Takuya Yokota vividly remembers clutching a flashlight and running to the ocean with his mother and twin brother to look for his older sister in the dark, shouting her name.
Megumi, then 13, had disappeared on her way home from school on a cold November day 40 years ago, kidnapped — it emerged decades later — by North Korean agents to help train spies. None of them has ever seen her again, one of scores Japan believes were snatched away in the 1970s and 80s.
“Our house was thrust into a bottomless darkness,” said Yokota, 9 at the time. “Every day after that was silent and hard.”
Now, as tensions rise after North Korean missile launches over Japan and nuclear tests, U.S. President Donald Trump has made Megumi’s case part of his attacks on Pyongyang. He mentioned her in a September speech at the United Nations, and during his Japan visit next week he plans to meet her parents and other families whose loved ones were stolen.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the abductions a keystone of his political career. He has said he won’t rest until Pyongyang returns all 13 of those it admits having kidnapped, and divulges information about the others Japan suspects were also taken. Megumi Yokota has become the poster child for the cause.
But progress has largely stalled since 2002, when five of the 13 returned home. Pyongyang said the other eight, including Megumi, were dead.
Trump is the third U.S. president abductee families have met, following George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Yokota hopes the Trump meeting will give the issue new life. With Abe in charge, Megumi’s return may be closer, although Yokota shows hints of impatience with Abe, in office since late 2012.
“I’d like (Abe) to put his reputation and his government on the line and lead this issue to a resolution,” he said.
Toru Hasuike, the brother of abductee Kaoru Hasuike — one of those who returned to Japan — says the Trump meeting is merely a nod to Abe’s conservative base.
“This is a performance, making political use of them,” he said, referring to the Yokotas. “Asking America for help is strange. It’s our country, so the Japanese government should take responsibility to help them.”
Raising the issue will generate more awareness, but progress is unlikely, said Robert Boynton, a journalism professor at New York University and author of a 2016 book on the abductions.
“The sad thing is, I think the North Koreans are playing a waiting game — waiting for people like the Yokotas to pass away, that the next generation won’t be as exercised and the issue will just go away,” Boynton said.
Takuya Yokota hopes to once again meet the older sister who doted on her twin brothers.
“I think of her at work, I think of her before I sleep,” he said. “When it gets cold and the snow falls … I wonder if she’s warm enough. I think of this every day.”