Government-sponsored Propaganda Anime: Megumi

Last month I discussed the Gate anime, a series which many commentators on both sides of the Pacific have described as propaganda. If we regard propaganda as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view”, then one could certainly apply this descriptor to Gate, along with many other works of media. However, I have found no evidence so far to support Matthew Brummer’s claim in The Diplomat Magazine that the Gate anime was “produced, designed, and funded in coordination with the JSDF”. It seems more likely that the JSDF jumped onto the Gate bandwagon after it became popular.

Today, I’d like to discuss a work of propaganda that actually was funded by an arm of the Japanese government. Megumi is a 25-minute documentary anime about the abduction of a Japanese schoolgirl by the North Korean government. It can be watched for free in multiple languages on the official website of the Government of Japan’s Headquarters for the Abduction Issue.

Here’s a video of the English dub:

The background behind the video goes like this: In the 1970s, North Korea abducted at least seventeen Japanese citizens. These Japanese citizens were made to teach the Japanese language to North Korean spies, who would then go on to perform espionage work in Japan and spread propaganda. For many years, North Korea denied that this was happening, but in 2002, some twenty four years after the fact, they finally admitted it. At that time, only five of the victims were returned to Japan. The rest had either died or their whereabouts are unknown.

This incident caused huge controversy in Japan at the time. Diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea completely broke down and to this day are still not normalised. The Japanese government argues that the North Korean regime has not yet fully accounted for all the abductees, while the North Korean regime insists that the Japanese government is simply using this incident as an excuse to maintain economic sanctions.

The Megumi anime tells the story of Megumi Yokota, who was thirteen years old at the time of her abduction. Megumi’s story is the most iconic of all the abductees, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve heard of it. The anime was based off a manga of the same name (you can read a short excerpt here) and was released on March 31 2008, about eight years ago to this day. This was around the time the Japanese and North Korean governments were having talks about normalising their relations, but these talks fell through.

Still, there is some closure to this grisly tale that is not told in the anime. In 2014, Megumi’s parents were allowed to meet Megumi’s daughter, who was born in North Korea. But as for the father of Megumi’s daughter, a South Korean abductee known as Kim Young-nam, his whereabouts are unknown.

Megumi before she was abducted

As an anime, Megumi is rather flat and uninspiring, but as propaganda it’s quite effective. The anime is far from the best telling of the Megumi story, but the tale is so inherently haunting and powerful that it’s hard not to be moved. The use of real photographs serves as a stark reminder that while this story may be animated, it is telling a true story. It shocks the viewer into confronting the reality of the situation in a way that a live action documentary would not achieve.

(That said, there are a bunch of live action documentaries focusing on this story, including an award-winning American documentary called Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story.)

I first stumbled across the Megumi anime while researching the lives of ethnic Koreans living in Japan. And my take on it is this: there is absolutely zero doubt that North Korea is run by shitlords. But the Japanese media’s myopic focus on the abductions, and particularly the Japanese abductees, took attention away from the 500+ South Korean victims, as well as the victims of hate crimes against the ethnic Korean population living in Japan.

So even though I take no issue with the message itself, there is still much to be critical of when it comes to propaganda and one-sided discourse.


  1. I think it was a good thing they made this anime. Sure it’s scope was limited to the Japanese side of the issue but that’s fine

    • Yeah, I think it’s fine as well. It’s not like there’s any message of hate being preached in the video either. No single piece of media tells the whole story and that’s fine.

  2. I think posting on April 1st is the only way to get people to closely examine the sources you give for your articles.

  3. “Diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea completely broke down and to this day are still not normalised.”

    Well, no shit. This is some seriously disturbing stuff NK did. Also, to learn the language? Fucking seriously? They couldn’t just send someone to buy a bunch of grammar books and movies? Frankly I understand there’s a propaganda element to this kind of story, but I guess it also sort of works as a PSA? I mean, there’s many things one expects to have to be wary of in daily life, but agents of a completely insane enemy country kidnapping you to enslave you as a language teacher really isn’t one of them (slim as the risk may be).

    • Yeah, I think that some of the reaction at the time was tinged with incredulity. The Japanese government was accusing North Korea for years of kidnapping people, and back then even Japanese people were like, “Pssssh! North Korea can’t be THAT cartoonishly evil!”

      But then… what do you know…

      You’d think it was an April Fool’s joke, but it’s not, even though I posted it on April 1st.

      • I think one can always fathom arbitrary degrees of evilness from others. It’s the jarring combination of evilness AND utter stupidity that takes us by surprise. Like someone said, the stupid is the most dangerous kind of person – they act in ways that harm others while harming themselves as well. For that reason their motives are obscure and their actions unpredictable. With someone who’s merely evil but smart you can at least trust them to act in their self-interest. Evil AND stupid? Good luck with that.

      • back then even Japanese people were like, “Pssssh! North Korea can’t be THAT cartoonishly evil!”

        Though by the early ’80s, the people living on the Sea of Japan coast in Japan were apparently telling their kids not to be out late near the beach :because the North Koreans would come and kidnap you”… If I remember from what we covered in class, there were a few failed attempts at abduction, where the culprits spoke what sounded like Korean. So the news spread in the communities, but it wasn’t really taken up by the media/politicians until the late 1990s.

        Ironically, Koizumi apparently went to North Korea in 2002 in the hope that getting a breakthrough on this issue would allow for normalisation of relations (relations between the two countries have NEVER actually been ‘normal’).

        Btw, did you come across this article by Markus Bell when you were looking this issue up? It’s apparently gotten a lot more complicated, because of what the two governments decided to do about Zainichi Koreans during the CW…

        • “(relations between the two countries have NEVER actually been ‘normal’)”

          I’m not sure what country could lay claim to have ‘normal’ relations with North Korea. Possibly China?

          • It’s actually a term used in politics and international relations. ‘Normal relations’ and related terms such as ‘normalisation of relations’ are just ways of talking about diplomatic relations between nation-states. It’s about states recognising each other as legitimate actors on the international stage. And North Korea is recognised by far more states than Taiwan, for example. (^^;)

            • Oh, so you mean Japan doesn’t even *recognize* the existence of NK as an independent state?

            • It’s not quite that black and white. Formal ‘recognition as a state’ is just one part of the issue — it has to be mutual, and both states also have to agree on the terms of ‘normalisation’, following which they can exchange diplomatic representation (effectively giving the other state a piece of land to serve as their own sovereign territory even though it’s situated within the other state) and have proper trade relations. The US, the Vatican and South Korea all don’t recognise North Korea as a legitimate state, for example.

        • Thanks for the link to the Markus Bell article! I hadn’t read it because I’m not subscribed to The Diplomat and I’d capped the number of articles I read last month. I was aware of the repatriation issue, but like you mentioned, it’s a whole new can of worms…

          Also, if you’re interested, here’s the article I read that mentions the Megumi anime in the context of zainichi Korean issues:

          • I hate it how the Diplomat caps article access at just 5 per month! (Though with my phone and tablet, I suppose I can stretch it out to 15 if I’m careful…)

            Thanks for the article! I’ve actually met a Zainichi Korean, though one that lives and works as a Japanese person (i.e. using a Japanese name as his professional name). That’s probably one of the legacies of the discrimination that they face in Japan…

            That said, what’s it’s like comparatively for Japanese people living in Korea? There doesn’t seem to be as much written about it, but it doesn’t sound particularly great either…

  4. Really good post, Froggy. That’s really terrible that something like this happened. Of course no country is free of the crime of having done terrible things in the past. While I am happy to live in the US, there never is any point in denying that the country has done alot of terrible things. The Trail of Tears, the internment of Japanese in WWII, off the top of my head just to name a few.

    Thinking about this and all the evils that mankind are cable of, it really makes it hard to believe that people are inherently good natured. It … It really makes it seem like there is no good in the world.

    Over all, yeah it is effective propaganda.

    • Glad you liked the post!

      And yeah, a good thing to keep in mind when we look at these things is that every country has its problems… although it’s hard to sink lower than abducting schoolgirls.

    • “Thinking about this and all the evils that mankind are cable of, it really makes it hard to believe that people are inherently good natured. It … It really makes it seem like there is no good in the world.”

      Not really that imho. I think the problem is that good is a more “individual” quality. Large organizations (and States) tend to have this effect where individualistic/selfish tendencies reinforce themselves while empathic and altruistic ones are squashed. I think it’s because there’s often a very obvious way of being selfish, while altruistic efforts are often just a form of personal expression, much less easily organized under a single banner.

  5. Hmm…Then, what would you define as a “digestable” propaganda? Is it because the makers, or is it because the audience?

    If you are interesting in this matter, you should examine a recent American pseudo-documentary calls “Vexxed”. It’s basically the propaganda of the anti-vaccine movement. Or, turning back in time and watch “Loose Changes”. Yes, they are wildly inaccurate, but why does people still believe in them? Simply because they came out at the right time, whether is it after 9/11, Iraq War, the 2008 Depression, or something like Flint water incident.

    (This is why I’ve a problem with those who call Micheal Moore “propagandist”. His movies stir up negative sentiments and enmity to the establishment, but at least he has convincing, subjective arguements to back it up, those notions that an outsider with no string attached to me could understand, believe or reject.)

    That brings the last question: Would Megumi felt differernt if it had been released on another time?

  6. Just be careful with your posts, lest your blog gets targeted by the same people that targeted that James Franco + Seth Rogen movie on North Korea!!

    PS. I liked the part where Franco made Jong Un wet himself.

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