The Abductees of Japan and Korea

Photo by Expert Infantry | CC BY 2.0

Most of us were not alive when Korea was severed in two at the 38th parallel, and not many people in Western countries even understand what the fighting was originally about, but the recent détente among some of the belligerents of the Korean War makes it possible to finally bring the War to an end and prevent a second holocaust on the Peninsula, possibly even a third world war. The stakes are incredibly high in Korea, just as they are in Syria, and those with a vested interest in sustaining their war-addicted economies are likely to prove the biggest stumbling block to a just and lasting peace.

Last week when US President Donald Trump met Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Abe demanded that Trump speak to Kim Jong-un about the Japanese who were abducted by North Korea. As a result, Trump promised that he would work “very, very hard” to “try and bring these folks back.” Keeping in mind the special moment we are in and the opportunity for peace that lies before us, perhaps it is time to reflect on all the cases of abduction related to the concerned countries, i.e., Japan and Korea.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there were incidents of North Koreans abducting young people from Japan. It appears that at least a dozen or so were abducted. For years, the government of North Korea denied this, but in 2002, when Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi made a historic visit to Pyongyang, North Korea and met Kim Jong-il (i.e., second in the dynastic line and Kim Jong-un’s father), Kim admitted right then and there to these crimes and apologized. This was a wonder to everyone. This admission resulted in a loss of face for him as well as for his entire nation, so it was a gesture of reconciliation that entailed significant sacrifice. Five abductees and some of their family members in North Korea were returned to Japan, but the others have either passed away by now or cannot be located, according to the government of North Korea. In this sense, Pyongyang has, to a certain extent, righted the wrongs of the past and made a good faith effort at reconciliation. Nevertheless, many Japanese, especially ultranationalists like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, continue to exploit the issue for their own political ends.

The question now is, “Can we be sure that Abe told Trump about the full breadth and magnitude of the problem?” It is highly likely that Abe focused only on the abductees from the main islands of Japan, if not exclusively on the one high-profile case of Megumi Yokota, the “sweet, 13-year-old Japanese girl” that Trump mentioned in his notorious UN speech last September, i.e., the girl that he said North Korea kidnapped “from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies.” It goes without saying that Abe will not mention the thousands of Okinawans abducted by Japanese; or the tens of thousands of Koreans abducted; or the women abducted in Korea, Okinawa, and other parts of Japan for sexual assault; or the monarchs of Okinawa and Korea who were abducted in the past, violating Okinawan and Korean sovereignty. Even journalists only rarely whisper mention of these victims in their many articles covering the Japanese abductees.

Okinawa’s Early Abductees

When talking about history, it is often difficult to specify exactly when a trend began. And this is especially true of violence between groups of people, so keeping in mind that this is not “the beginning,” let us start with 1609. It was in that year that Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98) kidnapped King Sho Nei (1564-1620) of the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa). He did this to punish Okinawans for not supporting his attack on Korea in the 1590s. Not receiving their help made the job of invading Korea all the more difficult. It was a very costly war for him and his subjects. Such agony of defeat he must have felt when Koreans deflected his attempt to subjugate them and he was thereby prevented from using Korea as a stepping stone to subjugating China. It was only in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) that his dream of domination, a nightmare for Chinese, was briefly realized.

After King Sho Nei was abducted, Okinawa did remain a kingdom but lost much of its sovereignty. From that time until the emergence of the modern nation-state of Japan, Okinawa was dominated by Satsuma, then a feudal domain, today Kagoshima Prefecture. In 1879 Okinawa was annexed outright by the Empire of Japan (1868-1947).

Kidnapping of Koreans Gets Underway

In 1882 the Qing-Dynasty Chinese kidnapped King Gojong’s father, “the Daewongun” (1820-98), and took him to China. This was part of a tug of war between Japan and China over who was to control Korea. For centuries Korea had been forced to pay tribute to China, but the upstart the Empire of Japan was now beginning to take Korea away. It would eventually annex Korea in 1910.

Not unlike Cortez’s abductions of the Aztec ruler, Japanese rulers abducted Korean rulers. On 4 December 1884 a group of young Korean reformers who had formed an“Enlightenment Party” seeking Japanese-style modernization actually cooperated with agents of the Empire of Japan by kidnapping the Korean King Gojong (1852-1919) and his wife Queen Min (1851-95). They put them in the custody of Japanese, who held them hostage. But Queen Min secretly sent China an SOS. The general and later ruler of China Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) suppressed this uprising with a force of 1,500 Chinese soldiers and took Gojongaway from the Japanese. After China was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), a group of Japanese and Korean soldiers broke into the palace, stabbed Queen Min in the chest, doused her with kerosene, and lit her on fire.

As a result of Japan’s colonial rule in Korea, especially during the decade from 1935 to 1945, millions of Koreans had to move from one location to another. Some were displaced within Korea while others ended up in Japan or in one of Japan’s colonies. Of course, many took up jobs working for Japanese of their own free will, but if Korea had never been colonized, that displacement on a massive scale would never have occurred. Hundreds of thousands or millions of Koreans were forced to work. The word “abductee” could certainly be applied to at least tens of thousands of them, such as the forced laborers who worked in miserable and dangerous coal mines on Hashima Island, the island that looks like a battleship and which is now a UNESCO Heritage Site. (Chinese POWs were also forced to work there, at other places within Japan, and at dozens of locations within China. Tens of thousands of Chinese were sold into slavery to Japanese companies, often only fed the bare minimum to keep them working, and literally worked to death in dangerous mines and construction projects. This type of Imperial-Japan horror that has received little attention is known as “pits of ten thousand corpses,” i.e., wanrenkeng in Chinese and manninko in Japanese).

Abducted Women

Thousands of Korean women were abducted, incarcerated, and brutalized as “comfort women,” i.e., sex slaves, by Japanese military personnel. This amounted to gang rape on a massive scale. Some “comfort women” were violently abducted, some were deceived through false promises of work, and others through threats of violence. Most suffered emotional scars such as PTSD and/or physical wounds that haunted them for decades after 1945. One survivor named Mun Okju was not only forced to provide sexual services to between 20 and 30 men per day but also to sing for Japanese men alongside Japanese geisha. Her story of violence and humiliation was typical.

Although Okinawan women are often left out of histories of “comfort women,” and although the sex slavery perpetrated under the Empire of Japan produced a far greater number of victims in Korea than in Okinawa, at least 136 “comfort stations” were operated in Okinawa between 1944 and 1945, and at least 500 Okinawan women were trafficked. Miyakojima and Tokashiki Islands have monuments to remember such women, some of whom were Korean. Other such women had been brought from “comfort stations” in Taiwan. That Okinawan “comfort stations” were viewed by Japanese soldiers as no different from those in the colonies is evidenced by the words of one soldier who had just sailed in from Manchuria in 1944. With much excitement, he said, “So we get to make love to Okinawan women this time?” As the final showdown between the US and the Empire came to a head during the ferocious Battle of Okinawa, a battle that led to the tragic deaths of over one hundred thousand mostly civilian Okinawans, the demand for “comfort women” in Okinawa increased—perhaps a final “reward” for Japanese soldiers just before they ran to their death in this stupid and hopeless bloodbath.

As many as one hundred thousand Japanese men lost their lives fighting the US in that one Battle, roughly ten times the number of Americans who died. Many were able to “choose” their own death for the sake of their country and many sometimes chose actual suicide, in other words dying of their own volition rather than at the hand of their enemy. Perhaps even more tragic, however, were the many Okinawans who “were forced to kill close relatives,” including infants and toddlers, and those who were forced to kill themselves by Japanese soldiers. As Aniya Masaaki has written, “It is impossible for infants and toddlers to commit ‘jiketsu’ [suicide] and there is no one who spontaneously kills close relatives.” One could classify such forced “suicides” of Okinawans during the Battle of Okinawa as a type of abduction and even forced labor—taking them somewhere and making them do something against their own will. Being forced out of one’s shelter and being forced to kill one’s own family members and oneself constitutes a kind of abduction and forced labor—a very short, horrific abduction.

Tragically, abductions of Okinawan women for the purposes of rape did not end with the war in August 1945, as their homeland was ruled by the US military for 27 years until 1972. Just as on the main islands of Japan and probably in larger percentages than on those islands, American military personnel have often abducted and raped women and children there, and of course, have also prostituted sex-trafficked women. (The population of Okinawa is only a little over one million today, compared to 127 million in Japan as a whole). The abductions and rapes continue even now, as the vast majority of US bases in Japan are located in Okinawa. In 1995 three American servicemen abducted a 12-year-old Okinawan girl and gang-raped her. A more recent example, which intensified the already-strong campaign to stop the construction of the two new bases at Henoko and Takae, was that of Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, who abducted, raped, and murdered a 20-year-old Okinawan woman. Surely these well-documented abductions represent only the tip of the iceberg.

North Koreans Abducting Japanese on the Japan Sea Side

Okinawans’ awareness of the long history of abductions, rapes, and murders perpetrated against the people of their communities is just one of the many reasons why they tenaciously voice their opposition to the construction of new American bases on their islands. Recently, the broadcaster Tokyo Metropolitan Television (“Tokyo MX”) hosted a one-sided program entitled “News Girls” (Nyusu joshi) in which Okinawan anti-base protestors were called “terrorists” without apology or correction. A famous anti-discrimination activist named Shin Sugok spoke out on their behalf, but was deluged with racist backlash from the mass media and the public. She sought recognition of the hate speech and unethical programming from the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization (BPO). And she won. The BPO ruled in her favor. How vexing, however, was the fact that the BPO did not have the authority to force Tokyo MX to apologize for this bullying and discrimination.

Years ago, Shin Sugokalso used her voice to stand up for the families of 10 Japanese who were abducted by North Korea. She defended them when they were bombarded with email messages and phone calls attacking them for having the temerity to demand that Prime Minister Koizumi help bring their abducted family members back to Japan. Her sympathy for the plight of the Japanese families of the abductees seems to have stemmed from her own experience as a person of Korean descent growing up in a society where Koreans are discriminated against. As she wrote, “As long as wretched people in weak positions put up with their misery, society tends to show sympathy and compassion. But once such people become vocal and raise objections against the government or businesses that caused them harm, the masses make an about-face and criticize them for making excessive demands and showing insufficient gratitude. This experience is shared by many ethnic Koreans in Japan, including myself. Whenever minorities break their silence and demand their human rights, they are met with harsh denial.”


In 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi, responding to the demands of the families of the abductees,  successfully secured the release of five of them. (It should not be forgotten that this initial success in engaging diplomatically with North Korea was tolerated by Washington only after Koizumi agreed to put “boots on the ground” in Iraq, a violation of Japan’s peace constitution). Since Koizumi went to Pyongyang and met in person Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, a kind of cooperative relationship was achieved. As the American historian Bruce Cumings tells it: the anti-diplomacy diplomat John Bolton, who was then the Undersecretary saw North Korea as fundamentally evil and did not want the meeting to proceed. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went to Tokyo to do the usual song and dance portraying North Korea as an evil threat. He sounded the alarm by claiming that North Korea seemed to have a new nuclear program in which they were enriching uranium, but Koizumi shrugged off the demonization and showed some independence—very rare for a Japanese prime minister. Abe, Trump’s lap-dog, can only hope that Japanese journalists do not do the obvious and contrast his performance as prime minister to Koizumi’s.

Besides the tragedy of Tokyo’s trampling on its precious constitution through its support for Washington’s aggression in Iraq, “the whole idea of normalizing relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang dissolved amid a media frenzy in Japan” over the abductees and their families. With the two summits, i.e., the one between Pyongyang and Seoul on 27 April and the as-yet-unscheduled one that Trump has promised between Pyongyang and Washington, there is a real chance that another such Japanese media frenzy will add to the multiple barriers that already block the road to peace.

While Trump plays to his political audience in his desire to become the greatest peace negotiator in history by making inane comments like “try and bring these folks back,” we should perhaps spare a thought for how the Korean diaspora must feel, many of whom had/have parents or grandparents who once had hometowns in North Korea that they wanted to return to. They were unable to return simply because their country was totally destroyed by the US and the other UN Command states, because it was at war, and because the country had become a “garrison state” as a result of its being under constant threat of invasion, regime change, etc. (Contrary to the spirit of the armistice, a peace treaty was never signed). For that matter, the entire Korean Peninsula has remained a danger zone, and as a result, countless Koreans have been unable to safely return to their homeland and unable to re-unite with their families.

Why then does Abe, a duplicitous and vicious politician, continually play up this one-sided and narrowly-defined version of events concerning the “Japanese abductees,” to be made the center piece of any media representation of all upcoming talks? One does not have to look far for an answer: The failure of his idiosyncratic economics; introduction of some of the more repressive anti-media laws in the world; and an ongoing corruption scandal involving bribery, falsification of documents at the highest levels, and the suicide of a civil servant in the Finance Ministry coerced into this “swamp” have resulted in Abe’s popularity reaching an all-time low. His own party is quietly debating whether he is too much of a liability to lead them into the next election. What better way to distract the public than reiteration of a toxic, emotional issue that plays on the sentimentality of poorly-informed people. The facile deceptions are par for the course in this era of duplicity that Abe’s ally Trump has played a huge role in creating.

How chauvinistic that the families and descendants of those abducted from Okinawa and Korea and of those abducted for the purposes of sexual violation are only very rarely mentioned, that they are left out in the cold during discussions of Japanese abductees. And how tragic that Japanese abductees have been abducted twice—first, kidnapped by North Koreans in the context of the Korean War and second, hijacked as political footballs by the likes of Abe and Trump.


Aniya Masaaki, “Compulsory Mass Suicide, the Battle of Okinawa, and Japan’s Textbook Controversy,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (1 January 2008).

Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Norton, 1997).

Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country(The New Press, 2003).

Caroline Norma, The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars (Bloomsbury, 2015).

Shin Sugok, “Japan’s Outspoken ‘Weak’ Confront the Ire of the Masses,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus(6 August 2004).

Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.

Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan.