OBAMA, Japan -- One became a firebrand for Korean reunification. Another married an American listed as a deserter from the U.S. Army. Others hid their Japanese heritage from their own children.
Much of what happened during their missing years in North Korea remains as mysterious as the hermitic communist nation itself. Yet as a tug-of-war emerges over the future of five Japanese kidnapped and taken to the North a quarter-century ago, so have tantalizing details of their lives there.
Unfolding like an eerie trip back to the Cold War era, the visiting abductees, in Japan for a homecoming with long-lost family, have told a sometimes-violent, often-lonely tale of a group of young people who at times even came to sympathize with their captors.
The story includes unsuspecting innocents beaten into submission; young lovers torn apart by communist handlers; re-education in the evils of Japanese imperialism; and lives as undercover Japanese in the insular and hostile society of North Korea.
From the communist pins they have religiously worn since their Oct. 15 arrival in Tokyo to their guarded comments about leading happy lives in Pyongyang, the abductees have tread a thin line between joyous reunion with loved ones and self-censorship about the past.
Returnee Yasushi Chimura told reporters earlier this week that he never thought he could return to Japan, because North Korea wasn't admitting to the abductions.
"After I got married, I had a happy life and didn't even think once about going home," he said.
The five returnees are the only known survivors of 13 Japanese the North admits abducting in the 1970s and early 80s. The shocking revelation came during last month's summit meeting between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Chimura was just 23 and engaged to be married to Fukie Hamamoto when both were whisked away without a trace in 1978. In the North, they were separated for more than a year not even knowing if the other was alive. They jumped for joy when officials shocked them with the offer that they marry.
Young lovers Kaoru Hasuike and Yukiko Okudo, who were snatched in the middle of a date, were also isolated for more than a year before being allowed to marry. Hasuike later decided to "cooperate" after being schooled on the wrongs of Japan's colonial past.
The fifth abductee, former nursing student Hitomi Soga, married an American listed as a deserter from the U.S. Army who lent his voice to propaganda broadcasts urging other soldiers to defect. Though Soga was abducted with her mother, she has remained mysteriously mum about what happened to her. Acquaintances say her Japanese has turned rusty over the years as she speaks English and Korean at home.
The delicate position of the five, all kidnapped in 1978 and now in their 40s, is underlined by the debate over whether they will settle in Japan permanently.
Their visit was intended to last no more than two weeks. But bowing to pressure from family members who want to keep them here for good, the Japanese government announced Thursday that the abductees will stay indefinitely -- and demanded North Korea allow their children to join them.
Together, the abductees have seven children who remain in North Korea. Family members call them "hostages" and have demanded their return.
But even that debate has shed light on life in the North.
Chimura and Hamamoto indicated they don't want the children to come, because it would expose the fact that the couple is really Japanese.
But the abductees, speaking through family proxies or sticking to carefully scripted words throughout their stay, have said precious little about what much of the outside world would like to know about their adopted home.
Left untouched are conditions for the average citizen in the poverty stricken land, their opinions on North Korea's nuclear weapons program or the impact of Pyongyang's apparent reform efforts -- from pricing experiments and a planned free-trade zone to the opening of a cross-border rail link with the South.
The abductees haven't even said why they were kidnapped. Japan claims they were taken to train spies in Japanese language and culture.
Despite the abductees' apparent adaptation to the North's often austere communist lifestyle, however, they were quick to delve back into the trappings of capitalist Japan.
While taking in the sites of their old hometown on Thursday, Chimura and Hamamoto made sure to stop by the local department store -- where they emerged balancing bundles of new clothes. Hamamoto was sporting the new female-style eyeglasses she picked up the day before, because all she could get in the North were clunky, thick-framed male models.
"Everything was new to them," said Hamamoto's brother Yuko.