Reading the newspaper on the morning of October 16, 2002, I came across a photograph. In it, five middle- aged Japanese— two couples and a single woman, all wearing boxy 1950s- era suits, ties, and skirts— descending from a Boeing 767 at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. “Tears and Hugs as 5 Abducted Japanese go Home to Visit,” read the headline. As I stared at the photograph, my mind reeled with questions. Who were these people who had spent half their lives in the least accessible nation on earth? Why had they been abducted? What could they tell us about that secretive nation? Having divided their lives between Japan and North Korea, with which country did they identify? Had they been brainwashed? How many others had been abducted? Were any of them still alive?
From the day I saw the photograph, I was obsessed—with the abductions, with the window they gave me into North Korea, and with the perspective they gave me on the vexed politics of Northeast Asia. Having written about race and ethnicity in the American context, I was especially curious about the way these concepts had been used throughout history to alternately unite and divide Japan, Korea, and China.