Some of the 880 people on the government's list of missing Japanese may not have been seized by North Korea – but Tokyo will continue to demand the release of those it has evidence were taken. Julian Ryall reports.
In October 1983, Takeshi Saito suddenly resigned from his job in a restaurant in Yokohama city — and promptly disappeared. His friends and family searched for Saito as best they could before reporting his disappearance to the police.
At some point later, it was decided that Saito fit the profile of the sort of person that North Korean agents were abducting to train their agents in the language and customs of Japan before they were infiltrated into society here.
For 35 years, nothing was officially heard of Saito, whose name and personal details were posted on a website operated by the National Police Agency. The list contained the names of no fewer than 880 Japanese nationals whose disappearance authorities believed could be linked to North Korea.
In April 2018, however, a body was discovered and police have since been able to confirm that it is that of Saito. Citing personal privacy laws, the authorities have declined to confirm where the body was discovered, how the victim died, or why it took them so long to confirm its identity.
The discovery has raised questions about the accuracy of the government's list of Japanese it believes were taken against their will to North Korea, and whether the 879 people presently on the list met their fate much closer to home.
Third 'missing person' to reappear
Saito is the third person, officially identified as a probable abductee, who has been discovered in Japan so far this year. In early September, a man who went missing in 1974 was confirmed to be safe and living in Japan. In May, police confirmed that a man from Chiba Prefecture, who was also on the list, was in Japan. Further details of the men's cases have not been released due to privacy restrictions.
Campaigners insist that the discovery of a number of apparent abductees within Japan will have no impact on their efforts to find out what happened to all those who remain missing.
"I am not convinced that Takeshi Saito's disappearance was related to North Korea, but I don't think that matters because it may have been," said Kazuhiro Araki, chairman of the Investigation Committee on Missing Japanese Probably Related to North Korea.
Araki, who is also a professor of international relations at Takushoku University, suggests there are inconsistencies in the police report on Saito. He said the authorities' claim that there is no indication that Saito entered North Korea solely on the clothing that he was wearing, and the items he was carrying when the body was found, is meaningless.
Araki believes that the police just want to clear up outstanding cases and are failing to thoroughly investigate suspicious disappearances and deaths.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, however, insists that it is still working hard to locate Japanese nationals who were abducted by North Korea and to bring home any who want to return.
Abe remains committed
On Monday, Abe reiterated that he remains committed to holding talks with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, to resolve the issue of the missing Japanese nationals.
In a meeting with relatives of some of the missing persons, Abe said, "I will meet with Mr Kim without preconditions, and am determined to work towards an early resolution through sober analysis and by not missing any chances."
Officially, the Japanese government lists 17 citizens who were definitely abducted by North Korea between 1977 and 1983. In 2002, then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted for the first time that his regime had abducted 13 Japanese and permitted five to return to Japan. The rest, Kim stated, had died of illness or in accidents, while the four other citizens on the Japanese government list had never entered North Korea.
Relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang have deteriorated since that meeting and North Korea has since refused to provide more information on missing Japanese or to hold talks about their fates.
Need to re-examine disappearances
Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, says there is a need for Japanese authorities to re-examine individual cases of missing citizens to confirm that there is no suggestion that they are still in Japan.
"I believe there is broad sympathy in the international community for the fact that many Japanese were taken against their will to North Korea in the 1970s and 80s," he told DW.
"It is, of course, somewhat problematic because it is virtually impossible for Japan to know for sure how many were abducted by the North's agents, and how many disappeared here in Japan."
"It is important that the authorities here are continuously reviewing the date on the people they think were abducted, as well as those who were tricked in the 1950s into going to what they were told was a 'socialist paradise' but who want to return to Japan now," said Nagy.