It was February 19th, 1972. Muta Yasuko, wife of the caretaker of the Asama-Sanso lodge near Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, was terrified.
She lay against a wall, her hands and legs tied. Five ragged men ransacked the lodge whose upkeep she had put so much work into. They ripped up the tatami flooring and upended the furniture, using every available item to barricade the doors and windows. One of the intruders had commented on the copious foodstuffs found in the lodge’s pantry. It was clear they were here for the long term.
Twenty-five-year-old Bando Kunio had taken on the most active role amongst the bunch. He had been relieved to find no one else in the lodge.
He and the four others were members of Japan’s violent far-left radical student group, the recently-christened United Red Army.
The Crisis Begins
Their organization had been born in the heady and chaotic days of the late 1960s. Students were enraged by curtailments on the new democratic rights granted to Japanese citizens following World War II. They were further frustrated by Japan’s tacit involvement in American-led imperialistic military action in Vietnam and other parts of the world. Hundreds of thousands of young Japanese university students had taken to the streets. At first, there was mass support from the Japanese population for these large-scale protests. But as violence rose, the police cracked down, and many far-left student groups were pushed underground.
The Red Army Faction was the URA’s parent organization and the brainchild of the international revolution-minded Shiomi Takaya. It had made a name for itself by attacking police officers. The group also committed Japan’s first airline hijacking, commandeering a Japan Airlines flight and forcing it to fly to North Korea. Notoriety led to greater police surveillance and rounds of arrests. Soon, the Red Army Faction found itself left in the hands of hapless member Mori Tsuneo. A need for weapons led Mori to merge his crew with a separate group led by the sadistic Nagata Hiroko.
Amongst the growing pains of their new joint group, the United Red Army, one of the Mori’s best and brightest, Shigenobu Fusako, left Japan to form an international terrorist wing of the Red Army in Lebanon. Back in Japan, Mori and Nagata convened a training camp for their radicals at an isolated cabin in the depths of the snowy mountains of Gunma Prefecture, a location partially to hide out from police. There, amidst the heightened emotions and intensive rhetoric of self-criticism, meant to inspire revolutionary zeal, something unbelievably grotesque had occurred. The gathered United Red Army members had committed a heinous and horrific purge of their own membership, torturing and killing twelve of the twenty-nine individuals there assembled. With their comrades now buried in cold, shallow graves, the surviving core membership of the Red Army had fled the encroaching police, taking flight into the mountain passes on foot.
Bando’s crew included Sakaguchi Hiroshi, recently spurned husband of United Red Army leader Nagata, who had just announced her intended marital union with her co-leader, Mori, only days before the two were arrested attempting to link up the rest of their fleeing entourage. There were also the two surviving Kato brothers, who had participated in the murder of their older brother in the URA bloody purge, and had split off from the rest of the fleeing URA survivors as they neared the border with Nagano Prefecture. The police had been close behind. Bando and Sakaguchi had spied officers clambering through the snow in the pass below them, and had unloaded bullets in their direction before continuing their flight. Nearing the mountain resort town of Karuizawa, Bando had thought to steal a car at gunpoint, but the sight of a strange, almost fortress-like building had changed his mind.
When he and his men had entered the three-storied, arrow-shaped lodge and discovered only Mrs. Muta to be present, Bando’s decision had been made. There could be no better spot for a last stand than a fortified building clinging to the side of a mountain which, like some medieval castle, commanded the heights.
In the valley below, the police were amassing. The officers they had shot at had clearly called in reinforcements, and the revolutionaries’ intrusion into the lodge had not gone unnoticed. Unknown to Bando or his crew, not only had the leaders of their movement just been arrested in Gunma, but four of those who they had fled with had just been apprehended at a nearby train station – the stench and bedraggled appearance of the rugged radicals had caused a newspaper stand owner to connect the dots to the stories in the papers she sold. The police arrived shortly after she called them.
The First Victim
Back at the Asama-Sanso lodge, tensions were rising. There were now well over a thousand specialized riot police who had gathered at the scene, standing in long, dark rows, the black of their helmets and flack jackets contrasting with the white snow. Armored trucks had managed to snake their way up the mountain path as well, creating a natural barrier behind which the police could take cover. Sharpshooters had been stationed on the ridges, and roadblocks had been set up to prevent any possible escape.
Then there were the news crews, covering what was becoming an unbelievable story. The images they streamed into Japanese living rooms almost non-stop would go on to have great effects on Japanese society; iconic images of the waiting riot police slurping down instant ramen is even believed to have helped popularize the food as an emergency foodstuff.
Occasionally, gunfire would ring out from the lodge as the police encroached too near. The hostage’s husband watched it all with mounting anxiety; he had been out showing the lodge guests around at the time when the United Red Army had chosen his hotel to make their last stand. He worried for his anemic wife, and begged time and again to the police to let him switch places with her. But the radicals in the lodge never responded.
The unchanging monotony of the standoff was soon shattered. Tanaka Yasuhiro, a young snack bar owner from neighboring Niigata Prefecture, had been moved by the near-constant media coverage of the ongoing hostage crisis. Inspired to action in a way that seems almost manic, he made his way to the scene, where he attempted to push his way through the police line. The police, of course, would have none of this civilian interference, and arrested him.
But when he was released later that day, Tanaka simply decided to try a different method. Climbing the slopes north of the lodge, he ran onto the scene. Somehow, he managed to sprint through police barricades before they could stop him. He bore with him a bento box, perhaps hoping to open a line of communication with the radicals by ingratiating himself with them; alas, he had seriously misread the situation.
As he tried to push the box through a small opening into the building, a shot rang out, and he staggered backwards.
He had been shot in the head.
The injury proved fatal, and Tanaka, who had perhaps dreamed of somehow becoming a hero, instead became the first casualty of the Asama-Sanso Incident.
The Battle Intensifies
On the third day of the hostage crisis, February 21st, the police were becoming anxious. Little progress had been made, and the radicals had managed to kill one manic civilian and shoot two police officers non-fatally. The entire Japanese public was watching, waiting for them to act.
The lodge’s heat and water, which had formerly been left on for the sake of the comfort of the hostage, was cut. As the interior of the lodge became more frigid and inhospitable, the parents of some of the radicals were brought in (unknown at the time was that the child of one of these parents had already been killed in the purge). The parents, horrified by what their progeny were engaged in, used loudspeakers to implore their children to come to their senses. No response was forthcoming.
On the fourth day, the police began to use force. Two armored vehicles moved in on the lodge, and the police crouching behind them fired tear gas through the building’s windows. The hostage-takers, holding rags to their mouths, fired at the police, who took cover as bullets whizzed by and ricocheted off their vehicles.
The police backed off, but by night they began employing a new tactic: psychological warfare. Loudspeakers blared disturbing noise, preventing sleep; recorded sounds of chainsaws, protests, sirens, and more. The sounds would persist and then suddenly stop, only to start up again once enough time had passed to allow the targets to perhaps drift to sleep. (This sort of sleep torture is reportedly still being used as a Japanese police interrogation method – which may help explain high conviction rates in the country). Later, they would employ floodlights to turn the night skies to day, as well as a baseball pitching machine that would pelt rocks at the building to keep the occupiers from getting any rest.
The next morning, an attempted invasion by a brigade of policemen was foiled when untimely winds blew their smoke screen cover away. They switched out their initial plan for one in which high-powered water hoses were aimed at the the living quarters of the lodge. The jets of water burst forth, smashing through windows, knocking over barricades, and inundating the rooms. Tear gas canisters followed, whose noxious fumes pushed the hijackers deeper into the recesses of the building.
As night fell and the water inside the lodge froze solid, the assault of sound and noise began again.
The Last Stand
Finally, the morning dawned on February 28th, the tenth day of the hostage situation. The loudspeakers blared a few final pleas to the radicals to lay down their arms. As always, there was no response. Ambulances had arrived at the scene in preparation for what was about to ensue. Protective sandbags had been piled high into the air, and a net had been strung in front of the building entrance to prevent the throwing of grenades from within the lodge.
At last, the final order came in, and the assault commenced.
As the police approached, the radicals let loose a volley of bullets; the police took cover as water jets were shot back into the building. Next came the wrecking crew. A crane was moved laboriously into position, from which it swung its wrecking ball directly at the entrance of the building, completely demolishing it. Other police leapt forward with chain and hacksaw, creating openings in the lower floors. A special police task force brought up from Tokyo entered through the newly made openings, facing no opposition on the first, ruined floor.
As the Tokyo police made their way to the stairs, a shot rang out from above, though not aimed at them. One of the radicals had spotted a police superintendent in the valley below who had been motivating his men from outside of cover. The revolutionaries had shot him squarely in the eye. The United Red Army had killed its first police officer. As the officers inside the lodge cleared the second floor and ascended to the third, another officer was shot dead as he peered around a corner. His fellows now un-holstered their guns.
The assault had now lasted five long hours. In homes across Japan, viewers sat on the edges of their seats, awestruck at the country’s first ever marathon live television broadcast. By 6:26 PM, viewership rankings for the broadcast would reach an unheard of 89.7% of houses with televisions. The entire country stood in rapt attention.
A handmade incendiary exploded near the invading police, injuring over ten of them, although not fatally. Finally, the officers on the top floor breached the last of the barricades, managing to apprehended one of the Kato brothers. The remaining four radicals were buried under a pile of protective futons in the final room, still brandishing weapons. As the police approached them, Bando shot the closest officer in the eye. The man staggered over, but incredibly, he would survive. In the chaos, the other police leapt at the radicals.
When the dust had settled, all five hostage-takers were in handcuffs. The siege of Asama-Sanso had ended. Muta Yasuko had been saved.
The Fall of the Red Army
So ended the dark saga of the United Red Army. The organization spawned by the mind of the founder of its parent organization, Shiomi Takaya would cease to plague Japan. By the time the bodies of the twelve purged youth had been discovered at the foothills of the mountains in Gunma, popular sentiment in Japan had been turned away not only from violent activists, but also from political activism in general. The JAL hijacking, the purges, the siege of Asama-Sanso – all shook Japan to its core. It was clear that there was to be a great deal of soul-searching in the offing.
Japan’s Minister of Education spoke up following the disinterment of the bodies, harshly criticizing the teachers and professors of Japan for failing their youth by creating a system in which such violence had been allowed to be fostered. Universities were no longer to be a place of radicalization; rather, they were to take their intended form as a stepping stone to careers and life employment within the ordered system of Japanese society.
In the eyes of the public, the judicial sentencing that soon followed for the radical perpetrators of these crimes befitted the evil that had occurred. Nagata, Mori, and Sakaguchi were all sentenced to death. Mori committed suicide a year later, strangling himself with a bed sheet in his prison cell. The other two had trials and appeals that continued for decades and held off their final days of judgment. Nagata passed away of brain cancer while still imprisoned in 2011, four decades after she led her grisly purge. Her husband, Sakaguchi, remains alive. As of 2019, he is still awaiting execution.
Bando Kunio, who led the five invaders into the Asama-Sanso lodge, and who killed a policeman in the ensuing battle, was spared death, but still received an extremely long jail sentence. His father, upon seeing confirmation that his son had been one of the hostage-takers on TV, immediately committed suicide. Despite his jail sentence, Bando’s days in the revolutionary field were far from over.
The hostage from the Siege of the Asama-Sanso Lodge, Muta Yasuko, returned to her daily life. Despite the national fame her captivity granted her (her picture had been broadcast innumerable times during the event, and she had broken the previous modern Japanese record for hours spent hostage many times over), she declined all requests for interviews after her initial rescuing. She claimed her captors had treated her kindly, despite tying her to a bed – one had even given her an omamori, a temple charm, that he said would help keep her safe.
With the vast majority of their core membership dead or imprisoned, and having lost even an ounce of public support, the United Red Army ceased to exist. With an increasingly militarized, skilled, and vigilant police force, and with no public backing, groups like the URA could no longer functionally operate in Japan.
After twenty years, the mass student movement in Japan had come to a horrifying, distressing end. The youth of Japan remain apathetic to politics, and their civic engagement remains low. The shock caused by the URA is just one amongst many phenomena that led to these trends, but one that is hard to ignore.
And yet, despite all this, the movement that began with the Red Army Faction had not yet been snuffed out. In faraway Lebanon, Shigenobu Fusako was still fighting for her cause, more passionate than ever. Soon she would have a small militia of hardened, trained revolutionaries to call her own. Escaping the chaos and self-destruction of the United Red Army in Japan, Shigenobu was about to emblazon the name of her movement across the world. She would do so by turning to terrorism of a type her revolutionary brothers and sisters back in Japan could barely imagine. For the next two decades, she would make the imperialist world fear the name of the Japanese Red Army.
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Previously In This Series
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.
Farrell, William R. “Blood and Rage: The Story of the Japanese Red Army.” Lexington Books, 1990.