To understand the Japanese Red Army, we’ll start in the winter of 1972. The snow lay deep. Five bedraggled men trudged their way up the slope towards the lodge. They’d been walking for so long that the bone-weary ache of their legs had become like constant background noise amidst the silence of the falling snowflakes.
Weary as they were, the prospect of being indoors, with heating and real, soft beds, must have been appealing. Yet, gazing up at the form of the oddly-shaped building before them, they knew that rest wouldn’t yet find them. The revolution could not yet rest; neither could the soldiers of United Red Army.
Muta Yasuko, wife of the lodge caretaker, was busy with chores when the door to the lobby suddenly banged open. Five men, their clothes tattered, marched in amidst the drifting flurries and freezing cold of the outdoors. What’s more, the men held weapons – shotguns, a rifle, and a pistol, unheard of for civilians in Japan. Before Yasuko could ask the men what they wanted, they were upon her. Yasuko was pushed down by the intruders, who tied her up and ordered her to keep quiet. Their stench was alarming, but she hardly noticed it amidst the sudden shock of the intrusion upon her daily life.
The five men went about hurriedly checking each room of the lodge for occupants. No one else was present. In fact, Yasuko’s husband was out on an excursion with the five guests currently staying at the lodge. He’d left Yasuko to hold down the fort. He would not return for some time.
Yasuko looked on as the men began pulling up the tatami matting of her floors. They started using it to cover all the windows and doors. They next added to their barricade by pushing any and all heavy furniture up against potential openings. One of the men returned from the kitchen. He reported to the shaggy intruder who seemed to be in charge. The lodge, he said, had enough rice and stores to keep them fed for well over a week.
They made up their minds. Here was where the revolutionaries would make their last stand. They had electricity, food, warmth, and even television access. That last one would prove useful as news crews descended upon the scene. More than that, they had their guns and ammunition. Most important of all, they had the cause on their side.
The intruders looked out from the cracks in their barricades. The riot police they knew had been tracking them assembled outside, soon numbering in their thousands. The sleepy hillside was alive with the movement of helmeted policemen. The skies with the whirring of helicopter blades as the media gathered. Amongst the milling riot police stood Yasuko’s husband, anxious and heartsick.
The siege of the Asama Sanso Lodge had begun.
The Red Army Begins
The shocking events of the siege, which would last for more than ten days, would captivate Japan. And yet it was just the last action of a hunted crew of homegrown revolutionaries. The horrific truths of their misdeeds would very soon come to light. Authorities would soon unearth the bodies of their murdered comrades from their shallow, frozen graves. The same group of revolutionaries had already made worldwide headlines with the hijacking of a passenger plane to North Korea. And soon, the names by which they called themselves – the Red Army Faction, the United Red Army, and most of all, the Japanese Red Army – would come to be synonymous with terror, not only in Japan, but throughout the entire world of the 1970’s.
Part 1 of Unseen Japan’s series on the Japanese Red Army.
2 – Blood on the Snow: The Horrifying Implosion of Japan’s United Red Army
3 – Last Stand: The Hostage Crisis That Ended Japan’s Red Army
4 – Mercenaries of Global Terror: Shigenobu Fusako and the Japanese Red Army
5 – Japanese Red Army: End of a Global Reign of Terror
The Marxist-Leninist Japanese Red Army came of age amidst the chaotic years of the radical student movements of the 1960’s. The group first appeared on the world stage as The Red Army Faction.
At its greatest extent, it had as many as a thousand core members. But it was the child of many mothers, born from the near-constant splintering that occurred within student leftist groups. Factions often split over disagreements regarding Communist doctrine and what defined the right sort of revolutionary action.
Many aspects of the JRA and the history of the Japanese leftist student movement might surprise the modern observer. Most people today see Japan as politically apathetic (particularly the young). However, it once had a youth culture that was so passionate and motivated by progressive ideals. That the movement mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets, occupy college campuses and storm government buildings, and do battle with thousands of armored riot police, can seem almost incredible.
But it’s even harder to believe the unintended consequence. This massive cultural movement also gave birth to a Japanese terrorist organization. That organization would go on to commit heinous crimes. Murder. Politically motivated massacres. Hostage taking. Their actions would embarrass the governments of whole nations. The demonym “Japanese” has been as far separated from “terror” for decades now as that of any people on Earth.
And yet the Japanese Red Army was, in fact, very real. And the terror all began in the form of the Red Army Faction.
An Age of Unrest
The origins of the student movements date to the downfall of Imperial Japan at the end of World War II. The American occupation forces, headed by General Douglas MacArthur, set about the democratizing of Japan from almost the moment McArthur’s plane alighted at Atsugi Airbase in August of 1945.
Japan was devastated both economically and morally by the war. The Allies sought to reshape it from what was essentially a military dictatorship. Old Japan’s culture centered around emperor worship and the state-sponsored Shinto religion. Instead, they would replace it with a functioning democracy. The new Japan would enshrine human rights. People would be free to organize and alter their society as they saw fit. Government of and for the people, not of and for the emperor. To this end, the civil rights directive of October 4th, 1945, guaranteed the rights of freedom of speech, assembly, political activity, and religion.
Japanese lawmakers proved too reticent to write a constitution that reflected these ideals. So, MacArthur pushed through one of his own staff’s design. The most remarkable aspect of this was the famed Article 9. The article in question uniquely forbids Japan from possessing offensive military capabilities.
Amazingly, a large subsection of the Japanese population took to these forced changes, excited by the new freedoms offered them. Freedom was also something gained by those political prisoners who had long languished in Imperial Japanese jails; despite protests from Japanese officials, MacArthur freed all those whom the Imperial government had considered ideologically dangerous. Japan’s most influential leftist thinkers and activists were able to breath the free air for the first time in years.
MacArthur’s occupational government shifted course with the onset of the Cold War. They soon favored setting up Japan as a bastion against Communism rather than a paragon of true democracy. But they’d already lit the fuse. Many became enamored with the new freedoms of the post-war years. And many would prove willing to fight for these newfound rights to independence and political power.
Communism and Education in Japan
The Japanese Communist Party (which remains the largest non-ruling communist party in Asia) flourished in this environment. The previous regime had outlawed the party previously. Now, it sprang from a pre-war membership of less than 1,000 to 150,000 by 1950. A major reason for the party’s popularity was that it presented itself as a decidedly reasonable Communism. American occupation officials were often surprised to find that the Japanese communists shared their democratic ideals more strongly than did the mainstream of the Japanese government.
In addition, the occupational government greatly altered the education system. This ensured that many more people would go to school than before and for many years longer. As a result, a university education, once reserved only for the elite, became a major life goal for the greater population. The Japanese system we know today – wherein almost all of youth is spent in a stressful preparation for a series of school entrance exams on which one’s future can hang – became prevalent in this era. Even worse, supply didn’t meet demand. Experts say that, in the early post-war period, only one-fifth of applicants were accepted to university in any given year.
Entrance to university provided the first (and perhaps only) period of relief from continual life pressures. And yet many universities were often underfunded and war-damaged. Classes also lacked meaningful interaction (as today, classes were primarily lecture-based). This left many young students feeling unfulfilled.
Filling the Void
Student self-governing movements arose in these post-war years to fill this void. A huge percentage of students found themselves involved with these groups. At the same time, MacArthur encouraged the formation of unions. He urged students to “engage in free and unrestricted discussion of issues involving political, civil, and religious liberties”. He also helped call out ultra-nationalist imperialist teachers who still existed in the school system.
The students of Japan did this but did him one better as well. In 1948, they formed a nationwide league of student self-governing associations, known as Zengakuren (全学連; All-Japan League of Student Self-Government). The majority of Zengakuren student leaders, which shortly came to represent 60% of Japan’s student body, were firm followers of the Japanese Communist Party.
Zengakuren and the JCP consequently became a major force behind the mass student movements that would soon shake the nation. Many students were infatuated with the promises of democracy offered by MacArthur’s administration. They were incensed by the rollback of the right to protest during the Cold War. In 1949, the Ministry of Education tried introducing a bill that would prohibit the use of universities for political congregation. In response, Zengakuren led the students into the streets, 200,000 strong. Students and faculty also came together to shut down hundreds of universities across the country. This incredible show of public opposition forced the government to scrap the bill.
The student movement had found great success in its first-ever action.
Things Fall Apart
Success was short-lived.
The advancing Cold War and the increased radicalization of the JCP lead to a series of red purges. The government removed known communist professors from universities. Japanese youth, once enamored with American ideals, became horridly disillusioned with what they saw as the hypocrisy of Western democracy.
In 1952, the Japanese government attempted to pass a draconian Anti-Subversive Activities Bill in 1952. In Response, 20,000 protesters converged on the imperial palace. They battled baton-wielding police with hurled stones as they attempted to storm the royal residence. Thousands were injured and two students died in the attempt. The battle lines had been drawn. The image of masked protesters armed with staves or Molotov cocktails confronting armored police would become increasingly common.
The next decade and a half bore witness to incredible civic struggles. Tens of thousands of impassioned youth faced off against police time and again. Issues ranged from the Vietnam War and the controversial United States-Japan Joint Security Treaty to the continued presence of American military bases throughout Japan. Students staged sit-ins on campuses across the country. They shut down education to such an extent that one year, both matriculations and new student enrollment were called off.
Students and Police Clash
Leftist students and farmers faced off against police in attempts to stave off the seizing of land for the construction of Narita Airport. Students briefly occupied Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. The station soon became the scene of frenzied fighting as scores of police moved in to remove the protesters. The famous Yasuda Hall of Tokyo University suffered the same fate when the police finally laid siege to the embattled student occupiers, who had held the building for six months. (But not before famed hard-right author and right-wing student militia leader Mishima Yukio entered the hall for a now-famous public debate with the students.)
As the years dragged on, the student movement became more frustrated. More and more cracks emerged in their unified front. First, the leaders of the Zengakuren broke from the JCP. (The Communist Party had returned to moderation in order to re-enter mass politics.) Then other groups broke from the Zengakuren over differences of doctrine.
Radicals consistently saw the groups they were a part of as lacking in revolutionary zeal. This fostered a near-constant splintering of leftist groups. Japanese society, once supportive of the aims of the student movement, had turned away from the constant violence and chaos. By the late 1960’s, involvement in radical groups put one’s future gainful employment at risk. And employment was the entire point of university attendance in the eyes of Japanese society. This left only those who were willing to fully reject a place in that society within an ever-shrinking movement.
It was this near-constant distillation of radicalism that led to the creation of the Japanese Red Army.
Birth of the Red Army Faction
The JCP begat the Zengakuren. In turn, this begat the Communist League (Kyosanshugisha Domei , 共産主義者同盟), just one amongst dozens of ideological splinter groups. The Communist league then begat the Red Army Faction. And that begat the notorious United Red Army and the Japanese Red Army.
The birth of the JRA occurred during a 1969 meeting held by the Communist League for its cross-country university leadership. The ideological heads of the organization wanted to debate their current situation and the movement’s future. During the course of these meetings, however, the group from West Japan (including Osaka and Kyoto) and those from the East (which included Tokyo and Yokohama) suffered a major split.
Those from the west insisted that the New Left movement as it existed had failed; the people of Japan had rejected it. The police had mobilized into specialized riot squads called kidotai (機動隊). And they’d become good – too good – at suppressing and preventing mass demonstration. From now on, they argued, the movement needed more violent tactics to help spur on a true world revolution. A revolutionary army would have to be raised, which would “rise up in armed revolt with guns and bombs.”
The East Japan group balked at this and purged the more violence-oriented West Japan leadership from the organization. These purged aspects of the organization would later take a new name for themselves: The Red Army Faction (Sekigun-ha, 赤軍派).
The leader and ideological master of the newly-minted Red Army Faction was one Shiomi Takaya. Shiomi was an avowed Trotskyite for whom violent, international revolution was the goal. In Shiomi’s eyes, any attempts at co-existence with the imperialist West, as was then being professed by Soviet Premier Khrushchev following his shocking repudiation of Stalinism, were a corruption of true Marxism. World revolution required unflinching action. Imperialism needed to be purged from the world, and Japan was the place to start. If they joined with revolutionary forces in Cuba, Palestine, Korea, and Vietnam, soon the entire world might glow red.
It was exactly this call for direct action that attracted people to the Red Army Faction. As the name implied, joining the organization meant more than mere theorizing, demonstrating, debating over doctrine, or verbal posturing; it meant joining a battle for world revolution. Hundreds of youth from around Japan hungered to actually fight for their ideals. They purchased red helmets and painted the kanji 赤軍 (Red Army) across them. They had joined in the united global struggle.
That struggle first took the form of internecine battles with their parent organization, the Communist League. The Red Army took hostages and stormed headquarters. One Red Army soldier died after he slipped and fell from a high window while escaping from the League headquarters at Nihon University. Death was part of the Red Army mythos from its very first days.
Small Attacks, Larger Plans
Next, the Red Army Faction planned a series of small attacks against the police around the country. These actions were planned following talks with the radical US-based Students for a Democratic Society. Shimoi, in his usual grandiose language, labeled them “wars” (the “Tokyo War,” “Osaka War,” etc.). In reality, these amounted to mere skirmishes. The police actively raided Red Army hideouts and prevented them from carrying out their larger plans.
But larger plans they had. Shiomi and his lieutenants hatched one to raid the Prime Minister’s residence. They hoped to take the country’s leader hostage. The goal: halt his planned meeting with President Nixon for the finalizing of the return of Okinawa to Japan. (The continued presence of the American military in Okinawa after the handover incensed the radicals). They set up a training camp for as many soldiers as would join. The training ground: the remote mountains of the Daibosatsu Pass in Yamanashi Prefecture.
Dozens of volunteers converged on the inn at the Daibosatsu Pass, where they engaged in training on how to build “Peace Bombs”. A Red Army research team made up of chemistry, physics and medical students created the devices. They used dynamite packed with pachinko balls, and a fuse stuffed into the metal containers used by Peace Brand cigarettes.
The progress of the training camp was rudely interrupted in the early morning of November 4, 1970. 300 police armed with billy clubs and riot shields descended on the sleeping activists. Police arrested 53 radicals, whose ages ranged from fifteen to twenty-six. They discovered knives, pipe bombs, and the plans for the assault on Prime Minister Sato’s residence at the scene. While Shiomi was not among those captured, he was found and arrested shortly thereafter. He would never have full control of his movement again. A major blow had been dealt.
Ironically, the seized materials revealed that the Red Army Faction had functioned on a very non-revolutionary hierarchical structure. Those from the most elite universities, such as Tokyo or Meiji, were selected for the highest level of authority. Secondary authority went to those from major public universities, with the next level being local establishments. Those without a college education, or who were in vocational school or high school, were the grunts of the organization. This seemed a far cry from a just revolution of the proletariat.
The Army Goes Underground
The Japanese police had become increasingly skilled at detecting and stopping violent radical action; diligent sleuthing and the trailing of activists had lead them to the training grounds of Daibosatsu. They had shattered the leadership of the Red Army Faction, even capturing Shiomi’s second-in-command as the youth visited his girlfriend. The rudderless organization had once held debates and made announcements in public auditoriums watched over by hundreds of police. Now, they had no choice but to go underground.
They now engaged in much more secretive activity. Individual cells received their marching orders from a complex network. The Red Army used timed calls to public phones and messages passed between activists’ girlfriends, who held quiet meetings at public cafes.
The new and untested leadership of the Red Army Faction knew they needed to take impactful revolutionary action. First, however, they needed money. So the Red Army sent forth members to carry out brazen, well-planned bank robberies. Fleeing to train stations and switching between multiple lines, the robbers would disappear into Tokyo hideouts with their ill-gotten funds. When the police got too close to discovering any individual hideout, the Red Army closed out their rental agreements. They left behind pristine apartments whose landlords never suspected that their tenants had been dangerous revolutionaries.
Shiomi and others in prison looked down on these robberies; they saw the theft of money from normal people as counter-revolutionary. And yet the police pressure that had pushed the group underground also ensured that they no longer had the means of sitting around and discussing such questions of doctrine. All that these isolated cells had were orders and action.
And the most stunning of these actions lay directly before them.
The Hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 351
It happened just as the plane was soaring in the skies above Mount Fuji.
It was March 30th, 1970, and the regularly scheduled JAL flight between Tokyo and Fukuoka had recently reached cruising altitude. The seatbelt signs had just blinked off. Stewardesses walked down the aisle offering oshibori moist towelettes to the passenger. Nine business-suit-clad young men near the front and back of the cabin picked up their long, tubular carry-ons from beneath their seats. These tubes, like those used to carry fishing rods, contained something much more dangerous.
They suddenly pulled out samurai swords and pipe bombs from their baggage. Their leader yelled out to the assembled passengers. “Raise your hands! We’re going to North Korea!”
The Hijacking Begins
In this way, Japan’s first-ever hijacking of a commercial flight began. Amongst the five highjackers was one Wakabayashi Moriaki, original bassist for the psychedelic rock band Les Rallizes Dénudés. Les Rallizes was formed by Doshisha University student Mizutani Takashi, himself a radical and a French literature and sociology major. Soon after, the band, obscure when the hijacking occurred, gained an ever-increasing sort of cult fame. This was due, in no small part, to Wakabayashi’s participation in the highjacking.
Four of the Red Army Faction soldiers stormed into the cockpit. They pointed their swords at the pilot and co-pilot and demanded passage to North Korea. They promised that the 154 passengers aboard the flight would have their safety guaranteed as long as the pilot acquiesced.
That pilot in question, Ishida Shinji, a former officer in the Imperial Army, weighed his decision. The lives of so many depended on what he did now. Using some quick thinking, he insisted that the plane did not have enough fuel to reach North Korea. Rather, it would have to land as scheduled in Fukuoka and re-fuel. The wary Red Army Faction hijackers took the bait.
300 police, many disguised as airport engineers, waited on the tarmac as the hijacked plane made its descent. The government was scrambling for a way to solve the situation; nothing like this had ever happened before in Japan. A media frenzy was already underway, and a military plane had already arrived.
The hijackers, made anxious by the numerous people on the tarmac, ordered the crowds away. They ignored all attempts at persuasion aimed at getting them to deplane. Reticently, the airport workers began re-fueling the plane. The hijackers released 23 of the women, children, and elderly on the plane (whom they worried would not fare well if forced into detention in North Korea). Consequently, Ishida initiated takeoff towards the Korean peninsula. Two military planes flanked the plane and stayed with them until they had left Japanese airspace.
The pilot received navigational instructions over the radio from a source claiming to be Pyongyang, North Korea. As he landed the plane, the Korean tarmac was abuzz with soldiers in North Korean uniform. There were even some women in traditional Korean garb walking about.
And yet the pilot noticed one thing that mystified him. There was a plane near the terminal with the tail markings of Northwest Airlines.
At first, the hijackers rejoiced at what they saw as the amazing success to their operation. However, as they prepared to de-plane, they too noticed something strange. Where were the North Korean flags? Suddenly suspicious, they refused to let anyone leave the plane. They insisted that airport officials first show them a large portrait of Kim Il Sung.
However, there was no such portrait. The plane had secretly been directed by the South Korean government to land in Seoul.
The jig was up. The hijackers refused to release any of their passengers. Contained in a cramped airplane for seventy-nine hours, the hostages showed real signs of fatigue. (Although they would later claim to the hijackers treated them kindly. Later, one American said that Japan Airlines would do well to offer them jobs as flight attendants).
Travel to Pyongyang
The negotiations dragged on for hours. At last, the parties reached a deal. The Japanese Vice-Minister for Transportation, Yamamura Shinjiro, would fly to Seoul and exchange himself for the passengers. Then, the plane would depart for North Korea with only the crew, hijackers, and their single valuable political prisoner.
The plane finally arrived in Pyongyang. The Red Army Faction had just pulled off something the likes of which had never been seen in Japan. Their name would forever be emblazoned upon the history of the Japanese radical left. Supporters would now flock to their banner.
And yet, not all had in fact gone as planned. The hijackers intended to send a message to the world. And the Red Army Faction members envisioned that they’d receive real revolutionary training in North Korea.
Stuck in North Korea
However, the North Korean government had other ideas.
The hijackers would soon release the crew of the plane and Vice-Minister Yamamura back to Japan. But the nine Red Army Faction members would not see Japan again for many decades. Some never would.
The North Korean government took it upon itself to “re-educate” the hijackers on the ways of proper revolution. They kept them in the country and used them to craft Japanese-language propaganda. Some were eventually sent on missions abroad for the North Korean Intelligence Service (NKIS). Police later arrested others in Japan who’d re-entered on fake passports. Others died while still among their Korean revolutionary “brothers.” Still others remain there to this day, not allowed to leave.
One of these now-stranded hijackers was twenty-seven-year-old Tamiya Takamaro. He had been among the most important leaders of the Red Army Faction following the arrest of Shiomi. The movement would feel his loss keenly. One woman, in particular, would miss him: his partner, Shigenobu Fusako. Shigenobu would later lead terroristic actions that would put the Hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 351 to shame.
The Army Marches On
The leadership vacuum and increased police scrutiny following the national embarrassment that was the Hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 351 (known in Japan as the “Yodo-go Hijacking Incident,” よど号ハイジャック事件) caused extreme changes to the Red Army Faction.
Under the leadership of one Mori Tsuneo, the group would join with another violent radical group to form something new: The United Red Army. The growing pains of this new organization would lead to truly horrific violence. The violence would shock Japan and would lead directly to the stand-off at that snowy lodge in Nagano Prefecture.
However, the United Red Army wasn’t the only progeny of the Red Army Faction that would soon join the ranks of infamy. Shigenobu Fusako would shortly lead her own group out of the suffocating atmosphere of Japan. In her new environs, she could more easily execute her plans to hasten world revolution.
The United Red Army’s violence had shocked Japan. So too would Shigenobu’s actions soon shock the entire world – as perhaps no Japanese group has done in modern times.
Next In This Series
Farrell, William R. “Blood and Rage: The Story of the Japanese Red Army.” Lexington Books, 1990.
Emmerson, John K. “The Japanese Communist Party after Fifty Years.” Asian Survey, vol. 12, no. 7, 1972, pp. 564–579
Steinhoff, Patricia G. “Hijackers, Bombers, and Bank Robbers: Managerial Style in the Japanese Red Army.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 48, no. 4, 1989, pp. 724–740.
Kuriyama, Yoshihiro. “Terrorism at Tel Aviv Airport and a ‘New Left’ Group in Japan.” Asian Survey, vol. 13, no. 3, 1973, pp. 336–346.
Watts, Jonathan. “Japanese hijackers go home after 32 years on the run.” The Guardian, Sun. 8 Sept. 2002. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/sep/09/japan.jonathanwatts1