National

Photojournalist documents the 'unheard voices' of Japanese wives who went to North Korea

by Keiji Hirano

Kyodo

An award-winning photojournalist has shed light on forgotten Japanese women who married Korean men and moved to North Korea during a 1959-1984 repatriation project.

“They have been in different settings since arriving in North Korea. Some of them have lost contact with their relatives in Japan, while some still wrestle with their conscience about leaving their families back in Japan,” said Noriko Hayashi.

“Each of their lives is equally irreplaceable. And as most of them are getting old, we do not have that much time left to hear what they have to say,” she added.

Recording their unheard voices and photographing their present-day lives, Hayashi will publish a book, “Japanese Wives Who Moved to Korea,” on Thursday, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the launch of the repatriation project.

It brought 93,000 people — Koreans and their families including 1,830 Japanese wives — to the North, which was advertised as a “paradise on Earth,” with secure employment and housing.

Hayashi, 35, visited North Korea 11 times between 2013 and 2018, meeting with nine Japanese wives. While North Korean guides or interpreters were present at each interview, Hayashi said she did not feel too constrained by them.

Mitsuko Minakawa, who lives in North Korea’s southeastern port city of Wonsan, was among those interviewed.

Born in Tokyo in 1939, Minakawa was raised in Sapporo, her father’s hometown, and met her Korean husband, Choe Hwa Jae, in 1958, when both were studying fisheries sciences at the prestigious Hokkaido University.

Choe and Minakawa, who were expecting their first child, left Niigata for North Korea in 1960, despite strong opposition from her family.

Learning the Korean language and raising four children, Minakawa supported her husband, a researcher at a fisheries research institute, by taking advantage of her fisheries sciences knowledge.

“I believed I would have been able to return home probably in around three years and freely travel back and forth between the two countries,” Minakawa said, recalling her early days in the North.

Another Japanese wife, Takiko Ide, born in 1927 in Miyazaki Prefecture, became acquainted with a Korean man, who was her co-worker at a local bus operator when she was around 15 or 16 years old.

“I didn’t know he was Korean before we started living together,” she told Hayashi. “My mother didn’t want me to marry a Korean, but I couldn’t leave him” as they had already fallen deeply in love with each other, the book notes.

The couple and their children moved to North Korea in 1961 without telling Ide’s Japanese family. “I wrote to my mother after arriving here, and I heard later she had collapsed upon reading it.”

Ide raised four children, and her husband died in 1996.

“They happened to love Korean men at a time when Koreans faced severe discrimination in Japan, and they have never changed their attitude even under such circumstances,” said Hayashi on the experiences of the two women. “They have remained fair, and I feel sympathy and respect for them.”

It took Minakawa and Ide decades before being able to temporarily return home under a “homecoming program” for Japanese wives, which allowed 43 of them in total to come back in 1997, 1998 and 2000.

On her homecoming, Minakawa told Hayashi, “I told my mother in front of her grave, ‘Your daughter has returned, although belated,’ and I apologized that I couldn’t be present at her death.” Her father had died before she left Sapporo.

Ide’s mother, meanwhile, died at the age of 99 in 1998, two years before her daughter’s short return home.

Ide, who also lived in Wonsan, passed away at 89 in 2016, less than a month after her last interview with Hayashi, during which she caressed an old picture of her husband, saying, “He is handsome, isn’t he?”

While Minakawa and Ide may be lucky in the sense they could at least set foot in their motherland once again, Akiko Ota in Hamhung, a coastal city of North Korea, has given up her dream of a homecoming, rather than seeking to make it a reality.

After meeting her Korean husband in 1963 at around the age of 20 while working as a nurse, Ota, an Ishikawa Prefecture native and now a mother of four, joined the repatriation project in 1967 to “provide education to our daughter.”

“I didn’t know anything about North Korea, including its language, and I didn’t have much money . . . I just followed my husband,” Ota told Hayashi.

She applied for the homecoming program, but there hasn’t been a third one since 2000.

Asked by Hayashi if she thinks about Japan, Ota said, “Sometimes, but I have been obsessed with living . . . I have given up on returning home for a half-century.”

While Japan and North Korea have many unresolved problems, including Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, “I hope the authorities will satisfy the Japanese wives’ longing for homecoming from a humanitarian perspective,” Hayashi said.

Among nine Japanese wives Hayashi interviewed, three had died as of early June, and it is unknown how many Japanese wives are still alive.

“I have visited and will continue visiting Japanese wives so I can leave proof of their earnest lives,” said Hayashi. “If nobody records them, they would be treated as if they have not existed.”

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