Japanese Red Army

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Japanese Red Army

LEADER: Fusako Shigenobu



USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Asia and the Middle East, headquartered in Lebanon


One of the most feared terrorist organizations in the world, the Japanese Red Army (JRA, Nippon Sekigun) was a small, extremely violent group of Japanese anarchists intent on beginning a world-wide communist revolution. JRA grew out of a merger between the Red Army Faction (Sekigun-ha), a breakaway group from the Japanese Communist League, and the Keihin Anti-Treaty Joint Struggle (Keihin Ampo Kyoto). In 1986, the JRA changed its name to the Anti-Imperialist International Brigades.

The JRA began in 1971 and remains under the leadership of its founder, Fusako Shigenobu. Sponsored by Syria, Libya, and North Korea, it is closely linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The JRA had its heyday in the 1970s. With most of its leaders in jail or dead, the JRA has been quiet since the 1980s. It is now believed to be defunct.


There have been three Japanese Red Armies, all of them linked. The Red Army Faction, the first JRA, was a radical extremist group that began in the late 1960s during a period of violent student unrest. For its first large-scale public activity, the group planned to capture the residence of the Japanese Prime Minister, but this effort failed miserably. The Red Army Faction then captured international headlines in March 1970 when it carried out Japan's first airline hijacking. This Red Army action proved more peaceful than the ones that succeeded it. Some of the 155 passengers on board the hijacked Japan Air Lines claimed that the Red Army Faction terrorists provided better service than the flight attendants. The Red Army Faction members directed the plane to North Korea and remained there for guidance in carrying out world revolution.

With the Red Army Faction leadership expected to be out of action for years, some members of the group who had remained behind in Japan merged with another extremist group, Keihin Anti-Treaty Joint Struggle. (The treaty in the title refers to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.) Whereas the Red Army Faction had money but no weapons, the Keihin group had weapons but no money. The two groups formed the United Red Army (Rengo Sekigun). The aims of the new group, commonly known as the JRA, were to overthrow the Japanese government, end the Japanese monarchy, and foment world revolution.


The best known JRA attack was the massacre of travelers in the terminal at LOD Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel.
The JRA invaded the French Embassy at The Hague and held the ambassador and 10 other people captive for five days.
JRA members attempted to take over the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
JRA detonated a car bomb outside of the Canadian Embassy and launched rockets against the U.S. and Japanese embassies in Djakarta.
JRA launched a rocket attack and car bombing against the U.S. and British embassies in Rome.
JRA bombed a USO in Naples, Italy, that killed five people.
The last confirmed JRA attack was a homemade rocket attack on the Imperial palaces in Kyoto and Tokyo.

The JRA was a marriage of convenience that ended in disaster. The groups united for logistical and tactical purposes, but differed too much in philosophy. The Red Army Faction insisted that the members of the new band prepare themselves for combat by thoroughly examining their motives to ensure that they were tough enough to create revolution. In December 1971, the members gathered in an isolated cabin in the Japanese mountains. A member of the Keihin group, Mitsuo Ozaki, was accused of having discussed the location of the JRA's weapons with unauthorized persons as well as failing to demonstrate true revolutionary spirit. It was decided that he needed to engage in fistfights with other members to toughen him up. When Ozaki thanked the group for this opportunity to prove himself, his comments were viewed as attempts to curry favor and signs of additional weakness. He was beaten, tied to a stake, and beaten some more before being left overnight. The next day, following additional beatings, Ozaki died. The JRA then decided that he chose to die when he realized he was weak. Another member was then beaten to death in a similar manner for flirting with women, conduct which was unbecoming for a true revolutionary. Eight more United Red Army members, most of them former Keihin revolutionaries, died from beatings before the attacks ceased in February 1972. Once the remains of the deceased revolutionaries were discovered, the murders shocked and repulsed the Japanese public.

Once it began to target people outside of the JRA, the organization accomplished seventeen noteworthy actions and attempted at least nine others that failed. The JRA's most infamous attack occurred on May 30, 1972, in Israel. Three JRA members, including leader Kozo Okamoto, used machine-guns and grenades to kill twenty-six people and wound eighty others at the LOD airport in Tel Aviv. Recognizing that their capture was imminent, two of the terrorists participated in a murder-suicide pact. One shot the other, and the survivor blew himself up with a grenade. Okamoto, the only JRA survivor of the attack, was imprisoned in Israel until 1985 when he was released in exchange for Israeli prisoners and allowed to fly to Libya. Mentally ill as the result of purported torture in Israel, he has converted to Islam and remains in Libya.

The next major JRA attack occurred in Singapore. On January 31, 1974, the JRA united with the PFLP to take hostages and plant bombs at a Shell oil refinery on the island of Singapore. The attack resulted in minimal damage, no loss of life, and the escape of the JRA activists to South Yemen.

On September 12, 1974, three JRA members seized eleven hostages, including the French ambassador at the French Embassy in The Hague. They demanded the release of a JRA member, Yoshiabi Yamada, being held in France for attempting to bring counterfeit money and false passports into the country. To help speed up negotiations, the notorious terrorist Carlos Jackal acted on his own initiative and threw a grenade into a crowd of young people as a warning to the French and Dutch authorities. The grenade killed two and injured thirty-four on September 15. The JRA member was soon released.

On August 4, 1975, the JRA embarked on a successful campaign to free all of its imprisoned members by taking hostages and using them as bargaining chips. Ten JRA terrorists seized the U.S. Consulate in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and held fifty-two hostages. The JRA promised to kill the hostages if seven imprisoned JRA members in Japan were not released.

Only five JRA members chose to leave prison, with the others apparently fearing additional jail time if recaptured. Yukiko Ekita, convicted in Japan in 1975 for her part in a series of bombings of large companies during 1974 and 1975, was one of the members who chose take advantage of this new policy. She was released as part of a deal struck by JRA members who hijacked a Japanese plane bound for Baghdad. Some of the other JRA members who were freed would later turn up as participants in JRA terrorist actions, much to the embarrassment and dismay of the government of Japan.



Known as the Red Queen, Fusako Shigenobu was the guiding force behind the JRA. Her father had belonged to the ultrarightist Blood Brotherhood League, a pre-World War II organization that assassinated prominent Japanese business and political leaders. She was born in 1946. The family was poor, and Shigenobu attended a commercial high school that marked her as a second-class citizen in Japan. She obtained a job as an office worker in a Kikkoman soy sauce plant after leaving school in 1964, but became disenchanted with rampant classism and sexism in the workplace. In 1965, she entered Meiji University to become a science teacher. On her first day, she joined students protesting a tuition rise. She would subsequently leave school to devote herself to the revolution, while earning money as a hostess in a bar in the Ginza section of Tokyo.

Drawn to communist ideology, Shigenobu's involvement in the student movement inspired her to found the Japanese Red Army in 1971. She aligned the JRA with the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine because the Palestinian revolutionary movement was more advanced than the Japanese one. She married Takeski Okudaira in 1971, and they went to a terrorist training camp in the Middle East for their honeymoon. He would die in the Tel Aviv airport attack. Shigenobu was placed on the international wanted list after leading an attack on the French Embassy in the Hague. After years of being on wanted lists, she was arrested in November 2000 after police discovered her living in Tatasuki, Osaka, Japan. Immediately following her arrest, she told reporters that she would fight until the last and that she retained the same goals that she held in her youth. In 2001, Shigenobu announced that she was disbanding the JRA and would, in the future, pursue her goals using peaceful political means.

The group went into hiatus from late 1977 to mid 1986. On May 14, 1986, JRA members detonated a car bomb outside of the Canadian Embassy and launched rockets against the U.S. and Japanese embassies in Jakarta, Indonesia. Fingerprints found in a hotel room, along with the rocket launcher, matched those of a known JRA member, although credit was taken in the name of the Anti-Imperialist International Brigade. The attack occurred after the United States bombed Libya in retaliation for Libya-led terrorist attacks. The JRA choice of Libya as a sanctuary implied Libyan state sponsorship of the Japanese group.

Evidence of further continued activity by the JRA surfaced in 1988 with the capture of JRA member, Yu Kikumura, who was arrested after behaving suspiciously on the New Jersey Turnpike. Caught with explosives, Kikumura apparently planned an attack to coincide with the April 14, 1988, bombing of a United Service Organizations (USO) club in Naples, Italy. This Italian attack killed five people, including an American servicewoman. Kikumura is currently serving a prison sentence in the United States.

By 1990, the JRA appeared on the verge of collapse. The end of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe badly weakened the cause of international communism. Supplanted in the Middle East by Islamist terrorist organizations and unable to recruit new members in Japan, the JRA became a collection of out-of-date middle-aged terrorists.

Japanese Red Army (JRA) a.k.a. Anti-Imperialist International Brigade (AIIB)


The JRA is an international terrorist group formed around 1970 after breaking away from the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction. The JRA's historical goal has been to overthrow the Japanese Government and monarchy and to help foment world revolution. JRA's leader, Fusako Shigenobu, claimed that the forefront of the battle against international imperialism was in Palestine, so in the early 1970s she led her small group to the Middle East to support the Palestinian struggle against Israel and the West. After her arrest in November 2000, Shigenobu announced she intended to pursue her goals using a legitimate political party rather than revolutionary violence, and the group announced it would disband in April 2001.


During the 1970s, JRA carried out a series of attacks around the world, including the massacre in 1972 at Lod Airport in Israel, two Japanese airliner hijackings, and an attempted takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. During the late 1980s, JRA began to single out American targets and used car bombs and rockets in attempted attacks on US Embassies in Jakarta, Rome, and Madrid. In April 1988, JRA operative Yu Kikumura was arrested with explosives on the New Jersey Turnpike, apparently planning an attack to coincide with the bombing of a USO club in Naples, a suspected JRA operation that killed five, including a U.S. servicewoman. He was convicted of the charges and is serving a lengthy prison sentence in the United States. Tsutomu Shirosaki, captured in 1996, is also jailed in the United States. In 2000, Lebanon deported to Japan four members it arrested in 1997, but granted a fifth operative, Kozo Okamoto, political asylum. Longtime leader Shigenobu was arrested in November 2000 and faces charges of terrorism and passport fraud. Four JRA members remain in North Korea following their involvement in a hijacking in 1970; five of their family members returned to Japan in 2004.


About six hard-core members; undetermined number of sympathizers. At its peak, the group claimed to have 30 to 40 members.


Location unknown, but possibly in Asia and/or Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon.



Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

Perhaps more detrimental to the group's well-being, the identities of the top JRA members had become well known to police organizations throughout the world. In 1987, the Japanese government made a special effort to locate and arrest the JRA's leadership. Humiliated on the world stage by the JRA's success at forcing the release of its members from Japanese prisons, Japan had become determined to wipe out the organization.

The first JRA member captured was Osamu Maruko. He had participated in two 1970s hijackings of Japan Airlines planes, the first in cooperation with four Palestinian terrorists and the second with the aid of JRA colleagues. Maruko was arrested in 1987, and convicted in 1993. Ekita, freed in 1975 in exchange for hostages, was arrested in March of 1995 in Romania and subsequently deported to Japan. She stood trial and was sentenced to twenty years in jail. Tsutomu Shirosaki was captured in 1996 and extradited to the United States, where he stood trial for the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. Shirosaki was convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence.

By 2000, the JRA had become an embarrassment to some moderates in the Middle East, although it still enjoyed strong support among the Arab public. Lebanon expelled four JRA members in March 2000.

In the biggest blow to the organization, Fusako Shigenobu was captured in November 2000. While imprisoned, she announced that she would disband the JRA and launch new legal fights. Terrorism experts believe Shigenobu's declaration to be genuine and the United States downgraded the JRA from a designated terrorist organization to a watched terrorist organization in 2001.


The JRA's early emphasis on hand-held weapons like knives, samurai swords, small-arms, and automatic weapons as well as direct contact with its victims reflected Japanese cultural customs. Such tactics seemed legitimated by the martial Bushido tradition that emphasized personal valor in direct confrontation and helped boost the prestige of the JRA within Japan. The JRA abandoned such tactics in 1977.

When it resumed public activities in 1986, the JRA began relying on bombings and rocket firings in which the JRA members would be quite remote from the target and could escape more easily. This tactical change helped preserve an organization that, given its notorious history of killing its own and its remoteness from Japan, had great difficulties in recruiting new members.

The JRA was a tightly structured, centralized organization. The leader directed events through a political committee. The military committee, the organizational committee, and the logistics committee all reported to the political committee. The orders dispersed by JRA leaders were absolute, and a soldier would only receive tactical information. This severe restriction of information occasionally led to problems, such as the one that occurred when the JRA hijacked a Japan Air Lines flight from Tokyo to Paris on July 20, 1973. The lead hijacker died in a grenade accident and the surviving soldiers did not know what had been planned for the plane and the people onboard. After some confusion, the JRA chose to land in Libya where they then blew up the 747 airplane after releasing the passengers and crew.

The JRA was one of the first terrorist organizations to have an international focus. It worked in conjunction with other international terrorist groups, including the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy. It was also very closely allied with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). By 1973, the JRA had built up a diversified network with headquarters in Beirut and Baghdad, as well as a training camp in Aden, South Yemen. It had cells in Europe, Manila, and Singapore.

While the JRA claimed to focus on over-throwing the Japanese government, it spent much of its energy creating destruction overseas and targeting non-Japanese targets. For this reason, commentators have described the organization as anarchistic.

In the 1972 Tel Aviv airport attack, the JRA aimed to kill Jews, who are not a group with a substantial presence in Japan. Most of the airport dead were Christian tourists from Puerto Rico. The JRA subsequently insisted that the Puerto Ricans deserved to die because they had arrived in Israel on Israeli visas and thereby had tacitly recognized the state that was the declared enemy of the Palestinians. The Puerto Ricans therefore were guilty of oppressing the Palestinians.

The 1974 attack on the Shell refinery in Singapore also targeted a business and people with tenuous links to Japan. The JRA publicly stated that it took this terrorist action, after studying the oil crisis, in solidarity with the Vietnamese people in efforts to promote world-wide revolution. The PFLP, JRA's collaborators in the attack, subsequently independently issued a statement that the mission had been carried out in retaliation for the aggressive role of oil companies and the government of Singapore against Arab people in general.

In 1981, the JRA publicly stated that it was considering the rejection of violence as a political tool. In 1983, Shigenobu told the Japanese press that the group had "left the way of absolute terror." Despite this, the JRA continued to plan and execute attacks during the 1980s, although they were on a much smaller scale than the group's previous activities.


The brutality of the JRA meant that few people were willing to publicly speak on its behalf. One of its defenders was a man known for turning his country into a training ground for terrorism. In the wake of the Tel Aviv airport attack, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya praised the JRA: "Why should a Palestinian not carry out such an operation? You will see them all writing books and magazines full of theories, but otherwise unable to carry out one daring operation like that carried out by the Japanese." Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir categorized the same attack as a "dastardly crime," and declared, "We expect that this heinous crime will be denounced by governments throughout the world and that the Arab countries participating in this great glee for murder will bear full responsibility for these acts."


The JRA provided a vivid illustration of the havoc that could be caused by a small band of ruthless and dedicated terrorists. The sheer violence of the group and the unpredictability of its targets made it very difficult for government authorities to halt the JRA.

Despite its tactical success, the impact of the JRA is minimal. It did not achieve its goals of disrupting capitalism, ending the Japanese monarchy, or achieving a homeland for the Palestinians.



Combs, Cindy. Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000.

Farrell, William R. Blood and Rage: The Story of the Japanese Red Army. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1990.


Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

Red Brigades

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