The Yomiuri ShimbunOn Nov. 15, 1977 — exactly 40 years ago Wednesday — Megumi Yokota, then 13, was abducted by North Korea from Niigata. Her father, Shigeru Yokota, who turned 85 on Tuesday, can no longer get around as well as he used to. This is the first installment of a three-part series tracing her family’s struggle to get their daughter back. They increasingly feel that they do not have much time left.
Megumi’s mother Sakie Yokota spoke to U.S. President Donald Trump at the State Guest House in Tokyo’s Motoakasaka district on Nov. 6 during his visit to Japan. “Please help [the abductees including Megumi] as soon as possible,” she appealed to the president.
Trump picked up a photo of Megumi in the fifth grade at elementary school smiling with her family, and looked closely at the photo.
At a joint press conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the president said, “We’ll work together and see if we can do something” to bring the abductees back.
Last conversation lingers
It was a relatively warm morning on Nov. 15, 1977.
As Megumi headed off for school, Sakie followed her daughter up to entrance of their house to hand her a white coat. “Aren’t you going to take it with you?” the mother asked.
Megumi, a member of the badminton club in junior high school, usually got home around 6 p.m. Sakie was worried that it might get cold in the evening.
“I won’t need [the coat] today,” the daughter replied. “I’ll leave it here.”
Carrying her school bag and a red sports bag holding her racket, Megumi headed out the front door.
It was to be their final conversation. Sakie still remembers that very ordinary morning 40 years ago.
Disappeared near home
Megumi did not come home even after 7 p.m. that day. Sakie went to the junior high school to look for her, and heard female voices coming from the gym. Relieved, she peeked inside the gym, but only found a group of housewives practicing volleyball.
“Where could she have gone?” She wondered and suddenly felt her blood drain.
Returning home around 8 p.m. after searching for her daughter on the beach, Sakie got a call from Shigeru saying that he would be late coming home because of a welcome party for a new colleague at work.
“There’s no time for that now,” Sakie told him tearfully. “Our daughter hasn’t come home.”
Shigeru caught a taxi home and searched the area with people including teachers from the school. Failing to find her, they reported it to the police around 10 p.m.
They used police dogs to follow Megumi’s footprints, but any sign of her came to an end on a street very close to her house, leading them to suspect that it might be a kidnapping.
The entrance of their house became crammed with the investigators’ shoes, and the telephone was equipped with tracing equipment. Shigeru and Sakie spent all night in front of the phone, forgetting to change their clothes and not feeling hungry.
Unexpected clues after 19 yrs
After that, Shigeru went down to the beach every day to search for clues.
For her part, Sakie blamed herself by thinking, “If she ran away from home, it might be because I raised her badly.” The mother wept bitterly, scratching at the tatami mats.
“There were many times I wished to die,” Sakie recalls. Whenever she saw girls as old as Megumi on the street, she would follow them to see if it was her.
More than 19 years passed without any leads, but in January 1997, Shigeru heard a piece of unexpected information from a Diet member’s secretary. “Your daughter may have been abducted by North Korea,” the secretary said.
A former spy who defected from North Korea allegedly brought the information, and specific details — such as “13 years old” and “on her way home from badminton practice” — that corresponded to Megumi at the time of her disappearance.
Sakie could not contain her rush of excitement, coming to believe that Megumi had been alive all along. An association of the families of abductees was formed in March 1997, with Shigeru serving as its representative. The couple began collecting signatures on the street, telling people, “Please give us your help.”
Refuse to believe N. Korea
North Korea admitted its abduction of Japanese citizens at Japan-North Korea summit talks on Sep. 17, 2002. It was claimed that Megumi was deceased.
“We were looking forward to the outcome of today’s meeting, but ... ” Shigeru said, his voice choking, at a press conference in Tokyo in the evening.
The sounds of sobbing echoed in the venue of the press conference, but Sakie leaned forward to the microphone from the rear row of conference seats. “[We] believe she is alive, and [we] will continue fighting,” she said impulsively.
“We cannot let it end just with a unilateral declaration that she is dead,” Sakie thought. It was the beginning of a new fight.