Japan’s student protest movement became increasingly violent and morphed into something far more sinister.
1. BOMBS AND BUSTS
2. THERE’S REVOLUTION IN THE AIR
3. AN OFFSHOOT OF AN OFFSHOOT OF AN OFFSHOOT
4. THE MERGER
5. THROWING OUT THE GARBAGE
6. THE SNOW MURDERS
7. NOW WE ARE FIVE…
8. …AGAINST A THOUSAND
9. THE DANGLING THREADS
10. DREAMS OF ’68
1. BOMBS AND BUSTS
Bombs? We’re absolutely planning to use bombs! That’s what the National Police Agency would’ve heard Takaya Shiomi declare in late 1969 if they’d been able to bug his conversations. Shiomi was the ex-philosophy major at Kyoto University who founded the notorious Red Army Faction (RAF) that summer.
The RAF’s “parent” was the Communist League, known by its German nickname Bund (“Federation”). Bund was itself an offshoot of the mainstream Japan Communist Party.
You’re all talk and no action. We’re out of here! snarled Bund as they left the Communist Party in 1958. Which was what Takaya Shiomi’s people snarled when they left Bund in 1969.
Action? Shiomi asked, dropping ashes from his cigarette. The Red Army Faction is all action! We’re an army, unlike those Bund wankers. He challenged convention by forging loose alliances with like-minded organizations. He engineered mergers, always on his terms. He even attempted a trans-Pacific alliance with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), but his timing was off. And he urged victory in the class war via a road paved with bombs.
The traditionalists deplored Shiomi’s ecumenism. He called them dinosaurs. Comrades! We all want to hasten the Revolution. It hasn’t started in Japan (yet). But it has in Cuba and China. If we’re shoulder to shoulder with them, we share their victories and bring the World Revolution closer. Right?
Next, he addressed the RAF’s demographics. We have too many university boys. Bring in the workers! And the women. But no philandering. Remember our mission: to detonate bombs and hasten the Revolution through armed struggle.
We’re soldiers, Shiomi said, dropping ashes from his cigarette. Soldiers kill.
This was what the people with fire in their eyes yearned to hear. Soon the Red Army Faction had 150 core “soldiers” and 250 non-core supporters nationwide. Many were young. So young that the RAF’s alpine bomb-assembly training camp had one trainee aged 15. Eight were high school students.
We know this because one or two youngsters simply had to tell a trusted friend: This is TOP TOP TOP SECRET so don’t breathe a word, but I’m going to Daibosatsutôge in early November to learn how to make bombs! Then some of us head to Tokyo and blow up the Prime Minister’s Residence! And start the World Revolution! The police pounced and made 53 arrests.
Well, said Shiomi, dropping ashes from his cigarette, let’s work on the next plan.
The RAF’s rank-and-file continued their bomb-assembly training. The senior members explored options. Meanwhile, most other radical groups stayed committed to charging the police lines and the tear gas, their gebabô held high. The RAF snorted derisively, like Flat Earthers watching a NASA documentary.
But Shiomi wasn’t destined to stay top dog. The cops nabbed him in March 1970. The arrest was a lucky fluke, a case of mistaken identity which played out beyond the cops’ wildest dreams. It came just days before his “next plan” was scheduled to take off.
2. THERE’S REVOLUTION IN THE AIR
Many years later, when Shiomi was an ex-convict working as a parking attendant, he described the Red Army Faction’s plan for Japan’s first hijacking as “a success which ended in failure”.
His nine-man team researched and rehearsed the hijacking of an airliner. They planned to wear conservative clothes to avoid attracting attention. Two were the RAF’s most senior members. The youngest was 16 years old. One was the bass guitarist for Japan’s top psychedelic band, Les Rallizes Dénudés.
They chose JL-351, a regular flight from Tokyo to Fukuoka (in southern Japan) on March 31st. In this era before x-ray checks and metal detectors they easily smuggled on knives and pipe bombs. The seven crew members and the other 113 passengers suspected nothing.
At cruising altitude the hijackers brandished their weapons and demanded to be flown to North Korea. When the captain regained his composure he explained the plane couldn’t reach the North Korean capital (Pyongyang) without refueling in Fukuoka. The hijackers mentally winced. Their planning hadn’t considered this. But they had no choice.
At Fukuoka 300 police – some disguised as Japan Airlines staff – plus journalists and airport officials surrounded the plane, buying time by claiming a stalled plane blocked the runway. They negotiated the passengers’ release, but 23 women, children and old people were all they could get. Then the stalled plane miraculously repaired itself and JL-351 took off for Pyongyang.
As the plane landed 90 minutes later and the elated hijackers prepared to disembark they noticed something strange. Where were all the North Korean flags? And where were the obligatory pictures of President Kim Il Sung?
Jl-351 had actually landed in Seoul.
The pilots knew this, but at the subsequent official inquiry they testified their navigation directions had come from air traffic controllers purportedly directing them to North Korea. Only when they noticed all the incongruities did they discern the truth.
Japan’s Transportation Vice-Minister went to Seoul to take charge. He offered himself as a hostage in exchange for the remaining passengers. JL-351 had left Tokyo 79 hours earlier. Everyone was hungry, smelly and exhausted. They were out of cigarettes. The toilets overflowed. The hijackers agreed and the plane took off.
At Pyongyang Airport the North Koreans interrogated everyone separately. Then they provided showers, fresh clothes and a lavish banquet. They returned the plane, the crew and politician to Japan. Then the hijackers informed their hosts this hijacking was merely part of a much grander plan to reach Havana, where they planned to partake of Cuba’s revolutionary experience and learn valuable lessons to be applied in Japan. So how soon, please, can you arrange to fly us there?
Current circumstances present difficulties in this regard, replied the North Koreans. What they left unsaid was: You’re not going anywhere. What are we, your travel agents? The hijackers received apartments in Pyongyang. They twiddled their thumbs, convincing themselves this delay was temporary. But as the weeks became months, reality hit.
They were made to study Korean and work as translators and language teachers. Later some young Japanese women were lured to Pyongyang and forced to marry them. And there most of them grew old.
3. AN OFFSHOOT OF AN OFFSHOOT OF AN OFFSHOOT
Shiomi’s successor had hardly taken over when detectives arrested him on his way to his fiancée’s apartment. (She later became one of Hiroko Nagata‘s “snow murder” victims.) In his pocket they found detailed plans to kidnap an ambassador and trade him for Shiomi.
More arrests followed. The leadership now devolved onto Tsuneo Mori. A native of Osaka, he’d never had much luck. He missed out on the university of his choice. As a college student Mori adored a woman who was spreading around what he’d assumed was exclusively his. He became depressed and abandoned radicalism. He withdrew into himself. But a friend enticed him back into the radical fold.
As a leader Mori unnerved subordinates during conversations with his “loud silences”. He defied the current fashion and kept his hair short, like a warrior-monk. He knew Shiomi’s claim about the Red Army Faction being all action was hyperbolic. Its loose organization meant each decision was up for debate and review. Mori liked things to be conclusive, just like when he captained his junior high school’s kendo (Japanese fencing) team.
Listen, said Mori, we need to tighten things up. Security nowadays is a joke.
“Given your predecessor’s carelessness, we agree.”
All this international stuff gets us nowhere. Forget it. Focus on Japan.
“We have no objection.”
We need more bombs to kill more imperialists. And we must tighten up. And rob banks for money to buy guns and smash the system. Smash it right here in Japan.
“Not so fast!” said the Old Guard, led by Fusako Shigenobu, the woman being arrested in Part 1’s second protest video.
The gossips claimed she danced topless to raise money for the Radical Left. We know she was a part-time student and worked for a soy sauce company. In the testosterone world of left-wing radicalism Shigenobu stood out. Not just for her beauty, but for her reluctance to “play a woman’s role” and for her passionate devotion to revolutionary causes. She cared deeply about the Palestinian situation and took issue with this new leader’s direction.
Mori always avoided direct contact with her so they spoke through messengers:
“Comrade Mori, the imperialists keep killing the Vietnamese and the Palestinians. So don’t we have the right to kill the imperialists? Why do we target Japanese cops when the real enemies are in the Middle East and Vietnam?”
You want us to go to Vietnam!?
“No. I want to go to the Middle East and fight for our Palestinian comrades. And I hope others will join me.”
Well, said Tsuneo Mori when several people volunteered, off you go then! Mori disliked this vexing woman. He was thinking about bank robberies and guns. Let Comrade Shigenobu’s team play with their Arab chums in the desert. We have serious business right here.
There was a snag. Shigenobu’s police record would derail her passport application. But in that pre-computer age if she changed her name by marriage and immediately applied for a passport she could leave Japan before her rap sheet surfaced. An RAF member married her and in early 1971 they all left for Lebanon.
Their airy concept of a Red Army Faction (Middle East) branch didn’t survive contact with reality. How could they coordinate with Japan? By telegram? Shigenobu’s people were isolated in Lebanon. That suited her, especially after hearing disturbing news from Japan that autumn of the RAF merging with a group she detested. (More on this soon.) So The Red Queen – her nickname referred to her fashion sense as well as her radicalism – embedded her people with Palestinian groups, cutting all notional RAF connections. Later she renamed them the Japanese Red Army (JRA).
The proto-JRA sent shockwaves in May 1972 when three of its members flew to Israel’s Lod Airport. They opened fire indiscriminately, killing 26 people and wounding 80. One attacker was Shigenobu’s husband. He and another were killed. The third, Kozo Okamoto, was wounded as he approached a plane on the runway intending to blow it and himself up with a grenade. He faced an Israeli court. They discovered his brother was one of the Jl-351 hijackers. It must run in the family, they said.
Okamoto behaved outlandishly at his trial.
He wrote an official confession admitting total guilt but signed it with a false name. He claimed he’d converted to Christianity. When his lawyer noticed there was uncertainty as to his client’s age which – with Okamoto’s youthful features – might suggest he was a minor, Okamoto immediately told the court he was 24. His most bizarre act was attempting a do-it-yourself circumcision in his prison cell using nail clippers.
Okamoto walked free in a prisoner exchange 13 years later. He bounced around the Islamic world before settling in Lebanon. The Red Queen stayed in the Middle East, engineering this hijacking and that embassy attack. She had a daughter called Mei (from the Japanese word kakumei, “revolution”), wrote books and granted interviews to Japanese journalists. She surreptitiously entered Japan after three decades among the Palestinians. But her cover was blown and she’s now behind bars. She has cancer.
4. THE MERGER
Mori turned the shrinking Red Army Faction into bank robbers. “Combat platoons” studied locations, security systems and getaways. They prospered until a six-million-yen heist. That one really stood out. Not only for the amount but for the information it provided the cops.
They followed every lead, arrested the culprits and recovered the money. These were definitely RAF. But their shotgun was from an earlier gunshop robbery committed by Hiroko Nagata’s group, Keihin Ampo Kyoto (Tokyo-Yokohama Joint Struggle Group). So how did a Keihin shotgun get into RAF hands? Collaboration?
More than that. Mori’s group had money but lacked weapons. Nagata’s crew had guns but little money. The RAF’s swerve from international revolution to smashing Japanese imperialism overlapped with Keihin‘s principles. A merger would be mutually advantageous. So a merger was made.
Officially Mori and Nagata were co-leaders, but Mori dominated. Hiroko Nagata downplayed her femininity. She saw herself as a revolutionary first, a woman second.
Nagata later told her police interrogators she was “a very sensitive person” whose move from studying pharmacology to embracing terrorism resulted from her “interest in society and how a person should live”. She’d never been popular with the opposite sex. Her slightly bulging eyes – caused by a medical condition – and deep voice made her self-conscious. Nagata disliked hot weather and became irritable in the summer. She cared nothing for fashion or cosmetics.
She was the common-law wife of another member, but there was little warmth there. We’ll hear about him later. Towards the end she informed him she was “divorcing” him to “marry” Mori, who already had a wife and child. Nagata’s police interrogators showed a prurient interest in her dealings with men. They asked about her harsh, hectoring words recorded during a prison visit to a recently arrested Keihin radical in late 1969. She said he’d once been her mentor in the gritty world of radical activism but he’d raped her earlier that year while his wife was away.
Now she merged her group with the Red Army Faction. This official union’s new name was the United Red Army (URA). Nagata could bring valuable energy to the group after all the arrests and departures. The RAF’s former alpha female was off in the sand dunes with the Palestinians, but here was a new one. Strong like a man, and with leadership experience. She’d fit right in. But first she had some unfinished business.
5. THROWING OUT THE GARBAGE
Hiroko Nagata hated deserters from the cause. They were human scum who deserved death. In August 1971 she told Mori she planned to “take care of” two people who’d fled Keihin.
They were a nursing student and her clueless ex-boyfriend. Nagata’s guys kidnapped the woman, beat her senseless then strangled her. Earlier the ex-boyfriend had foolishly spoken of planning to write about his experiences with Keihin. An attractive woman lured him into a trap. Nagata’s guys strangled and buried him near his ex-girlfriend.
These murders unsettled Mori. He’d once given a similar order himself, but the guys he’d sent to kill a deserter displayed weakness and spared her. Yet he noticed Nagata’s people always obeyed her orders to the letter. Mori sensed his leadership may be imperiled. He needed to reassert his authority somehow. This got him thinking.
He realized URA’s unity was illusory. The ex-Keihin and the ex-RAF members rarely mingled. There were regional and social differences. You could tell by their accents. Unlike the RAF, Keihin had recruited many women and was accustomed to female leadership. He suddenly decided to reinforce the group’s solidarity and ideological purity.
In December 1971 he ordered a temporary stop to the bombings of police stations. The URA would now enter a period of intense physical training, self-examination and stringent ideological preparation for the revolutionary struggle.
And he would cull the weakest members.
6. THE SNOW MURDERS
Mori rented an isolated cabin in the mountains. Attrition had reduced the URA’s numbers to under 30. If there’d been any comedians among them they would have thought – but never uttered – We’re now the United Red Platoon.
It was the coldest time of the year. Overnight temperatures plunged to minus 20° Celsius. Mori had everyone (except a pregnant woman) run through the snow, hide behind rocks, scramble up hills, roll down hills, lob imaginary grenades and shoot imaginary cops while chanting revolutionary slogans and issuing bloodcurdling cries. They ate simple food and slept on the floor. There was only one wood-burning heater and no electricity or running water.
The rules were simple: no alcohol and no philandering. When they weren’t rehearsing the Revolution outdoors they were inside the cabin reading turgid revolutionary tracts under kerosene lamps.
Every day they underwent sôkatsu: self-criticism, confession and discussion. Tsuneo Mori dictated the tone of these sôkatsu sessions, but he artfully made the required terminology so vague that nobody was sure what they were confessing to or what constituted valid criticism. Anything could mean anything. Every sentence became a minefield. It was like playing a game whose rules were known only to the umpire.
Say the wrong thing – but how did you know it was wrong? – and you’d be the target of a Mori tongue-lashing or Nagata’s kicks and slaps. The first fatality was a 21-year-old male named Ozaki. His revolutionary zeal had been found wanting. His punishment was to be “toughened up” by having a much stronger man beat him. Ozaki took the blows, then thanked Mori for the chance to prove himself. Mori interpreted this as bourgeois ingratiation and a sign of weakness. He ordered Ozaki to stand upright all night.
The next day – New Year’s Day 1972 – they beat him again then tied him to a post in the snow. Mori interrogated him and declared he was still unworthy of URA membership and needed another beating. That was the coup de grâce. Ozaki bit off his tongue as he expired.
This shocked the group. They’d only wanted to reform Ozaki, toughen him up, not kill him. The silver-tongued Mori absolved them, saying this was nobody’s fault. Ozaki brought death on himself by not measuring up to the required revolutionary standards. It was death by defeatism. No one was to blame.
Nagata overheard one guy’s “inappropriate conversation” with a female member. He’d be the next fatality. She demanded his beating as a warning to the other males. The warning was so effective that they broke six ribs and ruptured his liver.
Kazuko Kojima, the femme fatale tasked with luring the ex-Keihin deserter into a murderous trap that summer, unwisely confessed to feelings of remorse. Mori made her and a 22-year-old male sympathizer named Katô write self-critical essays. Late that night Kojima screamed that he was molesting her. Nagata decreed punishment for both: Katô for his alleged molestation and Kojima for providing temptation by sleeping nearby.
Katô’s two teenage brothers were ordered to beat him. They tied him and Kojima to posts outside the cabin. Katô repeatedly banged his own head on the post, claiming this would produce a stronger revolutionary mindset. But that revolutionary mindset never came: he and Kojima died of exposure.
And so it went, one pointless death after another. Nagata targeted Mieko Tôyama, the ex-fiancée of the RAF leader – Mori’s predecessor – who was arrested near her apartment. Nagata hated how Tôyama wore a ring and had blithely brushed her hair during a meeting. She accused Tôyama of sexual misconduct “while on duty” with Masatoki Namekata, a TôDai siege veteran. Nagata made her punch herself in the face for 30 minutes.
Namekata watched all this then broke down and confessed to having contemplated running away. They broke his legs and tied him and Tôyama to posts in the snow, where they both froze to death overnight.
And so it went. It was now mid-January 1972. The group lynched one guy for confessing to strong sexual urges. Another was lynched for not participating wholeheartedly in previous lynchings. Another committed suicide by deliberately angering Mori, then demanding immediate execution. The 8-month-pregnant woman, a 24-year-old Keihin veteran, was the URA’s cook, cleaner and treasurer. Mori suspected she had ideas above her station, so she was the next to go. They discussed inducing her baby’s birth and raising it as a United Red Army child. But the mother died after her beating, in which her husband participated.
During all this a few members braved the elements and escaped. The URA continued tearing itself apart. You protected yourself by attacking someone else. Find a reason, any reason. Beating or stabbing someone helped you vent your frustration and forget the secret fear that you might be the next victim.
Tissues inside a sleeping bag proved that one guy had masturbated. He was the next fatality. And so it went.
Hiroko Nagata’s husband survived this sôkatsu process. He was Hiroshi Sakaguchi. What went through his mind after she dumped him for Mori? Most likely I’m still alive! One mid-February day Mori and Nagata left for a few days on business. Before leaving they approached Sakaguchi – No hard feelings, comrade! – and ordered him to take charge of the URA’s remnants in their absence.
That same day Sakaguchi sensed the noose was tightening. Local people had reported a suspicious group of young city slickers – some with Osaka accents – in the area. Time to abandon the cabin and move to a nearby cave. He contacted Mori and Nagata about this. Then everything went awry.
7. NOW WE ARE FIVE…
Sakaguchi’s people headed for the cave. A newspaper they’d found reported the police had indeed discovered their empty cabin. This called for a new plan, so he abandoned the cave idea and looked for another temporary hideout. But word failed to reach Mori and Nagata. They still thought the cave was everybody’s destination.
On February 17th Mori and Nagata drove to the cave but encountered a policeman at a checkpoint. Mori smoothly explained he and the lady were part of a film crew going to a remote location to shoot scenes. The cop said This area’s off-limits. You’ll need to find an alternative route. So the couple drove off, but soon returned to the area attempting to link up with Sakaguchi’s group, still unaware of the change in plan.
The same policeman from the checkpoint noticed their return and became suspicious. He called for backup. They cornered the couple. Nagata drew a knife and – being a “she-devil” – lunged at the nearest cop. Mori trembled, too terrified for fight or flight. When the police found they’d nabbed the URA’s leaders they couldn’t believe their luck.
Sakaguchi was now the United Red Army’s leader. He just didn’t know it. Survival was now the sole concern. A group of nine was far too conspicuous. He ordered four of them to somehow escape independently. He would take a separate route with the remaining four.
After hasty goodbyes the first group trudged off through the snow. By morning they reached a local train station. A newsstand owner became suspicious and called the cops: There are two men and two women – raggedy looking – on the platform. One of them approached her and bought newspapers and cigarettes. The police quickly swooped and arrested them.
8. …AGAINST A THOUSAND
The United Red Army was now Hiroshi Sakaguchi (25); Kunio Bando (25), a veteran RAF member; Yoshio Masakuni (26), a Keihin stalwart; and the two surviving Katô brothers (whose oldest brother was an early “snow murder” victim) .
They found an isolated cottage. But a police helicopter spotted them. After a brief firefight they escaped and reached a three-story concrete tourist lodge called Asama Sanso built into the rugged mountainside. Here they’d make their do-or-die stand. It was February 19th, 1972.
The owner’s 31-year-old wife was alone. The URA stormed in, tied her up and checked every room in case she had company. They blocked every window and door with furniture, bedding, whatever they could find. They had food for about 10 days, a TV and radio, plus four shotguns, a rifle, a revolver and abundant ammunition.
The police moved in and deployed snipers. But then Tokyo sent orders: Do nothing to endanger the hostage. Take the radicals alive repeat alive. Down came the snipers. Cops lined all approaches to the lodge. They kept the electricity, gas and water connected in case the hostage was still alive.
Two days passed. The police probed for weaknesses and the URA opened fire, injuring two officers. By February 22nd there were 1,200 cops at the scene. Hundreds of TV-crews, reporters and photographers jostled for advantage. The police brought two of the radicals’ mothers to beg them over loudspeakers to surrender. No response.
Media helicopters buzzed overhead. Unwanted advice poured in from politicians and media pundits. The police faced a host of unknowns.
Was the hostage alive?
How many radicals were there?
What shape were they in?
What was their ammunition supply?
Did they have explosives?
Would they commit suicide before facing capture?
One local resident attempted a solo rescue operation, which cost him his life. The hostage, Yasuko Muta, was mostly kept tied up. After her rescue she strongly denied being mistreated. She testified that sometimes the radicals explained leftist political ideology to her. One gave her a Buddhist charm and assured her it would keep her safe.
During a lull the URA watched the news and saw President Nixon visiting China. To them this proved the world was now upside down.
On the third night the cops cut the electricity. The next afternoon they demanded proof the hostage was unharmed. No response. At nightfall they attacked with tear gas and smoke bombs but withdrew under heavy fire.
They tried new tactics. At random intervals they played taped noises of sirens, screams, motor cycles and chainsaws at excruciating volume. Sleep became impossible. That was the point. In the morning they threw smoke bombs at the lodge to cover their advance. But the fickle mountain winds dissipated the smoke and they withdrew again. Then they deployed three high-pressure water cannons, the type used at Yasuda Auditorium in 1969.
The water cascaded into the lodge. The police followed up with tear gas. They sprayed more water, hoping the freezing temperatures would ice up the lodge and make it uninhabitable. A dense fog rolled in. They brought in high-powered searchlights. They set up a field hospital in preparation. The state TV network’s round-the-clock coverage had a 90% audience share.
On Day 10 (February 28th) they stretched anti-grenade nets outside the lodge. They appealed one last time to give themselves up. No reply, just gunfire. They brought up a crane swinging a huge metal ball to shatter the walls.
The crane smashed gaping holes and the water cannons restarted. An elite assault unit entered the lodge. Downstairs was clear. The unit took fire from above. One round killed the officer directing the assault. The URA and the hostage were on the top floor. They’d rigged a bomb downstairs which injured several policemen.
Tokyo sent new orders: Disregard previous orders to take the radicals alive. But by now the radicals and the hostage were cornered at the top of the lodge. There was no escape. They surrendered. The hostage still breathed. And the United Red Army was history.
9. THE DANGLING THREADS
Initially Tsuneo Mori and Hiroko Nagata kept their mouths shut. But other captured members talked and talked.
The police dismissed their stories of 12 murders in the cabin. Killing policemen we can believe. Killing rads from other factions and innocent civilians even. But killing 12 of your own? Your sick, grotesque stories are just foolish attempts to waste our time and lead us astray. But they discovered every name, date and location checked out. The frozen corpses were all there to be found.
The media feeding frenzy began. Every reporter and talking head feasted on the lurid details. Everybody had an opinion why these middle-class university students became mindless killers. Bad parenting. Extreme stress. Weak morals. Insufficient discipline. Excessive discipline.
Later analysts compared how Japan’s media and judiciary had treated Mori and how they’d dealt with Nagata. Mori was viewed as a badly misguided fellow. His actions were horrifying but motivated by a discernible political ideology. So it was somehow possible to make sense of his actions But the court of public opinion judged Nagata differently. She was a sadistic witch, a crazed hag. Her abominable deeds stemmed from severe character defects. There was talk of hormonal problems.
Hiroko Nagata wrote a book in prison. Sixteen Grave Markers: Youth of Fire and Death expressed remorse for her deeds. A prominent Buddhist nun became her regular visitor and friend. Nagata died of brain cancer just before her 66th birthday, after nearly three decades on death row. The courts had rejected her lawyers’ every appeal.
Tsuneo Mori committed suicide on January 1st, 1973. He wrote a poem then hanged himself in his cell.
Hiroshi Sakaguchi, the United Red Army’s last leader, was offered freedom in 1975. The Japanese Red Army – Fusako Shigenobu’s crew in the Middle East – captured American and Swedish diplomatic posts in Malaysia. Sakaguchi was one of the prisoners whose freedom they demanded. But he refused. He despised the JRA, and declared he’d continue to fight imperialism from his prison cell. Good luck with that, said the JRA, and scratched him from the list.
Kunio Bando, his ex-accomplice, was also on the JRA’s list. He readily accepted the offer. Soon after walking free he hijacked a Japan Airlines plane in Bangladesh. He’s still at large.
Takaya Shiomi, the Red Army Faction’s founder, wrote an apologetic memoir while serving 20 years behind bars. After his release he laid low but later ran for office in a local election in 2015, finishing 22nd out of 23 candidates with about 300 votes.
In North Korea some of the hijackers died natural deaths. A couple died trying to escape. Their deaths were officially “industrial accidents”, although how translators get crushed by forklifts was never explained.
The North Koreans “gave” them wives (Japanese women lured to Pyongyang). Allegedly, some of the wives were later sent to seduce and kidnap Japanese nationals in Europe and spirit them to North Korea for nefarious purposes.
And finally, most student radicals with “light” criminal records eventually felt the urge to straighten up and fly right. Many landed straight jobs in corporations or even the civil service. However, those who were “well known to the police” – radicals with long rap sheets – faced shadowy futures on society’s fringes.
10. DREAMS OF ’68
Q: Why did Japan’s radical protest movement start?
A: The Left’s pre-1960 successes faded. For all its passion about liberating “the people” from capitalism, it was too weak to shake things up in any meaningful way. That’s oversimplifying it, but the mainstream Left simply couldn’t effect real sociopolitical change.
Q: So dissatisfaction with the mainstream Left spawned radicalism?
A: The students rejected the JCP’s outdated, doctrinaire, Moscow-dominated orthodoxy. They wanted to force “the people” to rise up and embrace revolution. By the 1960’s the social conditions were ripe: baby boomers crowding inadequate universities, emerging youth culture, disgust at Japan’s cooperation with the Yankee war machine, corporate and political corruption. Rebellion was in the very air.
Those were restive times – worldwide, of course – but Japanese youth had very few ways to release their pent up anger. Violent protest was the most direct way of putting their grievances out there.
Some radicals viewed things simply. One told a contemporary researcher: All we want is the battle itself. But there’s also this evocative quote from another book: a TôDai activist told one author in 1970: I feel solidarity with anyone who actually struggles hard to do something. That was it, you see: struggling hard to do something.
Q: But Western students struggled hard to do something.
A: Consider the contrasts between Japanese and Western political protests. In Japanese protests violence and mass arrests were the norm. They were accepted as normal and natural. And remember how Western protesters carried signs and flowers? Japanese protesters carried gebabô and molotov cocktails.
And, unlike the West, Japan’s music scene had absolutely no sociopolitical dimension. There was no widespread counterculture like there was in the West: a counterculture which safely ignored or subvert societal norms. A short-lived Japanese protest music fad emerged, but the all-powerful record companies steered clear.
And keep in mind, drug use was almost expected among American student activists. It was practically unknown among Japanese radicals.
Remember the Red Army Faction’s plan to link up with the American organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) ? At that time SDS started bomb attacks as their remnants transformed into The Weathermen (later The Weather Underground). They declared: Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks. Around 1969 “freaks” wasn’t used pejoratively, but referred to long-haired people who embraced the counterculture, wore hippie clothes, got high and deliberately shocked the “squares”.
In the West your music, your hair, your clothes, the two-fingered peace sign and your choice of intoxicants established your radical identity. But none of that applied in Japan, where the radicals rejected such epiphenomena as trivial and irrelevant. Give peace a chance? You’re joking. And the concept of flower power simply baffled them.
Q: But the campuses weren’t all radicalized. Didn’t most students avoid radicalism completely?
A: Whenever normal academic activity essentially ceased, the nonpori (nonpolitical students) wanting to focus on their courses were officially told to “study at home until further notice”. Inevitably, on many campuses, you’d see only lots of activists doing their thing. This fostered the image that all Japanese students were radicals.
Campuses had right-wing groups too. They were less conspicuous, but aggressive. Nihon University‘s right-wing president encouraged his rightists to “get the Reds”. They were mostly ultra-nationalists and jocks. Their baseball bats and wooden kendô swords came in handy.
Q: How big was the protest movement?
A: There are various metrics. In ’68 about 80% of campuses had “some sort of conflict”, from mere sitdown strikes or brief lecture-boycotts right up to the Tokyo University siege and the bitter, prolonged Nihon University “civil war” (which was every bit as brutal). In 1969 over 70 university presidents resigned to take responsibility for the disruption on their campuses.
In ’68-’69 about 70 universities were barricaded, meaning the students effectively took over the campuses. 62 high schools were barricaded in 1969, and the police detained about 600 kids, all minors. By then the monthly radical-arrest rate averaged over 1,000. Two cops died in on-campus disturbances, and 10,000 were injured in ’69-’70. There were over 100 bombings between 1969 and 1971. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many incidents were hushed up or were reported as something less serious. And some bomb attacks simply fizzled. Pfffffff.
Q: Ultimately, though, little was achieved from all this. Why?
A: Well, having so many factions with competing priorities was decidedly unhelpful. In a nutshell, the radicals talked like political philosophers but acted like motorcycle gangs. “The people” they claimed to represent were appalled.
Remember uchigeba? Conflict between factions. One uchigeba incident epitomizes the factions’ “tribal warfare”. In Yasuda Auditorium shortly before the final assault in the Tôdai Siege, rival radical factions fought an all-out brawl. Nothing unusual about that, except that this was a three-way brawl. Three factions violently attacked each other simultaneously with gebabô and metal pipes.
How did their leaders expect to unite “the people”? They couldn’t even unite themselves.
If the protest movement hoped to replace the existing order with the rule of the proletariat (“the people”) it needed that proletariat – the general public and the unions – on its side. But that was impossible while the movement foolishly clung to its tribal loyalties. Its brutal factionalism alienated Japanese society. That endless internecine violence kept the movement stuck in a hole.
The factions cared more about wiping each other out than working towards their common revolutionary goal. That really tells you something about their leaders’ tunnel vision. They were hopelessly blinkered. Their divisive tribalism contrasted starkly with the American anti-war movement’s – and the Paris ’68 movement’s – we’re-all-in-this-together approach. They had a shocking inability – or unwillingness – to see the big picture and act accordingly.
And the last straw was the United Red Army’s gruesome self-destruction. The movement could never win public support after that. People wondered: So that’s how they’d have us live? Facing death for brushing your hair, like Mieko Tôyama in that cabin?
There’s one more thing. The activists were unanimous about “the people” needing a revolution. But their post-revolution vision was hopelessly vague. So “the people” saw no reason to buy what they were selling.
Q: We’ve only discussed developments up to 1972. What’s transpired since?
A: Sure, the period up to 1972 and the URA was the main focus. Yet we can’t pretend that ’72 was the end of the story. But as we saw, the nationwide revulsion at the URA’s killing spree drained whatever impetus Japan’s Radical Left still had.
Throughout the 1970’s the vicious antagonism between two radical factions – the savage Chûkaku-ha and its ex-ally, the more self-disciplined Kakumaru – went haywire. Both sides ignored the class struggle and the Revolution. They just battled each other with deadly force.
They acted like Latin American drug cartels in a turf war.
Neither group was particular about targets or squeamish about collateral damage. You can imagine the public’s reaction to that. Then the two factions turned from trying to obliterate each other to virtually ignoring each other.
Kakumaru eventually went legit, enmeshing itself with the railway unions. Chûkaku-ha aimed to disrupt daily life. In the 1980’s it made some expertly coordinated and headline-grabbing – but ultimately pointless and self-defeating – attacks on railway (!) infrastructure and government facilities. By now its arson attacks had become an irritant. What was the point? Why did it still even exist?
And like the other groups which still had a pulse, these outfits shrunk as their demographics changed. Students lost interest. Only a few aging people on society’s fringes carried on.
We must also mention the Narita Airport expansion project (Sanrizuka) becoming the focus of the radicals’ remnants during the 1980’s. The government’s ruthless appropriation of farmland for the project backfired by presenting the Extreme Left with a neat package of grievances: rampant capitalism, exploitation of the masses, collusion between politicians and developers, suppression of dissent, you name it. That dragged on for years.
Finally, one group from the early-1970’s deserves some attention: the East Asian Anti-Japanese Armed Front. It made the self-hating claim that Japan’s an inherently imperialistic, exploitative and wicked nation. The root of the nation’s evil is Japaneseness. Japan has a sickness in its heart. It must be made to atone for its sins.
Its members minimized suspicion by living as straight people in straight jobs, financing themselves with their salaries, operating in three tiny, loosely connected “cells”. They planted time-bombs in corporate headquarters. One goal was to foment uprisings by the oppressed Ainu indigenous minority in Hokkaido and the native Okinawans. (In this they were spectacularly unsuccessful.) They even made an attempt – aborted at the last minute – to assassinate the emperor.
Their ultra-secretive nature and hatred for their society lent them a sinister image. Then they faded into obscurity.
Q: What are your personal thoughts on the URA slaughter?
A: The media attention was indeed sensationalistic. It portrayed Mori as less culpable than “the she-devil”. But he had his own psychological baggage. He felt insecure, unable to live down his earlier withdrawal from the Red Army Faction after his failed romance. And before the merger there were lingering insinuations that he lacked the balls to be a revolutionary leader. Remember, at their arrest Nagata fought their captors but Mori just froze.
Did these insecurities contribute to Mori’s excesses in the cabin? Who knows? He was uncommunicative in custody, and he killed himself before they could probe enough.
Q: What’s happening now?
A: Those groups surviving today have become organizations with phone numbers, bank accounts and sometimes websites. Many are now straightforward lobby groups, campaigning for “the people”. They’re still under routine police surveillance, but they’re mere shadows of their former selves.
There’s one recent development which provides a convenient finale. You’ll recall the American occupation of Okinawa was a perennial grievance. Japan regained Okinawa in 1972, but before this the government accepted such a lopsided deal from Washington that 1971 became Japan’s “incendiary year”, a year of wild protests.
In a November 1971 demonstration in Tokyo Chûkaku-ha activists (who else?) burned a young cop to death. The police vigorously pursued their prime suspect Masaaki Ôsaka (67). He was on the run for almost 46 years, never leaving Japan.
They arrested him in Hiroshima. He’d been protected and supported by Chûkaku-ha activists who’d stayed just below the police radar for decades. They’re now in the autumn of their lives. The police are following this up, but not just because these people aided a cop-killer. The money required to keep Ôsaka healthy and safe for so long is of interest. Was it stolen money?
In any case, those old-time radicals’ heyday was so very long ago. It was a different world. They’re living fossils now.
What do they do these days?
We can imagine them gathering from time to time in somebody’s apartment (never the same apartment twice in a row for reasons of security). They’re complaining about their arthritis, dropping ashes from their cigarettes, yearning for the Revolution, comparing battle scars, reminiscing about their best molotov-cocktails, their best gebabô whacks and all those adrenaline rushes and the tingling of their senses and how alive they all felt when it was the late 1960’s and they were all so young and anything was possible.