Fusako Shigenobu: the face of female armed resistance in Japan

TOKYO (Reuters) – The co-founder of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) militant group was released from prison on Saturday after serving a 20-year sentence and apologized for hurting innocent people.

“I have a deep feeling that I finally got out alive,” she said, greeted by her daughter and a crowd of reporters and supporters in Tokyo.

“I hurt innocent people I didn’t know by putting our struggles first. Although these are different times, I would like to take this opportunity to deeply apologize,” Shigenobu said, The Associated Press reported. .

Fusako Shigenobu, 76, was found guilty of orchestrating the 1974 siege of the French Embassy in The Hague, Netherlands.

The Japanese Red Army, formed in 1971 and linked to Palestinian militants, took responsibility for several attacks, including the takeover of the US consulate in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1975.

Shigenobu first became radicalized in college, where she joined the student movement of 1960s Japan. The protests were directed not only against the Japanese government, but also against the American military presence in Japan and against the Vietnam War. As the decade progressed, she became increasingly involved in armed resistance and revolutionary politics, as rampant factionalism overtook the Japanese student movement.

In 1971, part of the group, led by Shigenobu, left Japan and went to Lebanon to support the Palestinian cause, where it joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Fusako Shigenobu and Ghassan Kanafani at the office of Al Hadaf magazine, Lebanon, 1972. (Samidoun)

While in Lebanon, Shigenobu began working for Al Hadaf magazine, the public relations office of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) alongside its editor Ghassan Kanafani, who was also a leading member of the PFLP.

Her position in the magazine bolstered Japanese support for the Palestinian cause by providing information to Japanese leftists regarding events on the ground and the Palestinian struggle, according to May Shigenobu in an interview with the Funambulist.

In May 1972, members of the JRA were allegedly involved in the machine gun and grenade attack on the international airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, which killed 28 people, including two terrorists, and injured dozens of people.

Although Shigenobu was not physically present during the attacks, she was forced to go into hiding for fear of Israeli reprisals against JRA members working with the PFLP. Arab media reported that Israel attempted to assassinate Shigenobu by bombing the buildings where she resided.

By this time she had become pregnant with her daughter named May who was born in 1973 and the two lived underground for the next 28 years.

While remaining underground, the Japanese volunteers of the PFLP decided to create a political organization in 1974. Shigenobu became the leader and spokesperson of this revolutionary left-wing internationalist organization which confronted the Japanese Red Army (and the Arab Red Army in his beginnings). They carried out several operations against “capitalist-imperialist entities” such as the Shell company in Singapore (1974), as well as demanded the release of political prisoners by occupying the French embassy in The Hague (1974) and the American consulate in Kuala Lumpur (1975). Shigenobu denied involvement in The Hague incident.

After the JRA became an independent entity in 1974, it sought to ensure the safety of civilians in all future operations. After a change in policy, all their militaristic operations ceased in the late 1980s. The group decided to continue its work focusing on grassroots support and solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Shigenobu was arrested in 2000 in Osaka, central Japan, where she was hiding. The government charged her with two counts of passport falsification and conspiracy in planning the 1974 hostage-taking operation at the French embassy in The Hague. Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, reported that the prosecution presented no concrete evidence of Shigenobu’s involvement and relied heavily on “forced” confessions taken in the 1970s and retracted by these witnesses during the trial. Ignoring these retractions, the judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison.

A year after her arrest, she declared the group disbanded.

Japanese media reported that Shigenobu underwent surgery for cancer while incarcerated.

After her release, Shigenobu commented on the use of the term “terrorist”, which she said was a designation dreamed up by the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan.

“I never thought of myself as a terrorist,” she said.

“At that time, armed forces, liberation forces and revolutionary organizations were the names given to armed political forces. The term “terrorist” is the product of efforts by the Reagan administration and the Israeli government to conceal the intentions and political backgrounds of dissidents and to criminalize them.

Shigenobu compared the “terrorists” in Palestine fighting for freedom against Israel to those fighting freedom for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Let’s assume that the struggle of the Ukrainian people against Russian aggression is heroic. In that case, I want them to know that the Palestinian struggle against Israeli aggression and annexation is not terrorism but a heroic struggle,” she said.

Regarding the illegal acquisition and use of other people’s passports for which she was convicted in Japan, Shigenobu apologized and said, “It was a shameful act as a human being.” However, she proclaims her innocence concerning the attack against the French Embassy in The Hague.

“I took the case to the Supreme Court, but it was thrown out and I served my sentence,” she said.

“Of course I was dissatisfied and discussed the possibility of a new trial with my lawyer. The reprisals, brutal attacks and condemnations against the former activities of the already disbanded JRA were against me and those who had fought as leaders of the group. Under such circumstances, I gave up trying to retrial because I believed that I could enrich my life by accepting my pain of taking responsibility as a person in a position of leadership and living positively. I don’t want the security police and their associates to interfere with my new life.

Shigenobu has been referred to as both a Japanese terrorist, known as the “Empress of Terror” and a freedom fighter, considered both a terrorist and a hero. Despite the relativity of this debate, his unwavering devotion to the Palestinian cause remains indisputable.

This article was originally published in Japanese on Arab News Japan