Abductees come home

Emotions swell during first reunion in 24 years

Five Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in 1978 arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport Tuesday to be reunited with their families for the first time since they were kidnapped.

The five — Yasushi Chimura, Fukie Hamamoto, both 47, Kaoru Hasuike, 45, Yukiko Okudo, 46, and Hitomi Soga, 43 — smiled and burst into tears as they hugged and exchanged words with members of their immediate families on the tarmac.

After recognizing her relatives, Hamamoto, dressed in a beige suit, burst into tears and hugged her elder brother Yuko, 73, who hugged her back and smiled.

Yuko had said earlier, “We are not thinking about the past. Today, all our eight siblings will welcome (Fukie) cheerfully.”

Chimura, sporting a tan and wearing a dark suit, also burst into tears as he held his father Tamotsu, 75. His father brought a photograph of his mother, Toshiko, who died in April at the age of 74.

Hasuike, also wearing a dark suit, descended the stairs holding hands with Okudo, who was dressed in beige. They married while in North Korea.

Hasuike, who was 20 when he was abducted, burst into tears as he hugged each of his relatives.

He and elder brother Toru, 47, were later seen speaking with smiles on their faces as their mother anxiously held onto Hasuike’s jacket.

Okudo wiped away her tears with a handkerchief as she spoke with her relatives.

Both Soga and her sister Tomiko Kaneko, 37, burst into tears as Soga tightly held her hand.

The five survivors were each wearing blue ribbons.

The families of the abducted have called on all Japanese to join the so-called Blue Ribbon movement to display national solidarity over the eventual return of all abductees.

The movement is asking that all Japanese show unity by wearing or displaying something blue, the color that represents both “the blue Sea of Japan” separating Japan from North Korea and “the same blue sky” under which both the abductees and their families live, the families said earlier.

All the relatives and supporters who welcomed the five at Haneda airport had blue ribbons pinned on their clothing.

The five returnees said later Tuesday they were glad to be back in their homeland.

Soga, Hamamoto, Chimura, Hasuike and Okudo each made brief remarks at a news conference at a Tokyo hotel after their arrival in Tokyo in the early afternoon from Pyongyang.

Chimura, Hasuike and Okudo said separately they were sorry for having caused anxiety over their disappearances before joining Soga and Hamamoto in leaving the news conference without taking any questions.

The five, abducted in the summer of 1978 from three locations, arrived at Haneda airport aboard an All Nippon Airways jet chartered by the Japanese government at around 2:20 p.m. They were met by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe inside the plane before emerging to meet their families at the foot of the steps.

The families of abductees that Pyongyang claims have died in North Korea also welcomed the returnees at the airport.

The five and their families were then taken to a Foreign Ministry facility at the airport to meet in private for about 30 minutes before traveling to a Tokyo hotel by bus.

Chimura and Hamamoto, from Fukui Prefecture, and Hasuike, Okudo, and Soga, from Niigata Prefecture, will spend the first two days of their return in Tokyo meeting their relatives and those of other abductees.

On Thursday, the five will travel to their respective hometowns. The children of the five have remained behind in North Korea.

The five are expected to stay in Japan for up to two weeks, after which they are likely to fly back to Pyongyang together aboard another aircraft chartered by the Japanese government, Japanese officials said.

Earlier, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters at his office that he hopes the return of the five will help resolve the larger problem of abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korea.

“This does not mean the task of finding out the facts (surrounding the abductions) is finished,” Koizumi said. “I hope they will talk about all kinds of things with their families in a quiet setting and that (their visit) will lead to the abduction issue being resolved.”

The surviving abductees were accompanied on the plane by nine Japanese government officials from Tokyo, two from the Japanese Embassy in Beijing who were in Pyongyang to facilitate the visit and two officials of North Korea’s Red Cross Society.

The nine Japanese officials, including Kyoko Nakayama, a special adviser at the Cabinet Secretariat on the abduction cases, left Haneda airport on the plane early in the morning and arrived at Pyongyang International Airport shortly before 9:30 a.m.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said that the government will seek North Korea’s cooperation in gaining the five abductees’ permanent return to Japan.

“The government must primarily respect their own will,” Fukuda said. “But once they express such a will, we will call for North Korea’s cooperation in achieving their permanent return. This is a matter of course.”

Fukuda said in a separate press conference earlier in the day that Nakayama is believed to have repeated Japan’s demand to North Korea that the children of the five abductees be allowed to visit Japan during her brief stop in Pyongyang.

The request is also likely to be taken up in negotiations between the two governments aimed at normalizing bilateral ties that are scheduled to resume Oct. 29 in Kuala Lumpur after a two-year hiatus.

On Wednesday, the abductees will meet relatives and those of other abducted Japanese for about three hours at the hotel. The relatives will meet the press Wednesday afternoon, but it is uncertain whether the abductees will speak to the media.

Chimura and Hamamoto, who married in 1979, will head to the city of Obama in Fukui Prefecture on a flight from Haneda airport to Komatsu airport in Ishikawa Prefecture and then travel by car to their hometown, supporters of the couple said.

Hasuike and Okudo, who married in 1980, and Soga, who married a former U.S. soldier in North Korea, will take a bullet train to Niigata. From there, the couple will be driven to the city of Kashiwazaki, while Soga will fly from Niigata airport to Sado island in the Sea of Japan.