Village Voice - July, 2005

The Japanese Joseph 

The sad story of a girl and grace moves Japan. On a brisk fall day in 1977, a 13-year-old Japanese girl named Megumi Yokota vanished on her way home from badminton practice after school. Police dogs tracked her scent to a nearby beach, but the distraught Yokotas had no clues that might explain their daughter's sudden disappearance. Grief-stricken, Mrs. Yokota found solace in the Christian faith of one of Megumi's classmates, and under the guidance of a team missionary, she converted to Christ. Her husband, angry with God, turned in the other direction.

Sixteen years later, long after the Yokotas had resigned themselves to Megumi's death, a North Korean defector made a stunning claim: A Japanese woman named Megumi, who played badminton, was living in North Korea at a training institute for intelligence agents. He said that scores, maybe hundreds, of Japanese had been kidnapped to teach spies their language and culture. He provided heartrending details of Megumi's abduction: Agents had seized her, wrapped her in a straw mat, and rowed her to a waiting spy ship, where she had spent the night scratching against the hold with bloody fingers, crying, "Mother!"

North Korea dismissed all such reports as fabrications. Other defectors soon validated these stories, however, which were reported by the BBC and U.S. television, and made sensational news in Japan. Finally, Kim Jong-Il himself, the "Dear Leader" of North Korea, admitted to the abductions of 13 Japanese citizens. Five returned to Japan, but North Korea insisted that the other eight had died, including Megumi, who in 1993 had used a kimono to hang herself.

Information supplied by North Korea proved untrustworthy, however. DNA tests revealed that bone fragments supposedly from the dead abductees were bogus. When the five repatriated abductees verified they had seen Megumi in late 1993, the North Koreans simply revised the date of her suicide to 1994. Her medical records referred to a hospital room that did not exist. Meanwhile, all over Japan, prayer groups sprang up to support the Yokotas. Mrs. Yokota traveled across the globe in her quest for justice, becoming one of the most familiar faces on Japanese media.

On a recent trip to Asia, I was asked to speak to the combined prayer groups in Tokyo. A week before the scheduled meeting, a new development arose: North Korea invited a Japanese delegation to several days of talks in an attempt to resolve the abductee issue, which has caused a severe diplomatic strain. There, North Koreans presented an urn purported to contain Megumi's ashes, along with three photos of Megumi and some notes in her handwriting. (DNA tests later proved the remains were not Megumi's.)

The most poignant photo, taken just after her capture, shows her at age 13 still in her Japanese schoolgirl's uniform, looking unbearably forlorn. "We couldn't help crying when we saw the picture," her mother told reporters. The two others show her as an adult, reasonably well dressed and appearing healthy. According to reports, she married a North Korean and gave birth to a daughter. Defectors say she tutored Kim Jong-Il in Japanese

I agonized over what I might say to bring comfort to the prayer groups after such a traumatic week. I made a list of characters who had served God in foreign lands: Abram departing for a new homeland that included Sodom and Gomorrah; Joshua leading his people into an enemy-occupied Promised Land; Naomi raising her sons in the alien land of Moab; a Jewish slave girl attending to the Syrian general Naaman; Daniel and other prophets serving enemy administrations in Babylon (Iraq) and then Persia (Iran); Esther risking her life to preserve her compatriots in Persia; and Paul taking the gospel in chains to Rome—forerunner of a host of missionaries who would encounter resistance from foreign cultures, including many early martyrs in Japan itself.  Joseph provided the most direct parallel: a young man abducted and presumed dead, who rose against all odds to serve a foreign dictator. Joseph's terse summary to his brothers offers the Yokotas a strong word of hope: "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good." 

The Tokyo meeting proved how Joseph's principle of providence might apply. Instead of the expected 150 people, almost 1,000 Japanese turned out, along with all three television networks. Before them, Mrs. Yokota gave a stirring testimony of hope and redemption. Christians represent less than 1 percent of the population in Japan, but on the evening news that week, nearly every broadcast led with a segment on this mild-mannered housewife pleading for justice with the demeanor and spirit of God's grace.

One more detail deserves mention: Megumi is the Japanese word for grace.                                                                                            

-- Philip Yancey, Christianity Today, July 2005