We have all had one or two unforgettably heartfelt encounters in our lives, whether long-lost first loves or more distant crushes whose intensity it is still possible, years later, to reconjure with ease.

As humdrum reality takes over, though, such feelings tend to become buried away in memory and only resurface once in a while. As a result, any thoughts of trying to reconnect with those involved are generally abandoned for want of the time or means to find them.

But it ain’t necessarily so — and in Japan it’s to 53-year-old Atsuko Sato that many turn when the need to revisit past loves or missed opportunities becomes too poignant to be ignored any more.

Over the last 19 years, Sato’s company, Hatsukoi No Hito Sagashimasu Sha (literally, We Look For Your First Love, Co.), has helped 12,000 people from teenagers to octogenarians — with an astonishing success rate of 95 percent.

“Because I was lost once, I thought others might also be lost. I wanted to make them happy by really helping,” says Sato, who said she once felt compelled to find out about someone she had known.

That was when she was in her 30s, still unmarried, and she realized she was thinking a lot about a man she’d known seven years before. But she said that when she did try to track him down, some “unpleasant agencies” she came into contact with gave her the idea of starting her own really helpful company.

Although she gave up her romantic quest before long, afraid that her hunt might annoy the man, Sato says that those agencies were “extremely expensive and rude, asking intrusive questions before I even commissioned them.” She added that such agencies typically charge 500,000 yen to 1 million yen per case, whereas her company’s fee is 55,000 yen plus travel costs for the search, with another 50,000 yen payable when the target is found.

“I believe the work we do is as meaningful to society as that of lawyers and psychiatrists,” Sato declared. “But our status can easily be marred by the practices of more unscrupulous agencies.”

One to benefit from Sato’s ambition was 83-year-old Yoshitane Tarui from Osaka, who asked for help trying to trace his first love from 64 years back.

“In modern terms, she would be called my ‘assistant’ in my work at the military plant,” said Tarui, explaining that he was then 19 and the girl, named Etsuko, was just 17. “We didn’t even hold hands or say anything like ‘love’ or ‘like’ to each other. But we had an unspoken understanding that we were meant to be for each other.”

It was only when he was drafted into the Imperial Army and about to be sent to Manchuria in 1944 that Tarui proposed to Etsuko that they should have a family when he returned. Etsuko waited. But when he did return in 1948 to war- devastated Japan, Tarui not only had trouble finding a job, but even finding food. Depressed, he told Etsuko that they must split because he didn’t know when he would ever be able to support her.

A year later, he found a job at the prefecture office. Then he started his own business. After that he thought it was too late to contact Etsuko again.

Two years ago, though — after almost 60 years had passed — Tarui’s older sister called him to her death bed. She had a letter that Etsuko wrote to her in 1952, four years after their breakup and while she was still single. In beautiful handwriting, she described her agony and how she was prepared to go through any hardship with Tarui.

“I thought breaking up was the best thing for her, but now I realize I was just being selfish,” he said.

Memories of Etsuko had sometimes appeared in his mind earlier, but with his wife suffering from poor health, Tarui had always swallowed such emotions. But when his wife died, and he saw Etsuko’s letter in 2005, he decided to contact Hatsukoi No Hito Sagashimasu Sha after hearing about the company on TV.

It was not easy for Sato’s mother Kazuko Tatsuta, who is the company’s research manager, to trace Etsuko after a half-century had passed.

But after 7 months, 72-year-old Tatsuta, who feels an especially strong empathy with people affected by war, finally traced Etsuko — though sadly only to report her passing.

“She had died 24 years ago at age 56. But Tatsuta-san found out for me that she lived a happy life as the wife of a factory owner and mother of two daughters,” Tarui said. “I was really glad.”

As with all Sato’s clients, Tarui received a lengthy investigation report — which in some case run up to 20 pages. He was also offered emotional support, which is company policy, especially if a target does not want to renew contact with the client — often because he or she is in a relationship.

Interestingly, Sato said that clients in their 30s to 50s are overwhelmingly men, with many seeking reassurance that a past love is well and happy. While some may see this as evidence of men being of a more romantic gender, Sato thinks it has more to do with the fact that at that stage of their lives women are too busy with child-raising. And anyway, she added with a grin, women desire to be hunted rather than to hunt — “they dream of being Cinderellas.”

Meanwhile, Sato said, among other age groups the male-female client ratio is about 50:50. But in the young generation, she says she has encountered several cases where the client believes themselves to be in a relationship, but objectively, they aren’t.

“A boy, for example, complained that he lost touch with a girl he dated three times. I told him he had to come to terms with the fact that he may have been dumped,” she said.

To help such clumsy lovers, the company also offers advice on how to proceed after a target has been tracked down — like where to take them out to or how to write love letters.

Meanwhile, over the years the company has also helped several foreign clients, including a former American soldier anxious to find the girlfriend he met here when he was stationed at the U.S. base in Sasebo near Nagasaki during the Korean War that raged from 1950-53.

That case occurred soon after Sato founded her company in 1988, and the woman was quickly tracked down — but as she was married by then to a Japanese man, she chose not to resume contact. Nonetheless, Sato said the man was relieved to hear that she was fine.

Besides foraging through the jungle of lost loves, Sato’s 12 staff also work on other projects such as investigating extramarital affairs, assessing a firm’s financial health, advising how to flee the grip of cults or helping clients to discover their personnel rating by calling their boss posing as a headhunter.

With regard to clients’ requests to trace past loves, however — which generally begin by meticulously combing through every scrap of information provided by the client — recent changes to the Private Information Protection Law have made this more difficult, with establishments like schools and hospitals no longer cooperating. As a result, staff often make as many as 200 calls a day, using some of the 4,000 nationwide telephone books the company has collected over the past 20 years. Then, if all else fails they will sometimes travel to the target’s last known abode and spend time there simply asking around for any leads.

Such efforts are often not only crowned by a client’s appreciation, Sato said, but have also produced a play by Osaka dramatist Tengai Shibuya, titled with the name of the company and based on a newspaper series and a book Sato wrote, that drew full houses twice daily for a week at the Nakaza Theater in Osaka in 1998.

In Sato’s line of work — and the lives of many of her clients — truth really can be stranger than fiction.

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