Dr. Patricia Steinhoff is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. This is the fourth installment of our interview with Dr. Steinhoff about the Japanese New Left in the 1960s and 1970s.
PART 4 – THE JAPANESE RED ARMY
|Japanese Red Army Background: In 1971, Shigenobu Fusako (重信房子) moved to Lebanon to form a Red Army training base under the auspices of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). On May 30, 1972, three Japanese members of this Lebanon-based cell departed a plane in Tel Aviv’s Lod airport, retrieved grenades and guns from their baggage, and commenced an attack that ultimately resulted in 24 fatalities and 76 injuries. Later the group around Shigenobu formally took the name Japanese Red Army (JRA) and perpetrated numerous terrorist actions around the world — including the hijacking of a JAL plane over the Netherlands (1973), an attack on a Shell facility in Singapore (1974), the storming of the French Embassy in the Hague (1974), hostage taking in Kuala Lumpur (1975), and a hijacking of JAL plane over India (1977).|
How in the world did the Red Army end up in Palestine and supporting the struggle against the Jewish state? At least in the U.S., Israel was not a big target of the student movement in the 1960s.
There is a strain of anti-Jewish sentiment in Japan that is fed by the Far Right, that David Goodman has written about (in the book Jews in the Japanese Mind). He sees the students as being part of that. I don’t really, because theirs was much more political. They make it very clear that they are not anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic, but anti-Zionist. They are opposed to the things that Israel has done against the Palestinian population — invading and taking over Palestinian lands and occupying them very brutally for a long period of time.
Shigenobu Fusako, pre-JRA
Was Shigenobu’s exodus to Lebanon tied into the Yodo hijackers’ travel to North Korea?
Yes, in a sense. I am reading something that Shigenobu Fusako has been writing since she came back. [She was arrested in Osaka in November 2000.] She says quite clearly, the Yodo-go hijacking didn’t work. The hijackers ended up being locked up in a Stalinist country. That didn’t do us much good at all.
The Red Army was starting to lose central direction after the hijacking, so there’s a lot of leadership turnover and internal turmoil because the original leaders were all either in North Korea or in jail. She was delegated to be looking for more international bases. The word is that she or somebody else was sent to the U.S., and they had this wild plan that they were going work with the Americans and surround the Pentagon. And they went there and started talking about this, and people said, you must be nuts. So nothing happened with that.
She thought that rather than going to a country, what they needed to go to do was go to a place where people were actually fighting and somehow get involved and get their training through that. So it wasn’t necessarily a country she was looking for, but it was a movement that was ideologically similar and active.
The PFLP wasn’t that old — it started about the same time [as the Red Army] and they had been thrown out of Jordan. They had just moved to Lebanon, and they had bases in Lebanon and were actively trying to get foreigners to come and volunteer with them.
It wasn’t actually the “Red Army” that went. She’s the only Red Army person that went. But when she was looking around for what to do, there was a group in Kyoto that was composed of little cells. They called themselves the Kyoto Partisans but they operated as loosely-connected, small independent cells. That was in part a response to the way in which the Red Army so over-organized and was such a clear target because they were trying to do guerrilla stuff when they were visible. But it was also a response to the conditions of the time in Japan, when the situation was so repressive that lots of groups decided they could only keep going if they went underground. That small cell structure is a classic organizational pattern for underground groups.
So the Kyoto Partisans had little groups around and they were doing little stuff. Okudaira [Takeshi/Tsuyoshi] — it’s not clear how much there was leadership in these things — but he was a fairly high-level person, and he had established some connection to the PFLP. He had already started learning Arabic. So he was interested in going to Lebanon, and there was some interest in other groups. There were people from Japan who were going to work in the Palestinian refugee camps as volunteers, like doctors and nurses and people with skills — going to volunteer in the camps. It was in the air. People knew about it — that you could go and that you would be making a revolutionary contribution. In that context, Shigenobu hooked up with Okudaira.
They married just for convenience? Were they a couple?
It’s unclear, but it’s clear that it was a way for her to get a passport. They flew there separately.
Was it hard to get there? Did you just fly to Lebanon?
You just flew to Beirut, Lebanon. You went any way you could, and Shigenobu has recently said that they usually went from Europe to Damascus, Syria, which is quite close to Beirut. But after the first people were there, then when other people came, once the conduit was set up, they would be told, take these flights and case the plane and the airports, because the PFLP was doing other airline hijackings at that time with other groups of people. Getting there for those other people was part of what you would do as contributing. But for the first couple of people that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Was Shigenobu on a wanted list when she left Japan?
She had been arrested once. She was very visible. She wasn’t wanted, but she was known, so she couldn’t have gotten a passport. That’s why she went using Okudaira’s name and was legally married to him. Even now, the Japanese authorities call her Okudaira in official documents. When she went to Beirut, she went to volunteer to do PR and publicity for people back in Japan — to tell people in Japan about what had happened or what the movement was about. So she went to work in their newspaper office, and then arranged for the people to come from Wakamatsu Productions and make the film.
So the film crew came, including Adachi Masao, and filmed the training. Then they came back to Japan, and there was an office in Japan that was helping them publicize things. I just heard a few weeks ago from Adachi that initially they were going to show the film in theaters, and there was some reason that they couldn’t. So they then arranged to show the film around campuses. So they had this tour in a red bus.
They were the “Japanese Red Army” at this point?
There was no “Japanese Red Army” until 1974. So, Shigenobu went, Okudaira went, and they went as volunteers to help the PFLP. Then they brought in other people who basically came from the Kyoto Partisans. They were not Red Army people in Japan before they went. But the film advertises the connection between the Red Army and PFLP, meaning the Red Army in Japan, to which Shigenobu belonged. It talks about joint activities by PFLP and the Red Army (Sekigun), and the name of the film is Sekigun-PFLP World Revolutionary Manifesto (『赤軍ーPFLP・世界革命宣言』).
This includes Okamoto Kozo, whose brother was a hijacker of the Yodo-go?
His brother was a hijacker.
And his reason for joining Shigenobu was that he wanted to meet his brother again?
He said that he wanted to see his brother, but that’s in his testimony in Israel, so who knows if it is true or not. He was aware of the Red Army because of his brother, but originally wasn’t all that interested in belonging to it. But he had been a rōnin (studying for entrance to university after graduating from high school) in Kyoto for a couple of years, and then he had gotten into school in Kagoshima. So he knew some of the people who were going to Lebanon, but his route to the group in the Middle East was apparently directly through Shigenobu. He was the local contact at Kagoshima University when they showed the film there. He said that a PLO person was traveling with the film and he met him, but he may have meant a person who had direct contacts with the PLO, because of the filming, rather than an actual PLO representative in Japan. So there was some sort of direct contact.
You told me before that the film Sekigun-PFLP World Revolutionary Manifesto is very “strange”?
Yes, I have a copy of it. And I saw it again a couple of weeks ago, and it was not quite as weird as I remembered it, but it is strange.
What do you mean by “strange”?
(sigh) You’d have to see it.
I feel like it should be on YouTube at this point…
No, it’s definitely not a YouTube kind of thing.
When I saw it again in Kyoto just a couple of weeks ago, my recollection of it had been that it was this very spare kind of filming. There were a lot of shadowy buildings and bare desert scenes, but not people. Adachi testified in his trial after he came back to Japan that after they filmed in the camp, the week after he came back to Beirut, the camp was bombed by the Israelis, and a lot of the people had died. In addition, the people who didn’t die were in grave danger, so that he couldn’t put their faces in the film… So they edited the film to cut out a lot of faces, which adds to the strangeness.
But when I saw it this last time, it seemed to have more faces in it than I remembered, but the other thing that I could feel and see this time was all kinds of shots of people being trained in the use of weapons, casually putting rifles together and taking them apart. And a lot of close-ups of people handling weapons like it was an everyday thing. And 1971-72 in Japan, those kids… Wow… You didn’t have to say anything, you just had to show people handling guns and getting trained on how to use them. It would have been highly attractive to kids who wanted to become guerrilla fighters. The film says very clearly that guerrilla activity is propaganda. It’s got an ideological message which resonated with where they were at the time. I mean, if you just watch it, what a strange film, but in the context of radical students in Japan at the time, it had a lot of resonance.
At this point, before Lod, how many people had collected with Shigenobu in Lebanon? Is it a dozen?
I don’t think it’s that many, but it’s a little unclear.
It’s not many.
No, she called it ipponzuri (一本釣り), fishing with one pole, because it was like… you get one, then another one. So there were probably half a dozen. There are more than I thought there were, more than the three. Maruoka Osamu was there. There’s the three who ended up doing the Lod attack. There’s the guy who came with them and drowned in an accident, and there’s Maruoka and there’s Himori Koyu. Whether there was anybody else, I don’t know. We don’t know. But there were at least six.
Okay, so you have these six. And the PFLP says, go do this attack on Lod airport?
That has been unclear. It’s becoming much clearer now, but it’s now tilting so far on the other side that you can’t tell how much of it is trial strategy.
It’s pretty clear that what happened was that people went, and they became volunteers directly for PFLP. Shigenobu was a kind of PR volunteer working at the newspaper office, but the men were all put into this international guerrilla training system that PFLP had. Ultimately, their instructions were from a guy named Abu Hani, whose real name is Wadie Haddad, but all the trial testimony is about Abu Hani. Anyway, he was a strange guy. I think he may have been a professor, but he was living in Baghdad at the time — not in Beirut at all. But he was running all these guerrilla operations that PFLP was doing. They were called “external work” and were separate from what the regular PFLP people were doing to fight on the border with Israel.
So the people got training, and then they were housed in apartments. Abu Hani would plan something, and then they would have people trained for them. His general style was to give people only very limited information about a small part of the plan in which they were directly involved. The reason I’ve been given for it is that he was usually working with uneducated Palestinian kids. His style was, he would plan an operation, and then he would pull in people: OK, you’re going to do this part, and he would train that person, individually, for his part. That person had no idea what the rest of it was. And then he would train another person for another piece. So he was operating this system in which the people who were participating only knew their part of what was supposed to happen. Well, that’s very nice for security, but if something goes awry it means that nobody knows what the hell is going on, and they don’t have any instructions beyond their piece, so they can’t recover from it. So other groups that he sent out on attacks had lots of failures, but that was his style.
So, for the Lod attack, apparently the plan was a PFLP plan. Okudaira had some input into the planning, and he was the most senior of the Japanese group. Apparently, the plan as a whole was known to some people, but it was risky enough that the Japanese were given the option of participating or not participating. There were people who chose not to.
The version of it that was publicized afterwards is wrong on lots of counts: it was not a suicide mission. It had a different structure.
They were supposed to escape?
I’m trying to get Shigenobu’s approval to tell that part of it now, but I can’t until I have it. But what happened is not what was supposed to happen. All the information after the attack was coming from the Israeli government and then through to the Japanese government and the mass media. And so that’s all we knew about it until other people were able to tell a different story.
But the plan was still to go into the airport and kill as many people as possible?
No. That was not the plan at all. That is part of the mistaken image of what it was, perpetrated by the mass media and everybody who was relying on that as a source, including me in my earlier writings. The other part of the situation, which has been public for some time, as soon as people closer to the participants could get into the debate, concerns the issue of crossfire. I was in that airport right after the trial ended. It was still all shot up, but there was a tremendous lot of security in that airport, and there is a kind of narrow balcony along one side of the baggage claim area that had armed security standing up there. So when they went in there, they pulled out weapons and started doing whatever they were doing with them, but the Israelis were shooting back at them. That never came out in the public accounts. It appears as if three guys killed all those people and injured all those people, and everyone else was peacefully sitting there saying, oh my goodness, when in fact, a lot of people were probably killed in crossfire. We don’t know, and I’m sure nobody ever looked to see whose gun did what because only the Israelis had control of the scene after it happened, and it certainly was not in their interest to indicate that anybody might have been shot by Israeli security.
What we have is an account that is a public account that makes it look as if the Israelis did nothing to create those deaths and injury, and that’s simply not the case.
So you are saying it got out of hand, but is it incorrect that one of the attackers decided to take his own life? One was apparently killed, but myth is that Okamoto also wanted to kill himself but failed.
No, you have that scrambled. He ran outside. When I interviewed him in 1972, he said that he had one grenade left and wanted to get the plane. Getting planes and doing other things to the airport seems to have been more what the attack was actually about. He was running to the edge of the airfield when he was caught. He may have thrown the grenade at the plane and nothing happened, but in any case, he was running away towards the edge. There may have been people there who would have picked him up, but he didn’t make it. He got arrested.
I am confused, because this new narrative paints this as a total failure. But if you look at this event in the JRA’s messaging in the years after Lod, the attack is their pivotal heroic moment.
That in itself is very, very interesting.
Basically, they regarded the attack at the time as a disaster. It had gone awry. They had lost all these people. It was an unmitigated disaster. But, they wake up the next morning, and they are surrounded by all these people in Lebanon who are cheering: this was a great success! Okamoto is a hero!
Then they hear that in Japan, the movement is cheering because they finally did something and were holding victory rallies for it.
The PFLP put out the first statement about it, and they took responsibility for it. They said, this was ours, because they weren’t identifying the people as Japanese. They said, three of our soldiers did this. Originally, the three attackers were supposed to be anonymous PFLP volunteers and not people who came from any particular country.
Then when it came out that they were Japanese, the PFLP asked Shigenobu to write a statement emphasizing the Japanese connection. So she did, but once she did that and these two constituencies in the Middle East and in Japan were seeing it as this great success, even though she’s lost her people and it wasn’t what was supposed to happen and the results were appalling, she had to sort of step forward to take the public credit for it and say, we are the people who did this. And they did construct their image around it from then on.
Once that happens, she can’t undo it. So it’s a very interesting dynamic, and that part of it in a sense fits in with a lot of Japanese psychological and social dynamics in that you suppress what you are really feeling because the tatemae is that you have to do this because it is a public expectation.
And after Lod, they still weren’t using the name Japanese Red Army?
No, they called themselves the Arabu Sekigun (アラブ赤軍, Arab Red Army).
This is the term that the media used?
Yes. Actually in Okamoto’s confession, he called it the Red Star Army.
Is that related to Okamoto’s line about how the attackers would become the “stars in Orion” when they died?
No, it apparently came from some organizational publication in Japan at the time called Red Star, but the Orion image did exist at some level at some point — that the participants would be the Orion belt stars and they would be up in the heavens. But where that enters, I am not sure anymore, although I believe he did say it in his statement to the court in Israel. At some point, that became part of the symbolism.
The participants really weren’t from the Red Army, but since the person who had the Red Army identity was publicly taking responsibility… She had gone there saying, I as a Red Army person want to cooperate with the PFLP. Her identity as Red Army got identified with the Red Army, but they weren’t actually members. They had come from this Kyoto Partisans group.
Then when more people came, there are women who are doing PR and language stuff. And there are people who are connected to them but living in Europe. There’s stuff going in ’72 and ’73 and a couple of incidents carried out under PFLP plans and orders. The ties are getting bigger. And there are more people coming who are coming as PFLP volunteers and get the guerrilla training. But there are also people who are exchange students and they have connections, but it’s unclear how many of those people actually got guerrilla training.
So then more people are doing stuff later in ’72 and ’73 as volunteers under Abu Hani. What happened during this time period is that one after another of these things is botched.
There was the thing in Singapore, where they were got on a ferryboat and were in the harbor and they were supposed to blow up a Shell Oil facility, but it was botched and they were stuck in the middle of the harbor until PFLP staged another attack in Dubai to get them out.
Tomorrow: Part 5 – What Did It Mean?