• Obituaries

Iizuka devoted life to rescuing sister with adopted son

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Shigeo Iizuka calls for the rescue of his sister Yaeko, showing her picture, at a rally in Tokyo in November 2014.

Shigeo Iizuka, whose younger sister Yaeko Taguchi was abducted by North Korean agents in the late 1970s, dedicated his life to her rescue. He worked tirelessly alongside her son, Koichiro, whom he raised as his own.

Iizuka, the former head of the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea, died Saturday at the age of 83.

In June 1978, 22-year-old Yaeko was working at a restaurant in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, when she disappeared, leaving behind a daughter and 1-year-old Koichiro, who is now 44.

Iizuka thought: “There is no way my sister, who loves children, would leave them behind.” He waited for many days, but she never returned.

Raising three children of his own, Iizuka’s family finances were tight. But he welcomed Koichiro as “the second son of the Iizuka family.” He decided to adopt Koichiro with the hopes of someday telling his sister upon her return, “Look at what a fine man he’s become.”

In September 1998, when Koichiro was 21, he was looking through documents to apply for a passport when he came across something. “It says here that I’m adopted. What’s that about?” the young man asked Iizuka. It was then he realized the time to reveal the truth had come. Taking Koichiro to a nearby sushi restaurant, Iizuka explained, “Your mother is actually my younger sister.”

Iizuka also told his adopted son that Yaeko was forced to work in North Korea as a Japanese language instructor for Kim Hyon Hui, a former North Korean agent who carried out a Korean Air plane bombing in November 1987.

After hearing the truth, Koichiro told Iizuka: “Up until now, I had no idea [that I wasn’t your biological son]. You’ve been doing your best to protect me all this time, huh?” Koichiro’s words made Iizuka feel that he had been rewarded for all he’d done for him.

The association was established about 1½ years prior to this, but Iizuka decided against joining as he was worried about possible criticism he might face because of Yaeko being involved with Pyongyang’s espionage activities.

In September 2002, although North Korea admitted to the abduction of Japanese nationals at a Japan-North Korea summit, they said that Yaeko and seven others had been “confirmed dead.”

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Koichiro Iizuka, left, and Shigeo Iizuka

This made Iizuka think, “I can’t just sit here like this forever,” and he and Koichiro decided to work together with the association. In February 2004, Koichiro held a press conference with Iizuka in which he appealed for his mother’s return.

From then on, Iizuka and Koichiro devoted themselves to Yaeko’s rescue. In March 2009, they visited Busan, South Korea, and met with former agent Kim. In 2017 and 2019, they also met then U.S. President Donald Trump, seeking his cooperation on the abduction issue.

On Saturday, Koichiro released a heartbreaking statement on Iizuka’s death.

“It is regrettable that Iizuka was unable to reunite [with his sister Yaeko],” he said. “This is a cruel outcome.” He added, “I’m filled with regret as I feel there was more I could have done. I’m trying to figure out what I should do with this sorrow and anger.”