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Japanese Red Army Founder Arrested in Japan

After eluding police for a quarter of a century the notorious founder of the Japanese Red Army was arrested on Wednesday in Osaka, Japan. Fusako Shigenobu, 55, was arrested as she left a hotel in Takatsuki, near Osaka with two men. According to police sources, she had been hiding in Osaka since mid-July. There was some speculation that Shigenobu had been conferring with supporters at the hotel just before her arrest.

Shigenobu was on the international wanted list for at attack in 1974 on the French embassy in the The Hague. She is thought to have masterminded the attack, in which members of her group took the ambassador hostage in return for the release of an imprisoned comrade.


Known as “the empress,” Shigenobu led the extreme leftist Japanese Red Army since its founding. Originally a member of the leftist Red Army Faction, she traveled to Lebanon in 1971 to assist the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). There she founded the Japanese Red Army as a separate entity. She allegedly entered Beirut by masquerading as the wife of leftist Takeshi Okudaira, who became a leading member of her organization.

Born out of the 1960s anti-Vietnam War movement, the Japanese Red Army advocated the end of capitalism the influence of the United States. Like other communist groups of the 1970’s it allied itself with the Palestinian groups and called for the destruction of Israel.

Its initial fight against the presence of U.S. forces in Japan drew the attention of the Japanese authorities and forced many of the main instigators to leave the country. In the early 1970s the Japanese Red Army began to gain notoriety with a series of high-profile hijackings, kidnappings and murders.

On March 31, 1970, nine JRA members armed with samurai swords hijacked a Japan Airlines (JAL) Boeing 727 jetliner carrying 131 passengers and seven crew plane and forced it to land in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

In 1974, three JRA members, armed with handguns and other small arms, seized the French embassy at the Hague and took 11 members of staff hostage, including the French ambassador. The siege lasted five days until France agreed to free a jailed colleague in return for the hostages’ release.

However, the group’s deadliest attack was on May 30, 1972 at Israel’s international airport at Lod. Three Japanese Red Army members carried out a machine gun and grenade attack in the arrivals terminal that killed 25 people–most of them Christian pilgrims–and injured another 80.

Once one of the world’s most feared terrorist groups, the Japanese Red Army never enjoyed much of a following in Japan. Its last documented attack was the bombing a U.S. military facility in Naples, Italy in 1988. Since then, membership in the group has dwindled and is now thought to number only several dozens. There were reports that some of its members were seeking to move out of the group’s traditional base in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley since 1993.


Earlier this year Japanese police became concerned that the Japanese Red Army was seeking to rebuild its bases in Japan. They stepped up their search for Shigenobu and other wanted Red Army members. In late July, they received a tip off that “a woman who looks like Shigenobu is in Osaka.”

In October, police conducted surveillance of an apartment in Nishinari Ward, Osaka, where she was believed to be staying. Photos of the suspect were at first met with skepticism, since they showed little resemblance to the long-haired woman whose face had become internationally known 30 years back.

However, the final proof of identity was made by comparing fingerprints on record and those lifted from beverage bottles the suspect had discarded outside the apartment. The anonymous woman living in the unremarkable apartment was indeed Fusako Shigenobu.

Still at large

In May the Lebanese government extradited four members of the Japanese Red Army who had been serving terms in Lebanese prisons for their involvement in hijackings and hostage-takings. The four were Mariko Yamamoto, Kazuo Tohira, Haruo Wako and Masao Adachi. Upon their arrival in Japan, the men were taken into custody by Tokyo police.

Haruo Wako, one of those extradited from Lebanon was among the hostage-takers at the French embassy in 1974. He is now on trial in the Tokyo District court, where, on September 20, he pleaded guilty to confining embassy staff and to shooting and injuring police officers.

A second suspect, Junzo Okudaira, is still at large and on an international wanted list. Junzo Okudaira is wanted also for the seizure of the U.S. and Swedish embassies Kuala Lumpur on 4 August 1975. The attacks resulted in the release of several Red Army members from prison.

Of the nine JRA members who hijacked the Japan Airlines passenger jet to Pyongyang, three of the nine have since died and another two were arrested when they slipped out of North Korea. The remaining four were granted political asylum in North Korea, where they are still living with their families. Their extradition to Japan has been one of the issues hindering normalization of ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

However, one of the most notorious of all, Kozo Okamoto, who carried out the massacre at Lod airport was granted political asylum by Lebanon. Okamoto was the sole survivor of the three men who carried out the attack. He was arrested for the attack by Israeli security forces, but was freed in 1985 in an exchange of prisoners between Israeli and Palestinian forces.

Four additional members of the Japanese Red Army have been arrested in the Philippines, Romania, Peru and Nepal, while six additional members are still being sought by police in Japan.

Sources: The Japan Times, Asahi Shimbun, Associated Press, Reuters, AFP