'It was a sunny day in April 1960. I took a ship to Chōsen (Korea) from the port of Niigata, a north-western city of Japan. When I saw my mother for the last time, she was crying. She kept saying, "Please don't go... Please change your mind."
‘Every time I remember that moment, I can’t help but cry. I was only twenty-one years old.’ In her room in the port city of Wonsan in North Korea, Mitsuko Minakawa sighs while holding a folded handkerchief. She was born in 1939 in Tokyo and was raised in Sapporo. After graduating from high school, Mitsuko enrolled at Hokkaido University – she was the only female student among the one hundred students in her class. In the second year, Mitsuko met a Korean man, Choe Hwa Jae, and fell in love. In the 1950s there were about 600,000 Koreans living in Japan. At that time, some of them succeeded in business and gained an education, but the majority were disadvantaged legally and socially, suffering from poverty, as well as ethnic and occupational discrimination. As of December 1954, the total unemployment rate for Koreans in Japan was about eight times the total unemployment rate for the Japanese. One year later, married, Mitsuko and Hwa Jae decided to leave for North Korea, participating in the massive ‘repatriation programme’ from Japan to Korea that took place between 1959 and 1984.
Aiko Nakamoto, whose Korean name is Kim Ae Sun (b.1931).
Fujiko Iwase, whose Korean name is Ri Mi Hyon (b.1941 d.2018)
Tsuruko Suzuki, her Korean name is Ri Pom Sun (b.1929)
Akiko Ota, whose Korean name is Pak Myong Ok
Megumi Horikoshi, whose Korean name is Song Hie Ran (b.1934 d.2017)
Mitsuko Minakawa (77), whose Korean name is Kim Guang Ok (b.1939)
Takiko Ide, whose Korean name is Sa Hui Su (b.1927)
Yoshie Arai, whose Korean name is Sin Jong Ho (b.1931)
According to the Japanese Red Cros Society, 93,340 people moved to North Korea during that period, the vast majority of whom were Zainichi Koreans (ethnic Koreans who are permanent residents of Japan.) However, that number also includes about 1,800 ‘Japanesese wives’ (Japanese women who married Zainichi Koreans) and a small number of ‘Japanese husbands’ who accompanied the ‘returnees’. In August 1948, the Republic of Korea had been founded in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea in the north the following month. Though more than 95 percent of the Koreans who moved to North Korea were originally from the southern part of the Korean peninsula, they returned to the North, welcomed by the Democratic People’s Republic, which hoped to rebuild the country after the Korean War and to demonstrate the superiority of the socialist system over South Korea. It may seems extraordinary to us that anyone today would even consider emigrating to North Korea. However at the time there was little difference between the economies of North and South Korea.
A group photo of Japanese women who married Korean men and migrated to North Korea.
Around 40 Japanese wives of Korean men were living in Wonsan in 1993 when this picture was taken.
The sea of Japan seen through a ferry's porthole near the port of Nigata, Japan
Chongjin port, North Korean, which was the destination for ships taking Koreans from Japan back to the Korean peninsula
Mitsuko has now lived in North Korea for almost sixty years. She can see the sea from the window of her room, and Japan across from that sea. Many returnees though that the unification of the Koreas might happen in the near future, so that they would be able to go back and forth between the north and south. The Japanese wives who crossed the sea also believed that they would be able to move freely between Japan and North Korea after a few years. This would prove untrue.
“Since 2013 I have travelled to North Korea twelve times and interviewed and photographed eight Japanese wives in Pyongyang, Wonsan and Hamhung,” explains Noriko. “Three of them have passed away during this period. I realised that they shared a common desire: to visit their hometowns in Japan. I decided to take pictures of the special places they held in their memories and print large photographs onto tarpaulin fabric. Transporting the prints was a challenge – avoiding damage, customs procedures, and then travelling inside North Korea. I showed these prints to the Japanese wives and took photos of them observing images of their hometowns: the parks, beaches and shrines. Their reactions were varied. Ms Suzuki quietly approached the print and kept looking at it for a long time. Ms Ota suddenly smiled and kept touching the print. Ms Arai sat in the formal Japanese seiza style in front of the print. Human memory is fragmentary, delicate and complex.”
Mitsuko Minagawa (77) holding a wedding photograph of herself and her Korean husband taken in Japan.
(left) An old photograph of Mitsuko Minakawa when she was 20 years old before she left Japan. (right) Mitsuko on the right poses for photograph with her friend when she was a student in Japan.
Mitsuko Minakawa (77), whose Korean name is Kim Guang Ok, at her home in Wonsan. She was raised in Sapporo and met her Korean husband at Hokkaido University. ”I got married to my husband one year after I met him. But since he was a Korean man and was poor, my family was against our marriage and didn’t come to our wedding. My mother cried and said to me, ‘Please don’t go and think carefully again… Please change your mind’. When I remember that moment, I can’t help but cry. I was only 21 years old.” She moved to North Korea in April 1960 and has been living there since then. ‘
‘I want to go to Japan once again if possible. Every May, acacia flowers are in full bloom in Wonsan. Its scent enters the window when I open it. Every time I smell it, I remember my hometown of Sapporo.”
A photograph of the cherry blossoms in Maruyama park which Mitsuko Minakawa lived near and often visited as a child.
Aiko Nakamoto (87)
A photograph of Aiko Nakamoto taken when she was 29 years old after she had moved from Japan to North Korea.
Aiko Nakamoto (87) was born in Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan in 1931. ”I often went to the shrine with my friends and played there when I was little. I was 26 when I met my husband. In the beginning, I didn’t know that he was a Korean man since his Japanese was perfect. He was a really warm person and I fell in love with him.” Aiko married her husband in 1958 and moved to North Korea in 1960. Since then she has been unable to visit Japan.
”Even one or two hours would have been enough, I just want to visit my hometown and the grave of my father and mother. That way I think I can die anytime.”
A print, displayed on a beach in Hamhung, of the 'torii' gate at the Kikuchi Shrine where as a child Aiko Nakamoto often played with her friends.
Takiko Ide holds a photo taken with her husband Sa Dae Sun just before they left Japan to move to North Korea in 1961. Takiko died three weeks after this portrait was taken.
Takiko's family in Fukuoka station in Japan in 1961 when they left for North Korea.
A family photograph taken just after Takiko Ide and her family moved to North Korea in 1961.
A rural road in Miyazaki Prefecture where Takiko Ide lived before migrating to North Korea with her Korean husband.
The cinerary urn of Takiko Ide, who died 1 September 2016, at her home in Wonsan where she had moved with her Korean husband in 1961. Takiko once said to her daughter, Kimiko, "Even after I die, I still want to go to Japan and be with my mother in my hometown.''
Takiko Ide, whose Korean name is Sa Hui Su (89), was born in Miyazaki prefecture, Japan in 1927. ”When I was young, I often went inside bamboo forest to get bamboo shoots near my house. I met my husband when I was around 15 years old. We were both working as bus drivers. My mother was against my marriage to my husband since he was a Korean man. We moved to Korea in 1961 without telling her about our departure. I was her only daughter … She must have felt very disappointed and sad… In 2000, I visited Japan for the first time in 39 years on a homecoming project. My mother had died two years earlier aged 99. If I had been able to go home a little earlier, I could have met her. I apologised to her when I could finally visit her grave.”
“Even after I die, I still want to go to Japan and be with my mother in my hometown.” Takiko died in 2016
Kimiko, whose mother Takiko Ide migrated in 1961 from Japan with her Korean husband, sits in the family home with a photograph taken near her mother's home in Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan. Takiko Ide died in September 2016.
Akiko Ota (75) was born in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan.
A photograph of Akiko's wedding in 1965. Akiko got married to her Korean husband in a shrine and wore traditional Korean dress.
Akiko Ota, whose Korean name is Pak Myong Ok (75), was born in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan.
Akiko was a nurse when she met her Korean husband. He was working as a driver and his office was close to where Akiko lived. In 1965, Akiko married him at a shrine wearing a traditional Korean dress.
“I moved to North Korea in 1967. I was worried about moving to a country I had never seen. Still, it was expensive to stay in Japan, and I thought it would be better to come to Korea for my children’s education because I was told that all the tuition would be free for everyone in the socialist system.
“That was the only reason for going to Korea. The last time I received a letter from Japan was in the early 1980s when my father died. It’s been 50 years since I came here and I almost gave up on the possibility of visiting Japan again.”
A print of the sea front near Akiko Ota's Japanese home town displayed on a beach in Hamhung where she has lived since 1967.
Megumi Horikoshi, whose Korean name is Song Hie Ran (b.1934 d.2017)
Photograph of Megumi Horikoshi and her Korean husband.
Photograph of Megumi Horikoshi as a high school student in Tokyo where she was born in 1934.
Megumi Horikoshi, whose Korean name is Song Hie Ran (83), was born in Tokyo in 1934 and died in North Korea in October 2017. She met her Korean husband in Japan and was married to him when she was 23 years old. ”He was born in Mokpo, in South Jeolla Province. He was very compassionate and caring. He was 11 years older than me and had a dark skin. He was born in a poor family and his life was difficult. So he came to Japan alone on a smuggled ship when he was 15 years old to get an education. But still, it was hard for him to go to school there and even to survive…. I can easily imagine how much he struggled and lived a hard life in Japan”. The couple moved to North Korea in June 1960 where she worked as a midwife in Pyongyang helping give birth to nearly 3,500 children. ”There were 13 Japanese women in Chung-Guyok district where I live. Now all have died and I am the only one left.”
”There were 13 Japanese women in Chung-Guyok district where I live. Now all have died and I am the only one left.” Megumi died in 2017
Fujiko Iwase, her Korean name is Ri Mi Hyon (b.1940-2018). Fujiko was born and raised in Tokyo. She met her Korean husband when she was 19 years old. ”On the day we headed for Niigata, my mother and sister came to Shinagawa Station to see me off. But believed we would be meeting again in a few years. The ship departed on 16 December 1960. Three days later, we arrived in Chongji. The town of Chongjin as seen from the ship was white with snow. After coming to Korea, I never worked outside, but I liked knitting at home. My husband studied at university and became a doctor. When you get older, you start thinking about the unforgettable memories of the old days in your hometown. Japanese people here are also thinking about it. In their heart, they want to visit their parents’ graves. This feeling is stuck like a stone in their hearts. And everyone passed away with this feeling in the end. They died with sadness.”
“In their heart, they want to visit their parents’ graves. This feeling is stuck like a stone in their hearts. And everyone passed away with this feeling in the end. They died with sadness.” Fujiko died in 2018
A print of the fountain tower of the Tama Cemetery in Tokyo displayed on a windy beach in Hamhung. Fujiko often visited the cemetery before she moved to North Korea. Fujiko died in 2018 never having returned to the country of her birth.
Yoshie Arai sits on a bed in her apartment in Pyongyang, North Korea
Old photograph of Yoshie Arai, her husband and children taken at a photo studio in Tokyo before the family moved to North Korea in 1960. ''My husband's parents lived on Jeju Island in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. They asked us to send a photo of our children. So we went to a photo studio, took a family photo, and made two prints. We kept one and sent the other print to them in Jeju Island.''
Yoshie Arai crossing the street in Pyongyang.
Yoshie Arai, whose Korean name is Sin Jong Ho, was born in Chiba Prefecture in 1931. When she was 16 she started working at a factory owned by a Korean. Then she met her husband who was her colleague. They got married when Yoshie was 18 years old and moved to Korea in January 1960. ”We started working at a factory in Pyongyang a few days after we arrived here. And I also started learning Korean language as well.”
A print of a railway in the area where Yoshie Arai lived in Tokyo before moving to North Korea in 1960. When she was 16 she started working at a factory owned by a Korean. There she met her future husband who was a colleague. They got married when Yoshie was 18 years old and moved to Korea in January 1960. ''We started working at a factory in Pyongyang a few days after we arrived here. And I also started learning Korean language as well.''
Tsuruko Suzuki was born in Yamagata Prefecture in Japan in 1929.
Tsuruko Suzuki, who was born in 1929, looks out of the window of a car.
Akiko Ota (right) and Tsuruko Suzuki (left) talking to each other in a park. Since they left Japan more than 50 years ago, they haven't been able to return to visit the families they left behind.
Tsuruko Suzuki, whose Korean name is Ri Pom Sun, was born in Yamagata Prefecture in Japan in 1929. Tsuruko met her Korean husband who was living next door to her family. However her father was against their marriage. ”Since I came to Korea with my family, my husband was working at a chemical fertilizer factory, about 20 minutes from home. I didn’t do any special work because I was sick for many years. But I still did some farming and raised cabbage, radish, etc. in a small farm field in front of my house. Since coming to Korea in 1960, I have never visited Japan. I used to contact my Japanese family and I was informed that my mother died at the age of 80. But I don’t know how they are living now… I would like to visit Japan and especially would like to visit my family’s grave before I die.”
Every time I feel sick, my Japanese family naturally comes to my mind and I start missing them so much.”
Tsuruko Suzuki looks at a print of her Japanese home town, Yonezawa