OTSUKI Japan (Reuters) - Misa Morimoto spoke to no one for 18 years about her identical twin sister who vanished when they were 20, not even to her own children. On the rare occasions when asked, she lied and said her sister was studying overseas.
But slowly the pain of uncertainty about her sister's fate was replaced by suspicion of the unthinkable - that her twin, Miho, an energetic girl who liked hiking with her and striking silly poses for the camera, was abducted by North Korea.
"It was the late 90s when news drifted out that people from Japan had perhaps been taken to North Korea. I'd watch this on TV with my parents and wonder if there was a connection to what had happened with Miho," Morimoto, now 50, told Reuters.
"It turned out they were thinking the same thing, but we were all too afraid to say it. We sat there in silence, thinking maybe she was in North Korea. The idea was incredible."
In 2002, North Korea admitted it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies, and five of them returned to Japan. Tokyo suspects that hundreds more may have been taken.
A support group for "Special Missing Persons" says 77 are "strongly suspected" to have been abducted. This includes Miho, known by the twins' maiden name Yamamoto.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made solving the abduction issue a priority. And high-level talks have led the reclusive North to pledge to reopen investigations into the fate of all missing Japanese in return for Tokyo easing sanctions imposed over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program.
North Korea has backtracked on previous promises. But Morimoto hopes that she may now learn about the sister so like her that the pair could swap classrooms and fool their teachers.
"Of course this is just a feeling, but we're twins and there's a special connection. If she was dead, I would know right away," Morimoto said, dabbing at tears.
"But I have absolutely no sense that we've been separated by death. She's alive and healthy, but we can't meet and I don't know anything ... The sense I get from her is, why don't you know where I am? Why aren't you searching for me?"
The day Miho vanished was so routine that Morimoto, now a special education teacher with three grown children, cannot remember the last thing she might have said to her.
Late to talk as babies, the two were inseparable through high school. First-born Miho protected her sister from bullies and stood up to their stubborn policeman father.
"I always felt that Miho led the way," Morimoto said. "I knew if she was there, I would always be all right."
Their mother saved for years to buy the two formal kimonos for the Japanese celebration of adulthood at age 20. They posed for photos that Morimoto now displays carefully for visitors.
On June 4, 1984, Miho, who had dropped out of nursing school to try for a university place, left home in the central city of Kofu to study at the library. That evening, the restaurant where she worked part time called to say she had not shown up.
Her motorbike was found the next day at the train station. Police called three days later to say her handbag had been found on an isolated beach on the Sea of Japan 360 km (220 miles) from home - not far from where two known abductees were taken.
Years of fruitless searching followed. The family feared Miho might have run away from home, upset by the death of her elder brother in a road accident and worried about her future. They were notified when bodies were found, but none was a match.
In 2002, Morimoto met other families who believed their loved ones might be in North Korea. She was struck by similarities - the remote beach, silent phone calls to the family home cut off shortly after people answered. On some of these, Miho's family heard muffled sobs.
Morimoto also met a North Korean defector who saw her and immediately said: "You're taller than Miho, aren't you? But her shoulders are broader, and she's good at volleyball."
The family and its supporters give little credence to the results of DNA tests on the cremated remains of a body found weeks after Miho disappeared that were supposed to indicate it was hers.
They say technical issues cast doubt on the tests, conducted 20 years after her disappearance. The body's measurements did not match Miho's and the clothing was different.
"When I looked at my brother's silent body, I had no choice but to accept his death," Morimoto said. "But for Miho, there's been absolutely no proof I can accept."
Families like Miho's suffer special agonies, said Kazuhiro Araki of Tokyo's Takushoku University, who heads a support group for families of the missing.
"We tell the families there's a chance they were abducted and we'll look into it, but please don't think that abduction is the only answer," he said.
"At least the families of the abductees know where their loved ones are and it becomes a matter of getting them back."
Morimoto, awaiting an interim report on Pyongyang's investigation that may come out by early autumn, said she feels North Korea is taking the issue more seriously.
"But anything's possible," she said. "The worst would be if they say they don't know anything about her. Then I will just go on living in a long darkness."
Morimoto, slim and still an avid hiker, says the first thing she would do if Miho returned would be to make sure she rested. She has dreamed of Miho returning.
"The first thing I'd say would be 'we're together, we're finally together,'" she said. "'Of course, you couldn't have died.'"
Editing by Ron Popeski