REQUIEM FOR SHIGERU YOKOTA
Shigeru Yokota died of old age on June 5 in a hospital near Tokyo at 87, unable to fulfill his dream of reuniting with his daughter abducted at age 13 by North Korea in 1977. His widow Sakie is convinced that Shigeru has been “called to heaven” for all his efforts to obtain the release of Megumi and other Japanese abductees.
I fondly recall my many meetings with Shigeru and Sakie over the years. He was a very gentle person, always smiling softly—during casual chats as well as more involved conversations in which I would ask tough questions concerning Megumi.
Beneath his calm expression, however, one was aware of a clear sense of desperation. Obviously, his mind was filled with every type of anxiety concerning Megumi’s wellbeing. He desperately wanted to bring her back to Japan. In fact, I sometimes thought the tears that had welled up in his sad eyes might spill out. Withholding his deep sorrow, Shigeru was committed to putting on the line everything in life, dead set on one day bringing Megumi safely home. I believe that is why he was able to answer all of my questions instantly, with amazingly flawlessness and specific details, such as the time, day, month, and year in which events happened.
Nearly 20 years after Megumi suddenly vanished into thin air on her way home from badminton practice at school, Sakie one day stayed through a prayer meeting at her church with two of her close friends, offering a special prayer: “God, please tell me where our Megumi is.” Those must have been agonizing years utterly beyond our wildest imagination. In 2018, Sakie recalled that day as she appeared as a guest on my “Genron” regular Internet TV news show marking the sixth anniversary of its founding:
“I came home that evening to find Shigeru sitting on the sofa in the dark alone. I got worried because he clearly wasn’t his usual self. When I asked what was the matter, he replied, looking me in the eyes intently: ‘Today I got a call from the secretary to a former lawmaker of the Japan Communist Party that Megumi actually was abducted to North Korea in 1977, and is now alive.”
Sakie was stunned and overjoyed, with tears rolling down her cheeks. But that was the beginning of a new and tougher fight for her and her husband.
Japanese Lawmakers Mostly Pro-Pyongyang at the Time
By 1988, the Japanese government had obtained a reasonably accurate picture of the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens. As chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, Seiroku Kajiyama testified during upper house budgetary committee deliberations: “I believe there is a strong possibility that abductions by North Korean agents are behind the series of disappearances of Japanese couples since 1978.” But the Japanese media failed to show much interest, unable to accurately report this big story to the public. Only the conservative Sankei Shimbun and the Nikkei carried small articles.
A little later, in September 1988, there was a new development. Mrs. Kayoko Arimoto, the mother of Keiko Arimoto reported missing in London since 1983, revealed that she learned through a letter from Toru Ishioka, Keiko’s partner in Pyongyang, that her daughter was alive in North Korea. Mrs. Arimoto turned to Takako Doi, then head of the pro-Pyongyang Japan Socialist Party (JSP), for help, but Doi slammed the door in her face. Even after the JSP changed its name to the Japan Democratic Socialist Party (DPJ) in 1996, it absolutely refused to have anything to do with the abduction issue, in line with what Kayoko had experienced earlier. The same thing was true for the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) during the time of Shin Kanemaru, its deputy head and kingmaker who was forced to resign in 1990 for having illicitly accepted $4 million from a trucking company. Without question, Nagata-cho was full of pro-Pyongyang lawmakers at the time.
The JSP’s compliance with Pyongyang under Kim Il-song was especially grotesque. Its deputy head, Makoto Tanabe who enjoyed cozy relations with North Korea, joined the delegation to Pyongyang headed by Kanemaru in September 1990, two and a half years after Kajiyama’s testimony. Kanemaru never bothered to confront the North Korean dictator with the abduction issue. Japanese lawmakers were totally disinterested in taking any action against North Korea then.
As lawmakers continued to neglect their primary responsibility to protect Japanese lives, the Yokotas were instrumental in founding the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKNK) in March 1997. But most of the members were at a loss as to how to go about obtaining the release of their children and siblings from the North. If lawmakers remained unwilling to help them, their only remaining option would be to appeal to public opinion. But opinions were divided among the families when it came to specific measures. Recalled Sakie:
“My two sons and I were opposed to the idea, because we were afraid that publicizing Megumi’s real name would prompt North Korea to kill her in order to wipe out any evidence of her abduction. But Shigeru insisted that at that juncture we must take a resolute step forward by making her name public, now that her whereabouts were finally ascertained for the first time after 20 long blank years. The vote was 3-1 against Shigeru in our family, but in the end the three of us agreed to follow his judgment.”
Shigeru, too, was anguished, afraid that his decision could endanger Megumi’s life. Nevertheless, he determined to forge ahead with the plan, convinced that now was the only time to grapple squarely with the challenge. During an interview on the “Genron” news show on January 25, 2013, he recalled how he felt at that critical moment:
“I found Megumi’s name on top of the list of abductees on the homepage of ‘the Modern Korea Institute’ sponsored by Katsumi Sato. Also, an AERA magazine reporter told us that lawmaker Shingo Nishimura of the opposition New Frontier Party was prepared to submit questions to the Diet about matters pertaining to Megumi. Under such circumstances, I determined that making her real name public was mandatory in obtaining her release. Then on February 3, 1997, the conservative Sankei played up Megumi’s abduction in a frontpage article entitled: “Missing Little Girl Was Abducted by North Korea,” identifying her as Megumi Yokota. That evening, two major dailies—the Yomiuri and the Asahi—reported on Megumi’s whereabouts, and all other major dailies, including the Mainichi, followed suit the next morning.”
Whole Nation’s Support Mandatory to Obtain Abductees’ Release
It was a bold decision for Shigeru, who was widely viewed as cautious among his colleagues and supporters because of his innate seriousness. The campaign to bring the abductees home gained momentum as the Yokotas, holding Megumi’s photo in front of them, stood in public spaces along with other families, appealing for support. The AFVKNK was organized in March 1997, nearly a decade after the Kajiyama testimony. Unquestionably, revealing the real names of the abductees has formed the foundation supporting the families’ campaign to bring the victims home. The consolidated strength and vigor of the families has succeeded in moving the Japanese government as well as the world.
Shigeru directed his attention also to the families of abduction victims in South Korea, who have been completely marginalized socially and discriminated against in a pro-Pyongyang South Korea, despite the fact that a far larger number of its citizens than Japanese have been abducted. Shigeru also passionately appealed for global efforts to rescue the victims of North Korean abduction in other countries.
I have fond memories of dining with the Yokotas one evening in Tokyo. Shigeru drank sake like he was truly savoring it. When I recommended that he drink my favorite Niigata brand cold, a connoisseur’s way of sake drinking, he smilingly complied instantly, emptying his first cup as if to moisturize his dry throat. He then had one cup of cold sake after another, enjoying every sip of it. Sakie had this to say about her husband’s drinking:
“Shigeru loves all types of sake, in fact any brand. He makes it a point of trying every bottle on the counter in order. He can’t help it, and I can’t help it either.”
Sakie’s remarks had all of us laughing hard. That, I felt, was the only way for the couple to divert themselves from the sorrow of their harsh days of fighting for their daughter’s release, daily joking and trying to find a chance to laugh in their hard-pressed lives. Megumi’s twin brothers Takuya and Tetsuya and every other member of the AFVKNK have valiantly kept their sanity by never giving up hope that great things will one day happen for all of the abductees. Takuya declared:
“We don’t need to ask North Korea in what manner they will resolve the abduction issue. Instead, we owe it to ourselves to formulate a resolute policy and demand that Pyongyang honor that. We have always demanded that Pyongyang return all of the abductees immediately. This we will strive to realize with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe taking the leadership. Our determination remains firm.”
Abe has grappled with the abduction issue far more earnestly than any other Japanese politician. Under his leadership, the government has been going all out to make it a top priority. This is in sharp contrast to the short-lived Democratic administration which had eight different ministers in the three years and three months in charge of the issue—an average of less than five months per minister. The AFVKNK will continue to press Pyongyang for an immediate return of the abductees. I hope all people across Japan will support this campaign unfalteringly. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 905 in the June 18, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)