Spirited Away

Spirited Away

In her newly translated memoir, Sakie Yokota recounts a mother's ultimate nightmare


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on January 2009

spirited awayOn November 15, 1977, Sakie Yokota experienced every parent’s worst fear: her 13-year-old daughter Megumi disappeared on her way home from school. Twenty years later, after learning that Megumi had been abducted by North Korean agents, Sakie and her husband would became the most visible advocates for the dozens of victims kidnapped by the Stalinist regime. But on that unseasonably warm November day, as the hour grew later and Megumi still hadn’t arrived home, Sakie Yokota began to realize that her life as an average housewife was slipping irrevocably away…

Chapter 1

One Day My Daughter Suddenly Disappears

The White Raincoat

Megumi disappeared during her second term as a first-year student at Yorii Middle School in the city of Niigata.

My husband worked for the Bank of Japan, and during his career our family was transferred many times. Before our marriage, he was posted in Sapporo. After our marriage, we lived in Nagoya, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Niigata, Tokyo, Maebashi, and finally, Tokyo again, at which point he retired.
He was transferred from the branch in Hiroshima to Niigata on July 23, 1976, about a year before Megumi’s disappearance. Our family of five consisted of my husband and myself, our daughter Megumi, and Megumi’s twin brothers who were four years younger. Upon our transfer to Niigata, we moved to a single-story residence that was provided by the bank. The house was located in the Suido-cho district.

We were far from the city center, but near the coast; the Sea of Japan was only a few minutes’ walk away. Nearby was a vacant lot where the University of Niigata’s Science Department building stood before it was relocated. A windbreak of trees lined the street, and at night the area became pitch dark. Having moved from the sunny city of Hiroshima, which faces the Inland Sea, my first impression of Niigata was that it was forlorn. When I mentioned this, my new friends in Niigata teased me, “You mustn’t say that now during the height of the summer season when everything is bright and cheery. You’ll see how forlorn the place can be when the snow falls.”

“How long will father be posted in Niigata?” Megumi asked one day. I replied, “We have lived in each city for four to five years, so I think we will be here for about the same length of time.” Megumi’s response was a simple, “Ohhhh.” Once or twice she said, “I wish we could go back to Hiroshima.”
“This is a lonely sort of place, isn’t it?” I would reply. As a parent, I probably shouldn’t have said such a thing. But having left many good friends behind in Hiroshima, I empathized with Megumi’s loneliness in the early days after our move to Niigata. For Megumi, the budding self-consciousness of adolescence must have made things harder—she seemed to become more reserved and shy among strangers.

The area where we lived was a neighborhood of beautiful old residences. There were many grand homes nearby. Our house and the house to the left of ours had been built in the 1940s. A huge, single-story expanse, it felt like a vacation home by the sea. During the winter, we could hear the roar of the crashing surf, and at night, the window shutters would make a tremendous banging sound.

The bank also had an apartment building near our home for its officials’ families. A friend who had moved into an apartment there once suggested that we move there also. However, this was the first time we had lived in a single-family residence, so my children liked the large yard where we could barbecue and they could run around and play badminton. Watching them play, I felt that this was more important, so we never moved.

The soil was sandy, but the garden was truly spacious. I enjoyed gardening, so it gave me great pleasure to go out and buy seedlings and flower bulbs; I planted many trees as well as tulips and narcissus.

The last photo of Megumi prior to her abduction, 1977 Photos courtesy of Vertical Inc.

The last photo of Megumi prior to her abduction, 1977 Photos courtesy of Vertical Inc.

Megumi transferred to the city of Niigata’s public elementary school in the second semester of her sixth grade. She was by nature a very outgoing girl, so she soon became acquainted with the children of other officials at the bank as well as the staff of the Niigata bureau of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster. And gradually, her circle of friends widened.

In April 1977, Megumi entered Yorii Middle School and joined the badminton club at school.

Megumi had studied classical ballet since kindergarten, and she enjoyed singing and drawing, so I had thought that she would join a club where she could pursue one of these interests. However, her close friends joined the badminton club and they decided that they would all play badminton together. So she joined the club in a very lighthearted way, but soon discovered that practice was very strict. She nonetheless threw herself into her new activity.

On the day my daughter disappeared, the weather was unusually warm and very sunny.
Every morning, a friend who was Megumi’s doubles partner in badminton would come by our house and the two girls would walk to school together. On that day, as on all the other days, Megumi’s friend stopped by our house. Though the day was warm, I thought that Megumi should take her raincoat with her—it would become chilly by the time practice ended and it was time to go home. I followed Megumi down the hall to give her the raincoat. The color of the raincoat was off-white.

Megumi paused briefly, then said, “I don’t think I’ll need the raincoat today. I think I’ll leave it at home.” I can’t recall that her friend was wearing her raincoat, either.

Megumi called out, “Bye!” and headed out the front gate. That was the last time I saw my daughter.

“She Hasn’t Returned”

No matter how late the badminton club practiced, Megumi usually came home around six o’clock. That evening, the clock read past seven but my daughter still hadn’t come home.

There had been a badminton tournament for first-year middle school students on November 13, two days before her disappearance, and Megumi had been one of the entrants. There was a kind of post-tournament meeting on the 14th, so Megumi had left for school that day telling me, “I’ll be a little late coming home today.”

Megumi vacationing with her mother and twin brothers, 1974

Megumi vacationing with her mother and twin brothers, 1974

Although Megumi had told me in advance that she would be late, I had become worried when she didn’t come home at 6:30. I’d called the home of one of her friends who was also in the club to ask if the friend had come home. The road that Megumi walks from school is barely lit by street lamps, so I always worried at night until my daughter was safely home.

The friend’s mother had reminded me, “The club had a post-game meeting today. My daughter just came home, so I am sure that yours will be home soon, too.” I was relieved by her words, and soon enough, Megumi came home.

But Megumi did not say that she would be late when she left for school on the 15th, and yet she was late coming home.

Almost as if I were talking to myself, I said to my sons, “Megumi didn’t mention that she would be late today. Did she say anything to you before she left?”

“She never said anything.” “It’s getting late.

I wonder what happened.” My anxiety grew. “I’m going to school to see what’s going on.” Leaving my two sons at home, I paused only to slip my feet into a pair of sandals and I was out of the door. As I was latching the front gate, I saw the elderly lady who lived next door.

“Where are you going at this hour?” she asked.

“Megumi hasn’t come home yet, so I’m going to school to get her.”

I began walking to school. I thought I would surely meet up with her coming home. Along the way I saw a man and a woman, and then perhaps two other people. But no Megumi.

I entered the school grounds, and as I looked toward the gymnasium, I saw a bright light inside and heard female voices.

Oh, the girls are still practicing, I thought.