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Yue Qian does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


Mitsuko left Japan in for a new life in North Korea. Once there, she realised she — and hundreds of others like her — could never go back. I t has been six decades since Mitsuko Minakawa boarded a ferry on the Sea of Japan coast, bound for a new life in North Korea. But the anguish of that sunny day in the spring of has never left her.

Two months earlier, Minakawa had married a Korean man, Choe Hwa-jae, a contemporary at Hokkaido University, where she was the only woman in a class of students.

For women, marriage is not an attractive option

Minakawa, then 21, and Choe were part of the mass repatriation of ethnic Korean residents of Japan — many of them the offspring of people who had been brought from the Korean peninsula by their Japanese colonisers to work in mines and factories. Among them were 1, Japanese women who, like Minakawa, had married Korean men, and a smaller of Japanese men with Korean wives. North Korea, founded in by Kim Il-sung, welcomed the repatriated Koreans with open arms, even though almost all had family ties to South Korea.

Irrespective of which side of the border they came from, Koreans in Japan had faced widespread suspicion and discrimination. I was only She and her husband, who died insettled in the eastern port city of Wonsan, where he worked as a fisheries official while she raised their children. The political environment also posed challenges. During her first visit in with a Japanese NGO, Hayashi won over her North Married korean woman guides, explaining that her only intention was to meet the women, listen to their stories, and take their portraits.

When they left for North Korea, the women had been led to believe that they would be able to return to Japan for family visits once they had settled into their new lives.

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Free travel between Japan and the North was impossible, however, since the countries have never had diplomatic ties. Decades on, only five of the women Hayashi met have made brief returns. All eight women she photographed — now in their 70s and 80s — had been widowed, and three have since died.

The police officer

For the past year, Hayashi has had to put further visits on hold due to the pandemic. Hayashi recalls that they laughed and smiled whenever she visited, holding her hand and introducing her to children and grandchildren.

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But even when alone, none appeared eager to discuss politics, or the three generations of the Kim dynasty, who have ruled North Korea for more than 70 years. They had appeared moved, but perfectly still, when Hayashi showed them the original photographs. They were actively engaged in the photos.

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They touched them and walked around them. Most of their parents opposed their decision to leave, but the women told them not to worry, that they would see them again. In the end, they were not even able to see their parents before they died.

The migrant rights activist

They cry every time they talk about this. Aiko Nakamoto moved to North Korea with her husband inafter marrying two years earlier.

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Her home town is in Kumamoto prefecture, south-west Japan. I was 26 when I met my husband.

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He was a really warm person, and I fell in love. Nakamoto, whose Korean name is Kim Ae-sun, has not returned to Japan since she left 60 years ago, and is unlikely to.

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Other women told Hayashi of their longing for the families they had left behind. Fujiko Iwase died in North Korea in ; in an interview with Hayashi before her death she spoke about her last meeting with her mother and sister, who visited her in Tokyo before she left Japan. When you get older, you start thinking about the old days in your home town.

Takiko Ide was one of the few women who took part in the homecoming programme, in My mother was against my marriage, because my husband was Korean.

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We moved to North Korea in without telling her. I was her only daughter, so she must have felt very sad and disappointed.

Of all the women she interviewed, Hayashi says she found herself most drawn to Minakawa. She chose to live with the man she fell in love with and build the life she wanted at the age of 21, even though that meant being separated from her friends and family in Japan.

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It was only after I had children of my own that I understood how she felt. Careful to avoid reopening emotional wounds, Hayashi never asked anyone directly if they regretted leaving Japan. At the same time, when I saw how they were with their children and grandchildren, I could see that they cherish their lives and families in North Korea.

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If they were given the chance to visit Japan again, they would. One of them told me that even a short visit would be enough.

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Then she would be able to die in peace. Two of the five surviving women correspond with their Japanese families by letter; phone calls are an expensive luxury in North Korea, and access is a privilege enjoyed only by the political elite in Pyongyang. The others, including Minakawa, have lost touch with their siblings.

The marriage package

Now 77, Minakawa forms a mental picture of the country she left as a young woman whenever she looks out her window, over the ocean from her home in Wonsan. Every time that happens, I think of home. Mitsuko Minakawa, 77, with her wedding photograph; the couple moved to North Korea in Sat 13 Feb Reuse this content.

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Getting married in South Korea is something that's almost considered a social responsibility.


Ms Bonnie Lee doesn't care about finding a boyfriend or having a fairytale wedding, and will decide her own happily ever after.