There are a few things that come to mind when one thinks of Japan; sushi, geisha, tea ceremony, busy street crossings, hard-line communist terrorists.
‘What?!’ You might say, ‘clearly Joekyo you are mistaken’
Well The Japanese Red Army is here to mess your stereotypes up.
Founded in 1971 by Fusako Shigenobu, the JRA was dedicated to overthrowing the Japanese government and the monarchy throughout the 70s and 80s.
Fusako had been a leading member in the Red Army Faction, a militant new-left communist group. In 1970 it teamed up with a Maoist group to form the United Red Army. Just a few months before a major purge, which left twelve members dead and started a week-long police siege, Fusako Shigenobu and a few select members had moved to Lebanon to promote International Revolutionary Solidarity, a movement which aimed to unite the different revolutionary groups throughout the world. Soon after arriving in the Middle East Shigenobu cited geographical and ideological differences with the URA as her reason for starting the Japanese Red Army. She allied the group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Fusako Shigenobu was born in 1945 in Setagaya, Tokyo. Her father had been a teacher and an Imperial Japanese Army Major stationed in Manchuria during World War II. Fusako became involved in activism whilst studying at Meiji University. At the time in Japan (along with the rest of the world) leftist ideology was rampant in university campuses. Fusako started protesting increases in tuition fees. She quickly rose up the ranks of the new-left movement and became one of their top leaders. Fusako Shigenobu was at one time judged to be the most feared female terrorist in the world.
The group was responsible for a large number of violent acts. In 1972 three members walked into Lod airport (now Ben Gurion Airport) in Tel Aviv and used guns and grenades to kill 26 and injure 80. Two of the attackers were killed whilst another Kozo Okamoto survived and was captured.
In 1973 the group hijacked a JAL plane bound for Tokyo and demanded the release of Kozo. When this was refused the group flew the plane to Libya, released the crew and passengers and blew the aircraft up. The JRA was involved in numerous hostage situations throughout the 70s and 80s. After the Lod massacre they became the most well-known leftist terror group in the world.
In Novemeber 2000 Shigenobu was arrested in Osaka. She was found with forged passports and $9000 in cash. It was a shock for Japanese people to see a middle aged woman in handcuffs, thumbs up shouting at reporters “I’ll fight on”. In 2006 she was sentenced to 20 years for using a forged passport, aiding a member of the JRA in obtaining a forged passport and attempted manslaughter by way of planning and commanding the hostage taking at the French embassy in The Hague in 1974. A key member of the defense at her trial was the hijacker of TWA Flight 840 (1969) and current member of the Palestinian National Council Leila Khaled.
In 2001 after the Twin Towers attack, Al-Jazeera and the AFP both received anonymous calls claiming the attack in the name of the JRA. This was debunked after Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden were officially blamed.
Most of the groups members have been arrested and imprisoned. In 2015 Tsutomu Shirosaki, who had been imprisoned in Mississippi for his involvement in a mortar attack on the American Embassy in Jakarta, was arrested as he returned to Japan. He had been one of the prisoners freed in 1977 after the JRA hijacked a JAL flight from Paris to Tokyo.
The Japanese Red Army have been portrayed in books and film. In 2010 Fusako and her daughter Mei were featured in the documentary Children of the Revolution which tells the story of Shigenobu and German activist Ulrike Meinhof through the eyes of their daughters. Mei Shigenobu is the daughter of Fusako and an unnamed Lebanese freedom fighter. She is currently a Japanese citizen working for news agencies. Fusako wrote about her experiences raising a child in Lebanon in her book I Decided to Give Birth to You Under an Apple Tree (2001).
Today the JRA have disbanded stating that having lost their base in Lebanon and the changing political environment of the world, the aims of the JRA can no longer be met by such a group.
Their successors are known as the Movement Rentai.