The 87-year-old mother of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted to North Korea at age 13 in the 1970s, is hoping that the upcoming Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima will take her a step closer to seeing her daughter brought home.
Sakie Yokota says she is "looking forward" to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida taking up the issue with fellow leaders at the summit as time runs out for her and the families of other abduction victims who continue to fight for their loved ones' return.
"Mr. Kishida, as the prime minister of the country, which has seen many of its citizens abducted, needs to say in his own words that the world cannot let a country which has committed hideous acts continue as if nothing has happened," Sakie said.
Although the issue is unlikely to be high on the agenda, with more attention expected to be given to the North's missile testing, she feels it is important that it is raised.
"I don't want the abduction issue to be forgotten," she said.
It is now more than 45 years since Megumi disappeared on her way home from badminton practice in Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast on Nov. 15, 1977.
Since then, Sakie has kept her daughter's belongings neatly organized, including her gym wear and her "The Rose of Versailles" comic books, imagining how her daughter's life would have been if she were still in Japan.
"I am keeping her belongings just the way they were until the moment when she comes home and says, 'Wow, you have kept all these things,'" she said in an interview with Kyodo News near her home in Kawasaki outside Tokyo.
"She was good at singing but also liked to draw pretty illustrations," she said. "She was a very amusing girl and we laughed together frequently."
Sakie says that with families of the victims aging, she hopes Kishida will win strong backing from his G-7 partners to realize a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as early as possible.
In 2020, Sakie's husband, Shigeru, who had long been a frontrunner in the campaign to bring back the abductees, died at the same age as she is now.
Kayoko Arimoto, whose daughter was abducted by North Korean agents in 1983, died the same year at age 94 while the following year, Shigeo Iizuka, who served for 14 years as head of a group representing the families of abductees, died at age 83.
Looking back on her decades-long struggle in and out of Japan to call for the return of the abductees, she said she feels that the abduction issue "has at last gained attention as a global human rights issue, making the Japanese government serious about resolving it."
But there has been little progress since five abductees were returned to Japan in 2002 following then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Pyongyang to meet with then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The summit was the first ever between the two countries, which do not have diplomatic ties.
The five were among the 17 Japanese nationals the government officially lists as having been abducted by North Korea.
Tokyo continues to seek the early return of the other 12, including Megumi, while suspecting Pyongyang's involvement in many other disappearances.
After Koizumi revisited Pyongyang in 2004, North Korea handed over to Japan cremated remains that it claimed were those of Megumi, but they were later proven through DNA analysis not to be hers.
In seeking talks with current leader Kim Jong Un, Kishida has upheld the policy shift introduced by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2019 when he said was willing to hold direct talks with Kim "without preconditions," rather than insisting that any summit should yield progress on the abduction issue.
But North Korea, which claims that the issue has been resolved and that it holds no more abductees, has ignored the call so far.
Sakie is aware of the difficulty of negotiating with North Korea, which has been aggressively firing ballistic missiles in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and is believed to be preparing to conduct a nuclear test for the first time since 2017.
"I hope Japan and North Korea can hold talks so that they can come closer together for a future in which they live in peace," she said.
The families of the victims are also encouraged by the recent improvement in ties between Japan and South Korea, which has seen its own citizens abducted by Pyongyang.
"It is important to have South Korea on our side," Sakie said, after Kishida earlier this month became the first Japanese leader to visit South Korea in five years. He has also invited President Yoon Suk Yeol to attend the G-7 summit.
Given the time constraints, a group of abductees' families and a supporting entity, the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, recently decided to drop its opposition to giving humanitarian aid to North Korea if it helps lead to the return of all abductees.
Takuya Yokota, a brother of Megumi who now heads the families' group, said in February that if Pyongyang immediately returns all the abductees to Japan, the government "should be able to provide humanitarian assistance" to Pyongyang "within the limits of the sanctions imposed by the international community" on the country.
The groups visited the United States earlier this month to explain the new policy to U.S. officials and called for their support to help resolve the abductions issue.
"We have received responses and expressions of intent that they want to do something" to resolve the issue, 54-year-old Takuya said after holding talks with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and other U.S. officials and lawmakers during the five-day trip.
They also told the U.S. officials of their hope that the abduction issue will be treated separately from the issues of tackling North Korea's nuclear and missile programs given the aging of the families waiting the return of the abductees.
Supporting the families group's new policy, Sakie said, "Tokyo can offer rice or other food items to the people of North Korea who are apparently suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and other hardships" in return for bringing home the abductees.
But she also strongly feels the need for North Korea to be condemned for the abductions. "We have to make North Korea become aware that the whole world views it has acted wrongfully," she said.