The complex legacy of Fusako Shigenobu's years in the Middle East

The Japanese leftist leader wanted revolution, but it didn't come the way she intended

Japanese Red Army former member Fusako Shigenobu (C) waves as she is welcomed by supporters after being released from prison in Tokyo, Japan, on May 28, 2022. EPA
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Early in the morning on May 28, Fusako Shigenobu – at one time, the most wanted Japanese woman in the world – was released from prison in Tokyo after serving more than 20 years for her activities as leader of the far-left Japanese Red Army (JRA). Now, 76 and in poor health, Shigenobu was met by her supporters and daughter outside, where she gave a short statement to the media.

Her release was widely reported domestically and internationally, just as the JRA’s hijackings and embassy seizures in the name of the Palestinian cause received sensational media coverage in the 1970s.

But who really is Fusako Shigenobu? A vicious former terrorist now defeated and disgraced, or a committed activist who employed divisive means for achieving particular goals?

We are confronted by two versions of her: the prevalent public image, supported by the mainstream media and government and police accounts, of Shigenobu as a dangerous radical, a femme fatale who lured men over from Japan to the Middle East to take part in missions; and another image of her as a leftist icon, a passionate activist who took up arms to make a contribution to the Palestinian struggle.

Neither narrative is fully accurate.

Shigenobu was not “the empress of terror”, as she is frequently described, nor did she participate directly in missions as a female fighter in the same way that, for instance, her Palestinian contemporary Leila Khaled did. Despite common misconceptions (repeated in media coverage of her release), Shigenobu was almost certainly not personally involved in the 1972 attack at Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion Airport), which was planned entirely by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

That infamous operation was carried out by three Japanese men and left 28 dead, including two of the perpetrators. Most of the victims were Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico of American nationality. At the time, the deaths were met with horror and shock by the world, which struggled to understand why Japanese leftists were attacking Israel. Though the authorities described it as an indiscriminate massacre, the JRA claimed the civilians were killed in the crossfire.

Yes, Shigenobu was nominally married to one of the attackers, but this was a ruse so that she could leave Japan with a different name. Shigenobu arrived in Lebanon in 1971 with the aim of volunteering for the Palestinian cause, and started working for the PFLP’s English-language newspaper with the author Ghassan Kanafani. The Lod operation was handled by the PFLP wholly separately from Shigenobu and before the JRA even formally existed (though the latter retroactively claimed credit for the incident).

Shigenobu was not 'the empress of terror', as she is frequently described

Later, Shigenobu did indeed organise the other Japanese activists in the Middle East into the JRA and the group carried out several operations with the PFLP or independently.

The hijackings and embassy seizures that sparked so many headlines in the 1970s were arguably more pragmatic than ideological: the JRA’s operations were preceded by the arrests of its comrades, and the goal, according to the hijackers’ stated demands, was to secure their release.

The JRA essentially went off the radar after its final hijacking in 1977, which successfully netted the release of several more peers. After this point, despite rumours of involvement with other terrorist incidents, the JRA never publicly claimed credit for any further operations, and its members were rather occupied with humanitarian and grassroots activism (and with surviving the Lebanese Civil War). Though often regarded as a beautiful woman living a mysterious fugitive life in the Middle East, the truth about Shigenobu’s existence was probably more mundane.

It was not until after Shigenobu’s arrest in 2000 and she had formally disbanded the JRA in 2001 that many details about its activities began to emerge.

What, then, is the real legacy of Shigenobu? Not revolution, which never materialised from the JRA’s actions (or any part of the New Left movement in Japan). Not violence, which has been roundly rejected by the Japanese public as a means of achieving political change.

No, her most lasting contribution is arguably one far less exciting or glamorous, for some, than the image of a female leader of a terrorist organisation would have us believe. It is as someone who dedicated herself to supporting what was for many a neglected cause. In 1970, much of the world was rightly focused on the suffering of the Vietnamese, but Shigenobu became drawn to the Palestinians. This interest would inspire her to leave activism in Japan behind to pursue something more ambitious.

The JRA’s hijackings certainly succeeded in raising awareness about Palestine, but at the cost of innocent people and notoriety that overshadowed its other efforts. The pen may ultimately be mightier than the Kalashnikov: Shigenobu has published numerous articles and books since the 1970s to the present that provide insights into her mindset and, perhaps more importantly, have helped share information in Japanese about the Palestinians, whose plight still receives relatively little attention from the mainstream media in Japan.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has triggered an outpouring of support from countries across the world, including Japan, which even loosened its strict policy on refugees to allow in fleeing Ukrainians. But while the world media understandably concentrates its attention on the horrors in Ukraine, other peoples also continue to suffer, from the Kurds to the Rohingya, Uyghurs, and Palestinians. She will be remembered by many as someone who was willing to travel to a distant region of the globe and commit herself to a difficult and dangerous life campaigning on behalf of the downtrodden and forgotten.

As Shigenobu’s daughter, May, recently wrote: “I experienced first-hand the love and dedication [my mother] had not just for me, but for all people and especially those who are oppressed...She taught me not only to be kind, or that all discrimination is unjust, but that we must work to end such injustices.”

The more militant methods Shigenobu used were unjustifiable even by her own admission, as she was honest about recognising her past errors, even if she still believed the cause to be right. During her trial, she apologised for adopting means that caused harm, such as taking hostages. Following her release, she was similarly penitent, expressing remorse “for harming innocent people by prioritising our fight”. Here, then, is another legacy: a rare willingness in radical politics to admit a mistake. Looking to the future, Shigenobu said she next wants “to study”. True revolution begins with learning.

Published: June 14, 2022, 2:00 PM