Leader of the Japanese Red Army
"The mission's purpose was to consolidate the international revolutionary alliance against the imperialists of the world."
I n November 2000, citizens of Japan were startled to see a handcuffed middle-aged woman emerge from a train arriving in Tokyo. When she spotted the waiting cameras, she raised her hands and gave the thumbs-up sign, shouting at reporters: "I'll fight on!"
Her name was Fusako Shigenobu. For three decades the police had been looking for her as the leader of one of Japan's most mysterious terrorist organizations: the Japanese Red Army (JRA). Surprisingly, she had been captured in the small Japanese town of Takatsuki, near Osaka. For nearly thirty years, she had been based in Lebanon, where her group conducted terrorist raids as allies of Palestinians fighting against Israel.
According to police, Shigenobu was disguised as a man when she checked into a hotel in Takatsuki. Although age and her disguise might have hidden one of Japan's most wanted terrorists, her style of smoking cigarettes evidently gave her away: she puffed a cigarette as if it were a pipe and blew perfect smoke rings.
An adolescent in the 1960s
Shigenobu was born in Tokyo in 1945, a month after World War II ended with Japan's surrender to the United States. Her father had been a member of Japan's ultraconservative political faction that was blamed for starting World War II. But he was too minor to attract the Americans' attention, who put other members of the faction on trial after the war. Instead, he ran a small grocery store during Shigenobu's childhood. Her excellent academic performance during junior high school grew worse after she realized that her parents could not afford to send her to college.
After high school, Shigenobu took a job with Kikkoman, a company that made soy sauce. She used her earnings to pay for night classes at Meiji University in Tokyo in 1964.
It was then the era of the Vietnam War (1955–75), and Japanese students—like students worldwide—took part in antiwar, anti-American protests, including protests against the presence of American troops on the Japanese island of Okinawa. (The Vietnam war began when communist troops of North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam. [The country had been divided in 1954 after an international conference.] The United States, fearful of the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, aided and fought alongside the anticommunist South Vietnamese. The North eventually overran the South and reunited the country under a communist regime.) Some student protests were led by the Socialist Student League, one of whose leaders was a young man named Takamaro Tamiya. Shigenobu met Tamiya during a protest, and the two became romantically involved. Their relationship led Shigenobu deeper into the radical student movement.
The Red Army is founded
The protests had little effect in Japan, however, and sometimes the police shut them down. Some students decided they needed to take more drastic measures. The result was a group calling itself the Sekigun, or Red Army. The founders hoped it would become a full-fledged military organization, with arms, explosives, and battle helmets painted blood red. They wanted to set up offices in Mexico, Brazil, and San Francisco and coordinate a worldwide uprising and a revolution in Japan.
Members of the new Red Army were determined to get started right away, and in 1969 they attacked several Osaka police stations with Molotov cocktails. (A Molotov cocktail is a firebomb consisting of a bottle filled with gasoline, with a rag stuffed in the top to hold it in. The rag is set on fire and the bottle is thrown at its target.) Later, they attacked another police station in Tokyo. In November 1969 police arrested more than fifty Red Army members at a training camp near Mount Fuji, one of Japan's most famous landmarks. They were accused of planning to attack the police headquarters in Tokyo and the residence of Japan's prime minister.
In March 1970 the Red Army staged Japan's first hijacking. After a Japan Airlines Boeing 727 took off from Tokyo, nine neatly dressed hijackers took out daggers and swords from cardboard tubes and burst into the pilot's compartment, demanding that the plane head for Pyongyang in the secretive communist country of North Korea. At first the plane landed in Seoul, South Korea (which authorities tried to disguise as the North Korean capital's airport), but the hijackers were not fooled. Eventually the plane, carrying ninety-nine passengers and seven crew members as hostages, went to North Korea. The hijackers were allowed to stay after they released their hostages, who, with the hijacked plane, flew back to Japan a few days later.
In 1972 fourteen members of the JRA died after an internal disagreement ended with a shoot-out among its members. The violence, including a later shoot-out with police, basically ended the group's role in Japan. But by that time Shigenobu was long gone.
To the Middle East
In 1971 Shigenobu had married a fellow radical, Takeshi Okudaira, and moved with him to Beirut, Lebanon. At Palestinian guerrilla camps in Syria and Lebanon, both underwent "military training," which consisted of lessons in firing rifles and throwing hand grenades. Their presence in the Middle East was a result of making contact in North Korea with George Habash (1926–; see entry), leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), one of the most violent Palestinian terrorist groups fighting to replace Israel with a Palestinian state. (The state of Israel was founded in 1948 on land that in biblical times was the Jewish homeland but in the mid-twentieth century was under British control. After the Holocaust, the period during World War II [1939–45] in which six million Jews were killed, the United Nations established the state—on territory that Palestinians hoped would be used to create a homeland for them. Since that time Israel and its Arab neighbors fought a series of wars over territory and the right of Israel to exist.)
To many people, the alliance between the JRA and the PFLP was hard to understand. Observers at the time believed the Japanese had become frustrated with their failure to start a revolution in Japan. In fact, Japanese police had effectively shut down the group in a series of raids. Their cause was hurt more by the discovery that some members had been tortured to death for having argued with the group's political positions.
Once in the Middle East, Shigenobu became a key leader of the JRA. Intelligence officials believe she headed the group's finances and the planning for its most daring raids from a headquarters in the Bekka Valley in Lebanon (an area largely controlled by Syria during the JRA's most active period).
The JRA soon began making terrorist attacks on behalf of the Palestinian cause. One of the first and most notorious of these raids was an attack on Lod Airport in Israel in May 1972. Terrorists from the JRA entered the passenger terminal of Tel Aviv's main airport and began throwing hand grenades and firing machine guns. The attack killed twenty-six people, including sixteen people from Puerto Rico who were on a religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land. About eighty others were injured. Among those killed in the attack was Okudaira, Shigenobu's husband.
A decade and a half of terror
Over the next fifteen years, the JRA was one of the most active terrorist groups in the world. It conducted a string of dramatic terrorist attacks that were often—but not always—on behalf of the Palestinian cause. Among the incidents blamed on the group:
- July 1973: The JRA, along with some Arabs, hijack a Japan Airlines plane to Libya. The passengers are eventually released and the plane is destroyed.
- January–February 1974: JRA terrorists attack a Shell Oil refinery in Singapore and hijack a ferryboat and its passengers. Eventually the hostages are released unharmed.
- September 1974: JRA seizes eleven hostages from the French embassy in the Hague, capital of the Netherlands. The attackers are given a plane to carry them to Syria.
- August 1975: Ten JRA attackers seize fifty-two hostages and the U.S. consulate in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, including the U.S. consul and a senior Swedish diplomat. They demand the release of seven prisoners held in Japanese prisons, including several JRA members. Five of the prisoners are released and allowed to fly to Tripoli, Libya. The hostages are then set free.
- September–October 1977: JRA hijackers seize a Japan Airlines plane in Bombay, India, and force it to fly to neighboring Bangladesh. The Japanese government agrees to exchange nine JRA prisoners and pay $6 million in ransom for the 159 hostages on the plane. The hijackers are flown to Algeria.
Following the Indian hijacking, the JRA stopped its attacks for nine years. In 1986, however, its terrorist activities began again, sometimes under the name Anti-Imperialist International Brigade. These attacks include:
- May 1986: In Jakarta, Indonesia, mortar shells are fired at the U.S. and Japanese embassies. Later, fingerprints of Tsutomu Shirosaki, a member of JRA, are found in the hotel room from which the mortar shells were fired. (A mortar is a military weapon with a short barrel and a wide mouth.)
- May 1986: A JRA member, Yu Kikumura, is arrested with a bomb in his baggage at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. He is sent to Japan but released on a legal technicality.
- April 1987: The U.S. embassy and United States Information Service offices in Madrid, Spain, are attacked with rockets on the first anniversary of an American bomb attack against Libya. The JRA claims responsibility.
- June 1987: The U.S. and British embassies in Rome, Italy, are attacked with rockets and car bombs on the same day. The JRA claims responsibility, and arrest warrants are issued for two JRA members based on photo identifications.
- April 1988: Kikumura (who was arrested at Schiphol Airport a year earlier) is arrested at a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike carrying three antipersonnel bombs. He is convicted of possessing explosive devices and sentenced to thirty years in prison.
- April 1988: Two days after Kikumura's arrest, a United Service Organization nightclub popular with American troops in Naples, Italy, is bombed. Five people are killed, including one member of the U.S. Navy. Italian police identify the fingerprints of a JRA member.
- July 1988: Two unused, improvised mortars are found near the U.S. embassy in Madrid. The JRA claims responsibility for planning an attack timed for the Fourth of July, in revenge for an Iranian airliner being shot down by the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf.
Decline and fall of the JRA
The JRA's level of activity fell significantly during the 1990s. At the time the Palestinian terrorist groups it associated with were experiencing a decline in their influence as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began peace negotiations with Israel.
U.S. government antiterrorist experts, who believed the group had had between twenty and forty members, estimated that it had fallen to fewer than ten members by 2001. In October 2001 the U.S. State Department dropped the group from its list of terrorist organizations on the grounds that it had not been active since 1999. In May 2000 Japanese officials arrested four JRA members after they were driven out of Lebanon. And the Japanese never gave up hope of persuading the government of North Korea to return the JRA members involved in the original 1970 hijacking.
Shigenobu, who was still high on Japan's list of most wanted criminals, remained out of sight until 2001, when her unusual style of smoking cigarettes gave away her presence in Japan. Despite the continuing terrorist violence in the Middle East, the end of the Cold War (a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1945 until 1990) had made it harder for terrorists to find a sympathetic country in which to hide. A peace agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993 further reduced the JRA's list of hiding places, not to mention employers looking to hire terrorists. And over the course of thirty years, the JRA had little to show for its long string of terrorist attacks.
As with another Japanese terrorist suspect—Shoko Asahara (1955–; see entry), leader of the Aum Shinrikyo sect—she was expected to remain in prison for a long time as Japan's slow legal system ground on. (Asahara's trial had lasted for seven years and was still proceeding in 2002.)
For More Information
Imamura, Anne E., editor. Reimaging Japanese Women. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.
"Arrest of a Fugitive." Maclean's, November 20, 2000, p. 123.
Jachnowitz, George. "Why Terrorism?" Midstream, February-March 2002, p. 9.
"The Japanese Red Army." Department of State Bulletin, November 1989, p. 64.
Sterling, Claire. "Terrorism: Tracing the International Network." New York Times Magazine, March 1, 1981, p. 16.