive today.”
For Teruaki Masumoto, not even their loved ones’ deaths would justify giving up.
“If their deaths were proven then we would want their bones to be back with us. That’s the Japanese mentality. We would also continue to hold the Japanese government accountable for not being able to rescue the abductees. Even though there are 17 abductees ‘approved’ by the government, I think many, many more are in North Korea – more than a hundred. If there are other abductees, we should be able to establish what happened to them. So we’re not going to stop working any time soon.”
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 have been trying my best to live a full life, but I feel my body weakening, and every day gets a little bit harder. When I see your father at the hospital desperately doing his rehabilitation exercises, I am overcome with an urgency to find a way 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 don’t have much time left. We’ve fought long and hard with our hearts and souls, but we cannot hold out 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 have managed to survive this raging storm. I am thankful that you also have survived, supported by a greater power. We are not alone. And so I pray again today as I think of 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 will keep up the fight to bring you back home to me, your father, and your brothers Takuya and Tatsuya. My resolve remains unshaken, even at age 84. So please take care of yourself and never lose hope.”
All in-person interviews were conducted prior to the coronavirus pandemic