Shigenobu Fusako, Japanese Red Army Leader, to be Released from Prison this Month


As May of 2022 dawns, Shigenobu Fusako – former leader of the now-defunct international Japanese Red Army – is closer to freedom than ever before.

Shigenobu was first detained some twenty-one years ago, in November of 2000. By that point, she’d been on the run from Japanese and international authorities for decades, having spent years in hideouts around the Middle East. Shigenobu’s sudden arrest in Osaka, where she’d lived after entering the country using a fake passport, was major news; after all, Shigenobu had been the elusive international face of Japan’s most infamous terrorist group.

The Japanese Red Army had gone quiet after 1988, following one last bombing attack on a USO club, which killed five; in that same month, JRA operative Kikumura Yu had been arrested on the New Jersey Turnpike, the trunk of his rental car full of explosives. Since then, the once-prolific terrorist group had faded from world headlines. Then, in 2000, Shigenobu Fusako – the “mistress of mayhem” – was suddenly back in the public spotlight.

Now, after two decades in a Tokyo prison, Shigenobu is set to be quietly released, whereupon she will be able to live a free life in her home country for the first time since the 1970s. Her release is scheduled for May 28th.

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Shigenobu Fusako: “Mistress of Mayhem”

Shigenobu came of age during the tumultuous post-war years in Japan. A time of great change, the 1950s and 1960s saw a massive surge in public participation in protest culture against the Japanese state. While publically popular among various demographics, the beating heart of this movement was found on college campuses. Major rallying points included opposition to the US-Japan Joint Security Treaty (AMPO), the Vietnam War, and Okinawa’s then-ongoing occupation by the US military.

By the time she was of university age, Shigenobu Fusako – socially-minded since her youth – came under the influence of radical student leftist Shiomi Takaya, then-leader of the Red Army Faction. Shiomi’s RAF was on the violent fringe of the mass student leftist movement of the 1960s and 70s. She quickly rose to become the only woman on the Red Army Faction’s Central Committee. When Shiomi was imprisoned following the discovery of a plot to kidnap the prime minister, the RAF merged with another fringe group to form the United Red Army. In 1971, Shigenobu, a Shiomi disciple who believed in internationalist revolution and who disliked the direction the URA was heading, used the opportunity to flee Japan and the watchful eye of the Japanese police. Her goal was to take the pedestrian domestic actions of the Red Army in Japan global. In Lebanon, she formed the international Japanese Red Army alongside the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Images from a magazine feature on Shigenobu Fusako.

Back in Japan, the United Red Army collapsed in a horrific fit of self-directed violence, ending with a ten-day-long standoff with police in a besieged mountainside inn. The domestic reaction to the URA self-purge and hostage situation spelled the end of popular support for the New Left in Japan. Abroad, however, Shigenobu would seemingly lead her Japanese Red Army on nearly two decades of headline-stealing mayhem: high-profile hijackings, bombings, hostage-takings, and killings. Perhaps the most infamous of these attacks was the 1972 Lod Airport Massacre; three Japanese JRA members disembarked from an Air France airplane at Israel’s Lod Airport and, wielding machine guns and grenades, began an attack that would leave 26 dead and over seventy wounded, some grievously. The majority of those killed were Christian Puerto Rican pilgrims.

An Israeli soldier looks at blood spilled during the Lod Airport Massacre, which Shigenobu Fusako is believed to have masterminded.
Aftermath of the Lod Airport Massacre.

A Wanted Woman

INTERPOL added Shigenobu Fusako to their wanted list following the JRA’s 1974 French Embassy attack in The Hague. From that point onwards, Shignobu was wanted by Japan, Israel, and much of the international community at large. In Japan, the JRA’s activities abroad had caused much embarrassment and stress for the government; in Israel, the Mossad wanted to track down the masterminds behind the Lod Massacre.

In Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and beyond, however, Shigenobu was a hero who had put her own life at risk in order to help liberate Palestine. Despite her wanted status, Shigenobu, living out of various PFLP staging and refugee camps, continued to act as spokesman for the JRA, appearing on Arabic-language TV and in Japanese-language JRA propaganda and carefully curated media interviews. During this time she gave birth to a daughter, Shigenobu Mei, who would grow up among the refugee camps.

Indeed, Shigenobu is still hailed as a heroic revolutionary to this day within some far-left/Palestinian liberation spaces. The Japanese Red Army continued to tout itself as a group of revolutionaries, not terrorists, even as their tally of victims grew. Shigenobu Mei, Shigenobu Fusako’s daughter, is now an international journalist, working in Japanese, English, and Arabic; she speaks of the JRA in the same breath as she does Gandhi and Nelson Mandela; she insists the Lod Massacre was carried out by a separate group of Japanese leftists, [1] despite one of the three gunmen having been Okudaira Tsuyoshi – Shigenobu Fusako’s legal husband and fellow Red Army member. Testimony from arrested JRA operatives cited the embarrassment of the terrible URA purge as the inciting reason for the Lod Massacre; Shigenobu and Okudaira needed to stage an event that would prove their revolutionary bona fides and dissociate them from the URA.

While the deadly effects of the Lod Massacre were held as a mass tragedy in Puerto Rico and Israel (an annual day of mourning was even put into place by the Puerco Rican government), it was indeed seen as a great success in revolutionary circles in Japan and in much of the Arab world.

Shigenobu Fusako and PFLP spokesman Ghassan Kanafani, with posters of Mao in background.
Shigenobu Fusako and PFLP spokesman Ghassan Kanafani.

The Gendered Nature of Terrorism

Shigenobu’s public persona as the evasive public leader of the JRA resulted in peculiar associations with her image. The gendered nature of narratives on Shigenobu has been a pendulum swinging both ways; in the Japan of the 1970s, both Shigenobu and URA leader (and cold-blooded murderer) Nagata Hiroko were held up as examples of the “unnatural” place women had in far-left movements. Both were seen as cautionary tales. In Shigenobu’s case, her perceived beauty added another layer; her “dangerous woman” qualities were a subject of fascination for the male gaze, and older writings on Shigenobu would often focus on the purported “honey pot” effect she could have on potential recruits for the JRA.

On the other side of the coin, Shigenobu’s prominence as a terrorist/revolutionary in a decidedly masculine theater has also been seen as inspirational, even liberatory. In this sense, she’s often listed alongside the equally controversial likes of Palestinian hijacker and convicted terrorist Leila Khaled; in fact, the two knew each other well from their time amongst the PFLP in Lebanon.

Shigenobu Fusako, Leila Khaled, and Japanese director Wakamatsu Koji. Beirut, 1971.

Only a few years ago, South Korean-born, US-raised conceptual artist Anicka Yi designed a perfume in tribute to the once-leader of the JRA: Shignobu Twilight. Yi reportedly idolized Shigenobu from a young age, impressed by images of the bold revolutionary holding a machine gun. According to a website that recently sold the perfume (which was listed for $250):

“The first volume in the Biography series, Shigenobu Twilight, is inspired by Fusako Shigenobu, fabled leader of the Japanese Red Army. The perfume’s esoteric notes intimate metaphors of Shigenobu’s stateless existence, exiled in Lebanon while yearning for her native Japan. Originally designed in 2007 by Yi and architect Maggie Peng, Shigenobu Twilight has been specially reformulated for the Biography series by perfumer Barnabé Fillion.”

On the Run

Shigenobu Fusako gained an almost supernatural reputation for avoiding capture, managing to make press appearances, publish books, and raise her stateless daughter without being caught. Even though her close collaborator, Ghassan Kanafani, was killed by the Mossad in reprisal for the Lod Massacre, Shigenobu never faced imprisonment or assassination by Israel. This all occurred despite being one of the most recognizable terrorists worldwide during the 70s and 80s.

In the 1990s, as the Soviet Union fell and the PLO entered into a peace agreement with Israel, she began slipping back into Japan using forged documents. It is claimed that she did so well over a dozen times. However, reports of a woman resembling Shigenobu, whose youthful face had for so long been plastered on Japanese wanted posters, reached the Osaka police; although she hid a distinctive facial mole using makeup, her method of smoking – also considered unique – is said to have given her away. The police matched fingerprints on a cup used at a hotel where witnesses said they saw Shigenobu to help track her down.

Then, in November 2000, the police finally made their move; the arrest set off a media firestorm, and she was transported in a secured green car on the bullet train back to her native Tokyo. In 2001, while in jail awaiting trial, Shigenobu officially disbanded the Japanese Red Army. She was tried on counts of illegal confinement and conspiracy to commit murder as related to her planning of the attack in The Hauge. While the prosecution angled for a life sentence, the court eventually decided on twenty years; she was ruled guilty of providing weapons and asking the PFLP to carry out the attack in order to free imprisoned JRA members, but the exact nature of her leadership could not be ascertained. During the sentencing, the judge said:

“She sees her doctrine and assertations as absolute truths, having committed selfish criminal offensives for which she gave no mind to the danger towards the lives and bodies of so many. We can ascertain no serious remorse [from Shigenobu Fusako].”

Shigenobu under police arrest.

Last Days of Imprisonment

Shigenobu’s arrest allowed her daughter to step out of the shadows; Mei obtained Japanese citizenship, and has used her status as a journalist and person of interest to push for her mother’s release. Following the conviction, Mei immediately petitioned for an appeal. This appeal was rejected by the Tokyo Higher Court in 2007; her final appeal was subsequently rejected in 2010 by the Supreme Court of Japan. An objection towards this was also thrown out.

Since that time, Shigenobu Fusako has been imprisoned, at times giving interviews in which she has expressed a certain degree of regret at JRA failures and now-outmoded methods. She is now 76 years old; letters released to the media some days ago stated that “my life after release will be filled with apologies, gratitude, rehabilitation, and fighting my illness.” She also states that she intends to live a life “full of curiosity,” and is looking forward to meeting her supporters. [2]

Ghosts of the Red Army

The release of someone like Shigenobu Fusako brings with it competing reactions. For those close to her, or those who view her actions throughout her life positively, it should be a much-delayed happy event. But for many, she is still seen as a relatively unrepentant former terrorist, someone who – although for idealistic reasons – founded a violent group that killed and harmed many. That those events took place in a completely different sociopolitical environment, and that, on the whole, the JRA’s efforts were failures that only served to cause harm and create a cycle of taking hostages to barter for the release of their own captured members, may result in some ambivalence. It all seems like something from long ago, in an era when the Soviet Union and the United States dominated the globe through Cold War politics. Yet survivors of the JRA attacks still live on, and people still miss loved ones. Many JRA members remain on the lam; their decades-old mugshots still grace wanted posters in Japanese police boxes and consulate waiting rooms.

Shigenobu Fusako’s release is yet another milestone in the now half-century-long story of the Japanese Red Army. Time will tell as to what her part in the remainder of that story will be. Her one-time mentor, Shiomi Takaya, was released from jail in late 1989; he went on to pursue a limited, unsuccessful political career within the confines of the law, doing so while holding a low-paying job as a parking lot attendant and making the rounds to discuss the nature of the Japanese New Left. He died in 2017 at age 76 – the same age his younger protegee, Shigenobu Fusako, is now.

JRA expert Patricia G. Steinhoff described Shiomi, emerging from a jail cell to begin life with a family he hardly knew, as a Rip Van Winkle (or, more fittingly, Urashima Taro). The world of New Left radicalism he’d known until his sudden arrest had disappeared during his two decades in jail. Shigenobu will also emerge into a completely new era, one even farther divorced from that in which she first came to prominence. How she will receive that world, and how that world will receive her, remains to be seen.

Wanted posters for Japanese Red Army operatives still at large.
Wanted posters for Japanese Red Army operatives still at large. Photo by author.

What to Read Next:

Sanrizuka: The Battle for Narita Airport

What to Watch Next:

Episode one of our five-part series on the history of the Japanese Red Army.

Japanese Red Army: Homegrown Terror

Bombings, battles with the police, hijackings…and that was just the beginning. The tale of the birth of the revolutionary group that would shock Japan – an…


[2] Kyodo. (4/27/2022). 手紙で「出所後は謝罪と闘病」 5月刑期満了の重信房子受刑者. Yahoo! News Japan.

Steinhoff, Patricia G. (1996.) Three Women Who Loved the Left: Radical Woman Leaders in the Japanese Red Army Movement. In Re-Iminaging Japanese Women.

[1] O’Hare, Liam. (14/04/2018). May Shigenobu, child of the revolution. Aljazeera.


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