Shigeru Yokota never went anywhere without his little comb. It was a present he received from 13-year-old daughter Megumi who hoped that it would make him look smarter. She gave it to him for his 45th birthday on November 14, 1977. The following day the young girl went missing without a trace while walking home from badminton practice. Around two decades later, evidence came to light that she had been kidnapped by North Korean agents.

Lifelong struggle 

For decades both Yokota and his wife, Sakie, did everything they could to get their daughter back. They campaigned tirelessly, not only for her return, but also the return of all Japanese citizens abducted by the communist regime between 1977 and 1983 (the official number is 17, though the actual figure is thought to be much higher). Sadly for Yokota, the fight is now over. Last Friday, on June 5, he passed away in Kawasaki at the age of 87 without the solace of ever being reunited with his daughter.

A symbolic and hugely instrumental figure in the fight to bring the abductees home, Yokota’s death has been mourned around the country. He was a mild-mannered yet hugely courageous individual who inspired those around him. In March 1997, he and his wife along with their twin sons and seven other families set up the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN) to raise greater awareness of the abduction issue and to pressurize the government into action so their children and siblings could be saved. 

Yokota served as the group’s chief for around a decade until he finally resigned due to ill health in 2007. As a result of the organization’s tireless efforts and constant lobbying, five abductees were repatriated in 2002. Amongst them was Hitomi Soga, a nurse who was kidnapped from her hometown in Niigata in 1978. She was taken to North Korea to teach agents her native language as well as training them in Japanese customs. Her mother Miyoshi disappeared at the same time but hasn’t been seen since. 

“Up until his death, he and his family remained convinced that his daughter was still alive.”

“I wish I could have helped him and Megumi reunite’,” Soga told reporters from Sado Island in Niigata on Saturday. “I wish I could have helped them talk to each other, but that’s no longer possible. I’m frustrated, sad and my heart breaks. So many thoughts are running around in my mind. We will turn the pain into our strength to continue our movement, and will do our best to work toward an early resolution. I cannot thank him enough from the bottom of my heart for having rescued me.” 

Still an unsolved matter 

While Soga, along with married couples Yasushi and Fukie Chimura and Kaoru and Yukiko Hasuike, were allowed to return home, the fate of the other abductees remained unknown. Pyongyang claimed eight, including Megumi, had died, while the other four hadn’t entered the country. According to North Korean officials, Megumi had killed herself while being treated for depression in 1993, but the year of her death was then changed to 1994. 

Pyongyang submitted what they claimed were Megumi’s cremated remains to the Japanese government a decade after her supposed death, however, DNA tests conducted here proved that they were someone else’s while the death certificate also appears to have been falsified. “With profound anger, I protest against this fabrication of ashes,” said her soft-spoken father during a press conference in late 2004. Up until his death, he and his family remained convinced that his daughter was still alive. 

While incarcerated in North Korea, Megumi reportedly gave birth to a daughter named Kim Eun Gyong after marrying Ki Young Nam, a South Korean who was also kidnapped by North Korean agents. In March 2014, Yokota and Sakie met their 26-year-old granddaughter for the first time along with her own 10-month-old baby in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar (formerly anglicized as Ulan Bator). “It was just a meeting of an ordinary grandfather and grandmother,” said Sakie after returning to Japan. 

A father’s ungranted wish 

In April 2018, Yokota was hospitalized as his decline in physical strength became noticeable. Speaking to The Mainichi, his wife said at the time that he was “working hard in the hope of seeing Megumi again.” His hospital room was decorated with pictures of his daughter before her abduction and with photos of her as an adult taken in North Korea. “You must hang in there until Megumi comes home and you can talk to her,” Sakie would tell him. “I will,” he replied with a firm nod. Tragically, he never got the chance. 

“Both my husband and I have worked hard to reunite with Megumi who was abducted by North Korea,” said Sakie in a statement with her sons Takuya and Tetsuya on Friday. “He has not been able to see her and has now reached the end of his rope. I am in a state of being unable to organize my feelings now.”

The following, published as series on Japan Forward, is part of a letter written by Sakie Yokota to her daughter Megumi last year: 

“We want to believe that the government will move forward and have the sense of hope we felt before. We want the politicians to use all their wisdom and ambition to force open the heavy gates and to bring home all of the remaining abductees.  

Your father is working hard at his physical rehabilitation as he waits for your return. Your photo by his bedside is the source of his energy. Your father and I are both old and ill, and can no longer be on the front line of the rescue campaign. I feel so frustrated when I think about the families that have been fighting so desperately and the people who offer us support.

“You must hang in there until Megumi comes home and you can talk to her”

Japan has seen peace for a long time, but the lives of the victims who have been marked ‘dead’ or ‘never entered the country’ by North Korea point to a cruel reality that Japan should not ignore.

My earnest plea is that people never forget North Korea’s outrageous state crimes against our families, crimes that still continue today. Never forget the lives of those who are still waiting to be rescued from North Korea. When the government finally exercises the true potential of its political power, the remaining victims will surely be able to come back to their homeland. Our family believes that Japan will one day experience such a moment. Dearest Megumi, please keep holding on until that day comes.”

The death of Yokota is a significant loss for the abductee rescue movement. His wife Sakie is now one of only two parents of those missing still alive. The other is Akihiro Arimoto, father of Keiko who in 1983 was tricked into flying to North Korea while studying English in London. In February this year her mother Kayoko, who always marked her daughter’s birthday with a cake and festive red rice, passed away at the age of 94. For her sake, for the sake of Shigeru Yokota and for those who were cruelly stolen from their country all those years ago, the remaining family members will continue to fight to bring them back home. 

For those who want to learn more about Megumi’s abduction, watch Patty Kim and
Chris Sheridan’s 2006 documentary Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story

Top image: Robert Gilhooly / Alamy Stock Photo