On November 15, 1977 thirteen-year-old Megumi Yokota was abducted from her home in Niigata, Japan. She had disappeared without a trace. Police investigations came up with nothing. No one saw her disappear nor had anyone any ideas where she might have gone. The Yokota family did not know if their daughter had run away, committed suicide, or been kidnapped. Neither the police nor the family gave credence to the last possibility since no one had called to demand ransom. It wasn’t until twenty years later that the truth finally came out. Megumi’s mother, Sakie Yokota tells the story In North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter: A Memoir (translated by Emi Maruyama and Naomi Otani).
The first part of the book is devoted to the precious memories Yokota has of her daughter. Megumi was an active child and enjoyed physical activities. As a young girl she started ballet lessons and studied dance for many years. At thirteen she decided to focus her skills on badminton, where she showed great promise and was one of two students at her school to be selected for a special training program. It was after a badminton practice that Megumi was abducted on her way home from school.
Near the beginning of the book Yokota reveals the latest news she has of Megumi today: that Megumi married while in North Korea and had a child. We see alleged photos of Megumi, her husband and daughter yet nowhere else in the book does Yokota say anything about them except a few lines in a timeline chart of events at the end. As the end of the book drew nearer I anticipated Yokota would write about attaining some kind of contact with Megumi or with their granddaughter, especially since one of the photos in the book is of the granddaughter holding a photograph of her maternal grandparents, the Yokotas. How did this girl get that picture? How did Yokota acquire alleged photos of her daughter as an adult? Even though Yokota herself can’t be sure that the photos are of her own adult daughter, nonetheless she should have explained how her own photo got into the hands of the girl claiming to be her own granddaughter. This part of the story left a football field of unanswered questions.
Twenty years after the abduction, Megumi’s father received a phone call that started the process of unravelling the truth. It was confusing how Yokota related the connection between a counterfeiting ring and the kidnappers. By coincidence both were North Korean and they worked for the same people. When the counterfeiters were apprehended, they revealed other illegal activities and miraculously, when the line of questioning turned to abductions, they revealed that they had come across Megumi several times in their undercover activities. It all sounds too conveniently coincidental. If Yokota had elaborated more on this miraculous connection of events, it would have seemed believable. Unfortunately the way Yokota reveals the news how she and her husband found out that their daughter was still alive seems like a primary school magic ending where coincidences converge. Too much information is given in too few pages and one is left to make assumptions about the whole series of events. I reread the entire chapter to make sure I understood everything, but then Yokota retells the whole discovery story later on in a linear style that leaves no uncertainties. Yokota does this often: repeat things that she had only written about barely twenty pages previously.
The sad news is that the Yokotas are never reunited with Megumi, and that for the past 34 years their hearts have been empty without her. Yokota conveys the aching longing and feelings of helplessness without sounding maudlin. I was surprised to read that:
“It may sound strange for me to say that I feel grateful for what we have endured. But I do believe that my sons have learned to be perceptive because they experienced hardships not known to children who have led happy lives growing up in a normal household. I want to believe that there are positive aspects to what has happened, at least in terms of the opportunity that this experience has given them to develop spiritual strength within themselves.”
The Yokotas have formed support groups with other Japanese who have lost family members to North Korean kidnappers. They continue to work to petition the government and human rights groups to pressure North Korea into releasing all Japanese citizens still held captive.