Abductee’s school friends cling to hope of her return

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kunie Yamada, right, and Emiko Shibo talk about school friend Megumi Yokota in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, earlier this month.

For nearly a half-century, the two women have held out hope of once again seeing their close friend, whose desk sat next to theirs in the classroom and was a member of the same school clubs.

It was 45 years ago on Tuesday that Megumi Yokota, then a 13-year-old junior high school student, was abducted by North Korean agents in Niigata City. For classmates Kunie Yamada and Emiko Shinbo, both now 57, it marks another year of not seeing their friend.

Yamada, who now lives in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, and Shinbo, who resides in Chiba City, first met Yokota in the summer of 1976. They were sixth graders at Niigata Municipal Elementary School and Yokota had just transferred from another school. She wore a red plaid dress.

“She was tall and seemed grown up,” Yamada said of her first impression.

Yokota was the one who broke the ice and talked to Yamada and Shinbo, whose desks were nearby. “You can call me Yoko,” she said. The three all liked drawing pictures and began exchanging a notebook in which they made up a story together. Yokota joined Yamada and Shinbo in the school choir and sang the soprano part, and the three would sing together on their way home from school.

Yamada was also a transfer student and had only arrived in Niigata in June that year. She was having trouble adjusting to the school, and it was Yokota who helped her smooth out the rough edges. “Although I was shy, Yoko is the reason that everyone became friends with me,” Yamada said. “Those days were the most fun I had in elementary school.”

When the three went on to the city’s Yorii Junior High School, they joined the badminton club together.

On Nov. 14, 1977, Yamada skipped her club activity that day because she had a dentist appointment. In the hallway of the school, she handed Yokota a note that said she would be transferring to another school by the end of the year. But as a fan of detective novels and comic at the time, she wrote the message using the dots and dashes of Morse code.

“If I look in the library, maybe I’ll be able to figure it out,” Yokota said, to which Yamada replied, “I’m sure you can.” They waved goodbye and parted.

It was the last time they would see each other. The next day, Yokota went missing while on her way home from school. It would not be until years later that it was learned she had been abducted by North Korean agents

“That day, at the same place where Yoko was abducted, I was chatting with another friend for about 30 minutes,” Shinbo said. “If the wheel of fortune had turned slightly differently, I might have been the one abducted.”

After suspicions were raised in 1997 that Yokota might have been abducted, Shinbo helped circulate a petition to bring her back. Shinbo said she worried whether the presence of a classmate in the effort might cause suffering for Yokota’s mother, Sakie.

But Sakie, now 86, reassured her, saying, “Although it used to be hard to meet people of my daughter’s generation like you, now it gives me hope by imagining what [Megumi] would look like now.” From that point, Shinbo has been working at the reception desk at meetings and other gatherings to help abductees still held in North Korea.

Every year on Megumi’s birthday on Oct. 5, Yamada and Shinbo send a card to Sakie. They said Sakie places the card next to Megumi’s photo.

On this year’s card for Yokota’s 58th birthday, Yamada wrote, “I hope you will spend the rest of your life with your family in Japan.” Shinbo always carries with her a drawing of a woman Yokota drew in their shared notebook.

As the years pass by, the two cling to a message of hope in their hearts that essentially states, “We miss you, Yoko. We’re sure we will get you back.”