The Japanese terrorists who fought to free Palestine

The amazing true story of how a group of Japanese revolutionaries became champions of the Palestinian cause, and one of the most notorious terrorist groups in the world.


Just the Basics

  • Draw to the Palestinian struggle, the Japanese Red Army (JRA) attacked Israel in 1972

  • The JRA would team up with the PLO to become one of most notorious terror groups of the 1970s and 1980s

  • Ageing JRA members in Lebanon continue to be feted as heroes by Hamas and Fatah


The summer of 1972 was bookended by two major terrorist attacks against Israel: the 1972 Munich Olympic attack and the Lod airport massacre. The former remains one of the most well known terror attacks in history, the subject of many dramatizations, both in print and film. Occurring in Germany during a time when international attention was focused on the country due to the Olympics, the Munich attack benefited from the global media frenzy that ensued. The latter incident on the other hand, is virtually forgotten outside of Israel, simply enumerated as one of many acts of violence in the Middle East during the tumultuous 1970s.

The hostility which characterized (and continues to characterize) relations between Israel and the various Palestinian liberation movements has long been a staple element in the regional dynamic. Yet the Lod attack highlights an often overlooked facet of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the role of foreign nationals. What makes the Lod attack so interesting is that it was carried out in the name of Palestinian resistance, but not by Palestinians, not even persons of Middle Eastern descent. The Lod airport massacre, which left 26 people dead, was the handiwork of pro-Palestinian terrorists from Japan.

The perpetrators of the attack were members of the Japanese Red Army (JRA), a radical leftist group which quickly rose to international infamy in the early 1970s as one of the most notorious terrorist organizations in the world. A staunch ally of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the JRA planned attacks across three continents during its thirty year anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist struggle.

This Palestinian-Japanese connection is one of the most bizarre in recent history, highlighting the fact that issues of transnational terror organizations, as well as the movement of foreign fighters are not new phenomena. Nevertheless, it is intriguing to discover that Japanese terrorists were running amok in the Middle East (and further abroad) ten to twenty years before either Hamas, Hezbollah, or Al-Qaeda.

Romantic revolutionaries: From Japan to the Middle East

The creation story behind the JRA mirrors that of many other radical leftist movements in the 1970s. The principal players in what would become the JRA became radicalised during the worldwide increase in protest movements during and after 1968. The founder and leader of the JRA, Fusako Shigenobu, (like many of her contemporaries around the world) became politicized at university during the wave of anti-war, anti-establishment protests in 1968-1969. Growing up poor in the chaos of post-war Japan, Shigenobu eventually found herself studying at Meiji University, where she entered student politics. It was during her time at university that she became aware of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

 

Fusako Shigenobu spent thirty years on the run in the Middle East. | JAPAN TIMES via Children of the Revolution TRANSMISSION FILMS 2011

 

The JRA's precursor group - the Red Army Faction (RAF) - announced their declaration of war against the Japanese state in 1969, with the group coming to national attention in the early 1970s for their deadly purges of RAF members not deemed revolutionary enough, as well as a ten day hostage crisis in early 1972 which left two police officers dead. After this incident the remnants of the group were arrested, and the organization’s presence in Japan was effectively over. Consequently, the JRA had little to no presence in Japan itself, although it maintained its opposition the Japanese government and monarchy.

Shigenobu already at odds with the RAF’s direction under its leader Tsuneo Mori, escaped being purged by leaving Japan in 1971 to set up international branches of the RAF, notably in the Middle East. Once abroad the geographical and ideological differences between Shigenobu and Mori only came into sharper focus, with the former leaving the RAF to create the JRA in 1971. Moreover, the RAF’s rapid collapse in the aftermath of the aforementioned purge and hostage crisis rendered moot any continuing allegiance to the group.

In their life they hold guns the same way as they hold pens [...] I am moved by the [Palestinian] people because it seems they regard fighting as part of their everyday life.
— Kunio Bando, JRA member in Lebanon

Shigenobu created the JRA as part of an effort to aid other anti-imperialist struggles around the world, as well as to establish a network of international resistance organizations which could coordinate in order to achieve their respective aims. To this end, the JRA was founded in Lebanon in 1971, with Shigenobu reaching out to Palestinian resistance groups, such as the PFLP. While the PFLP welcomed the assistance of foreign volunteers, they initially remained sceptical about the JRA’s commitment to the Palestinian cause.

Having failed to invoke any meaningful change or groundswell of support in Japan under the RAF brand, the PFLP represented the kind of revolutionary ideal that Shigenobu and others had aspired to. Speaking to the Japan Times in 2017, Shigenobu recalls that “at the time, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was leading an armed struggle to liberate the whole of Palestine [...] On the other hand, in Japan I couldn’t help but think that our fight was one that didn’t involve the [Japanese] people [...] our tactics weren’t in line with the actualities of Japanese society.”

One can see a certain romanticism in accounts by JRA members on the Palestinian struggle. “When I watch the Palestinian and Lebanese people’s way of fighting, they have a clear vision of who their real enemies are,” writes Kunio Bando, a JRA member in Lebanon. “In their life they hold guns the same way as they hold pens [...] I am moved by the people because it seems they regard fighting as part of their everyday life.”

In order to assuage the concerns of the PFLP, and garner credibility as an anti-imperialist (and by extension anti-Zionist) organization, the JRA orchestrated the attack on Lod (now Ben Gurion International) airport in May 1972. The group arrived in Lod on an Air France flight from Rome, and despite the heightened security at the Israeli end, their very foreignness contributed to the success of the attack.

Israeli security officials were on the lookout for potential Arab (specifically Palestinian) terrorists and as such were completely fooled by the arrival of a group of Japanese attackers. Indeed, even the Japanese public initially refused to believe reports about the identity of the attackers; it was only after the Japanese embassy confirmed that the terrorists were in fact Japanese that those back home began to wrap their heads around this fact.

 

A 1997 wanted poster issued by Japanese police featuring Shigenobu (top left) and other JRA members | JAPAN TIMES via KYODO

 

Dressed in conservative business attire, the group attracted little attention, with their carry-on luggage dismissed as attaché cases or draughtsman bags. In reality, these satchels housed disassembled machine guns and grenades. After debarking, the group promptly revealed their weapons, and began indiscriminately firing and throwing grenades into the crowd.

In short order, the three assailants killed twenty-four and injured another seventy-eight. One of the attackers was killed by his own misjudged grenade, while another appeared to have committed suicide with a grenade after being cornered by security forces. The third attacker, Kozo Okamoto, was wounded by security forces but eventually captured alive.

Along with the identity of the attackers, the origins of some of the victims only further highlighted the international nature of this attack. Specifically, seventeen Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico were among the dead; their deaths an added bonus from the perspective of the JRA and PFLP, as the attack had managed to kill both Israelis and American citizens.

The legacy of the attack continues to be felt, as May 30th now marks the annual Lod Massacre Remembrance Day in Puerto Rico. The families of the victims have also waged a long legal battle for justice, with a U.S federal court finding North Korea guilty of aiding the JRA, and fining the country $300 million for its role in the 1972 attack: no response has been forthcoming from Pyongyang.

The Japanese Red Army goes global

The Lod attack rocketed the JRA to international attention, and secured it the support of the PFLP. The attack also marked the first of a string of brazen operations by the JAR. In 1973, the JAR hijacked a Japan Airlines flight to the Netherlands, before flying the plane to Libya, releasing the hostages, and destroying the aircraft. In early 1974, the group attacked a Shell facility in Singapore, while the PFLP launched a synchronized attack on the Japanese embassy in Kuwait. The same year also saw the JAR storm the French embassy in The Hague, ransom the hostages and escape to Syria by way of South Yemen.

 

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In 1975, the JAR captured over fifty hostages after taking over the American Insurance Association (AIA) building in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Again, after receiving a ransom, the attackers fled to safety onboard a plane to Libya. Another joint operation with the PFLP took place in 1976, with the attack on Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul, which left four dead. The following year, the JRA successfully hijacked a Japan Airlines flight over India, forcing it to land in Bangladesh. As in other operations, the group garnered a hefty ransom. 1977 also saw the crash of a Malaysian Airlines flight with the deaths of all on board, after a hijacker believed to be affiliated with the JRA seized control.

In the years to come, the JRA would carry out attacks in Jakarta, Rome, Naples and Manilla, with foiled attacks in Romania and the United States. The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union damaged the fortunes of the JRA and many other armed leftist movements. The group continued to operate out of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon in the 1990s, although the Syrian government (which controlled the region at the time) disarmed them during this period in an attempt to curry favour with the U.S. Nevertheless, the JRA limped on, before finally disbanding in 2001, thirty years after its initial founding.

While the call of global proletarian revolution is muted in our times, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to simmer, a fact that has helped preserve the legacy of the JRA. While the group and its international legacy have largely been forgotten, septuagenarian JRA members still enjoy a degree of celebrity in the Levant. For instance, Fusako Shigenobu spent almost thirty years on the run in the Middle East, before being arrested in Osaka in 2000. She was sentenced to twenty years in prison in 2006 and has battled cancer in a medical prison ever since. Nevertheless she remains an outspoken critic of the Japanese government and continues to correspond with friends and the media.

 
 

A few years before Shigenobu’s arrest, a group of ageing JRA members found themselves incarcerated in Lebanon for trying to enter the country with forged documents. Sentenced to three years in prison in 1997, the group became a minor sensation in Lebanon, with one member, fifty-nine year old Masao Adachi, marrying JRA sympathizer Omayya Abboud while both were incarcerated in Beirut’s Roumieh prison in 2000.

Adachi’s best man at the wedding was none other than Najah Wakim, a member of the Lebanese parliament. “I wish all Lebanese would be proud of Adachi and Omayya’s wedding, and therefore would free these Japanese fighters and would grant them the Lebanese citizenship [sic],” proclaimed Wakim in a 2000 TV interview.

"The last samurai"

Do you recall Kozo Okamoto, the lone survivor of the Lod attack that we encountered earlier? Well his story is another interesting post-script in the JRA’s tale. Following the Lod attack, Okamoto was sentenced to life in prison in Israel, but thirteen years later was one of 1,150 prisoners released by Israel as part of the Jibril Deal - a prisoner exchange between Israel and various Palestinian groups. Okamoto is said to have spent some time in Libya and Syria before being detained in 1997 as part of the aforementioned group trying to illegally enter Lebanon.

It appears that Najah Wakim’s advocacy bore fruit, for after Okamoto’s release from prison in 2000, he was granted political asylum in Lebanon in recognition for his activities in resisting Israel. Since then, Okamoto has lived a quiet life in Lebanon, a minor celebrity followed everywhere by bodyguards provided by the PFLP. Whereas Shigenobu has come to reflect critically on the JRA’s legacy, Okamoto appears unrepentant. In a 2017 interview with Mainichi Shimbun, the sixty-nine year old Okamoto maintains that the Lod incident “wasn’t a terrorist attack; but an armed struggle started jointly with the PFLP. Now, like in the past, armed struggles become the best propaganda.”

 Kozo Okamoto speaking to the  Mainichi Shimbun  in 2017 |  MAINICHI SHIMBUN

Kozo Okamoto speaking to the Mainichi Shimbun in 2017 | MAINICHI SHIMBUN

Despite calls to extradite Okamoto to Japan, PFLP Lebanon branch leader, Marwan Abdelal believes it would not be right to incarcerate Okamoto in Japan, citing the time he has already spent in Israeli and Lebanese captivity. Abdelal, like Wakim and others, seems to have a soft spot for Okamoto, referring to him as “the last samurai” - a reference to his warrior spirit, as well as the eponymous Tom Cruise movie, in which a foreigner joins an underdog cause in a far-off land.

Okamoto’s peaceful retirement in Lebanon irks many in Israel, and his situation sparked anger in 2016 after Fatah’s Facebook page praised Okamoto on the anniversary of the attack. “A thousand greetings to the Japanese fighter and comrade Kozo Okamoto,” wrote Fatah, “the hero of the Lod airport operation.”

The Bottom Line

Anyone passing Okamoto or the other ageing JRA members on the streets of Lebanon would hardly pay them much notice. A cursory glance would lead most to conclude that they are elderly tourists, or perhaps expats far from home, enjoying a Mediterranean retirement in the sun. Look closer and you may notice the entourage of local toughs: are these Japanese pensioners perhaps fugitive yakuza patriarchs?

Even as you connect the dots and such musings enter your mind, the last thing you might conjecture - that these men are wanted terrorists feted by the instigators of the Intifadas - seems absurd. Now, as in the early 1970s, the notion of Japanese terrorists operating in the Middle East and fighting for Palestine seems so bizarre as to appear farcical. Nevertheless, these wrinkled warriors are the remnants of what was once one of the most notorious terror groups in the world: the Japanese Red Army.

Despite the RAF quickly fizzling out in Japan, these Japanese agents of global revolution found fertile ground in the Middle East. Aligning themselves with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the JRA under Fusako Shigenobu conducted attacks across three continents. From the Netherlands, to Turkey to the Philippines, the JRA conducted a spree of bombings, hijackings, kidnappings, and other attacks that brought the group to international attention.

Despite a string of successful operations, the goal of global revolution never materialized, nor did the more localized aim of riding Palestine of Israeli influence. Officially dissolved in 2001, the group’s grey haired members now find themselves either in jail or fading into obscurity in the Levantine sun.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.