TOKYO -- She stepped off the plane from North Korea shy and reclusive, keeping her comments short and simple in rusty Japanese. "Very good" was all Hitomi Soga could muster about being back in Japan for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.
A year later, however, Soga pours out her despair as she marks the homecoming's first anniversary this week with a soul-searching series of forlorn writings about the American husband and two daughters she left behind in Pyongyang.
"It is the second autumn since I have returned to Japan. I used to love fall, but I do not like fall this year. ... I hate being alone," Soga writes in an essay titled "The Second Autumn."
"If only I were a bird, I'd fly there to pick them up," she says in a poem called "Sky."
For Soga and four other kidnapped Japanese held hostage in North Korea and sent home last year, their Oct. 15 return date is a bittersweet reminder of newfound freedoms and the heartbreak of families still fractured across one of the Cold War's last frontiers.
Hopes for reunions with loved ones living incommunicado in North Korea are all but shattered by the global standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. And growing frustration over the families' fates has fueled a backlash against the Tokyo government that won their freedom, but now stands accused of going soft.
"Basically, there has not been change in the situation," Ryutaro Hirata, a spokesman for the abductee support group, complained Monday. "We want tough action. ... North Korea is not a country that responds to negotiations."
Focusing on sanctions
Angered at the lack of progress in bringing the families to Japan, hard-liners want Tokyo to level economic sanctions against Pyongyang, an act North Korea equates with war.
And supporters of the abductees now hope to make sanctions a focus of Nov. 9 national elections by asking all parliamentary candidates to fill out questionnaires recording their stance on the issue.
The plight of the five, all kidnapped in 1978 and now in their 40s, was all but forgotten until Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea last autumn for an unprecedented summit with leader Kim Jong Il. Kim shocked Japan by admitting they had been abducted, apparently to train communist agents in Japanese language and customs.
Tokyo secured their Oct. 15 homecoming, originally for just two weeks. But the group chose to stay, leading to a yearlong tug-of-war.
At its center are two married couples, with a total of five children in North Korea, and the fifth abductee, Soga, who is married to accused U.S. Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins. He remains in Pyongyang along with their two teenage daughters.
The Tokyo government wants all the children and Jenkins returned; Pyongyang refuses, saying the abduction issue has been resolved.
Pyongyang tried to cement its position ahead of this week's anniversary, warning Japan to dump its policy of trying to link the abduction issue with talks on nuclear weapons.
At six-nation talks about the nuclear dispute held in Beijing this August, the Japanese delegation had three sideline meetings with the North Koreans on the kidnappings. Tokyo said at the time it had received a vague promise for more discussions.
But just last week, North Korea's KCNA news agency criticized Tokyo's insistence on continued negotiations as "much fuss" and called the push a "playing card" that would "hamstring a solution to the nuclear issue."
Since the six-way talks, both sides have had limited contact through their embassies in the Chinese capital, according to a Japanese official with the Cabinet Office's abductee task force. But there are no signs of a pending breakthrough, he conceded.
North Korea admitted last year that it kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies, and said eight of them have since died. Japan contends the North actually abducted many more.
Of the five known survivors' family members, the case of Soga's husband is particularly sensitive.
Jenkins was posted in South Korea in 1965 when he allegedly left his patrol, crossed the demilitarized zone and joined the communists. He left four defection notes in his barracks.
Soga, 44, has since pleaded to the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo, Howard Baker, for a pardon for her husband, who faces possible arrest on desertion charges if he leaves North Korea.
Baker reportedly offered only his "sympathy."
Now Soga's faith in a positive outcome seems sorely tested.
In "Sky," first jotted down in pencil on composition paper and published this weekend in the nationally circulated Mainichi Shimbun, she asks the question still tormenting every abductee.
"How long, pray tell, how long must I wait?... Is there anybody who can tell me?"