Charles Jenkins, who vanished from his platoon in 1965 and later played devilish American characters in communist propaganda films, faces possible U.S. military prosecution on desertion and other charges in Japan, although American officials suggest they will delay taking him into custody.
Jenkins' arrival, broadcast live by Japanese TV networks, came amid a wave of public sympathy in Japan over the plight of his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, who married him after she was kidnapped in Japan by North Korean agents in 1978 and taken to the communist country. The couple has two daughters.
The family arrived on a Japanese government-chartered flight from Jakarta, Indonesia, where they held an emotional reunion after nearly two years of separation. Soga returned to Japan from North Korea with four other abductees in 2002, but Jenkins stayed behind with their daughters for fear of U.S. prosecution.
Japanese and American officials say Jenkins, 64, is in dire need of medical attention following an abdominal operation in North Korea and other health problems.
On arrival in Tokyo, he stepped painfully down the stairs to the tarmac, clutching his cane as Soga supported him. When someone shouted to ask him how he felt, he shook his head sadly as he limped to a bus that took the family to a hospital.
The Japanese government, eager to reunite Soga's family, has pushed for U.S. clemency for the North Carolina native, and stood by its position on Sunday that Jenkins' health should take priority over his legal problems.
"The Japanese government will provide all the necessary support so Mr. Jenkins can concentrate on his medical treatment for now," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda.
The United States has maintained its right to pursue a case against Jenkins. He was never officially discharged from the military, and is subject to U.S. military authorities under an agreement between the United States and Japan, where some 50,000 U.S. troops are based.
But American officials, including U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker, have said in recent days that they are sympathetic to Jenkins' health troubles. Baker met with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi on Saturday and said U.S. custody could be delayed.
Japanese officials say the United States had not yet officially asked to apprehend him.
"I think they all are still a bit nervous, but they seem to have hope," Kyoko Nakayama, the government's envoy for the North Korean abduction issue, said of Jenkins' family.
The arrival comes just days after Japanese authorities helped Washington with another fugitive case — that of chess legend Bobby Fischer, who has been sought by the United States for attending a 1992 match in Yugoslavia despite international sanctions.
Fischer was detained in Japan on Tuesday, providing Tokyo with an example of cooperation with Washington while it made a case for leniency for Jenkins.
Jenkins' nephew, James Hyman, flew to Japan in hopes of seeing his uncle. In an appearance Sunday on Japan's NTV network, which accompanied him on the flight to Tokyo, Hyman said he had received a letter from Soga telling him and his family about Jenkins.
Jenkins' family has denied that he is a deserter, maintaining that he was kidnapped by North Korea. Hyman called for his uncle to be pardoned.
"We hope that it being so long since he's been gone that he might not be prosecuted," said Hyman, who said he had brought a country music CD as a gift for his uncle.
The reunion of the Soga family was a potential boost to the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, battered by elections last week for the upper house of Parliament in which the opposition Democratic Party made impressive gains.
Koizumi has gone to great lengths to get Jenkins to Japan, taking as much as 90 minutes away from a May 22 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang to attempt to convince the American to come to Tokyo. At that time, Jenkins refused.
It was not immediately clear why Jenkins changed his mind, but a combination of his medical troubles, his reunion with Soga in Jakarta, Japanese reassurances and the more sympathetic stand of the United States may have encouraged him to come.
The breakthrough in the Soga case, while applauded, also prompted calls for progress in other outstanding abduction cases. North Korea has not yet fully accounted for eight Japanese it admitted to kidnapping in the 1970s and 80s but claims are dead. Tokyo has implicated Pyongyang in the disappearance of at least two others.
"Next, we want the government to send officials over to North Korea and learn more about what happened to all those who the North says are dead, and then rescue them," Shigeru Yokota, whose daughter is a missing abductee, told NTV.