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Japan’s Red Army founder Fusako Shigenobu after her release from jail on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Japan’s Red Army founder Fusako Shigenobu is free after 20 years, and that has many seeing red

  • The founder of the now-disbanded Japanese Red Army militant organisation committed a string of terrorist attacks around the world in the 1970s and 1980s
  • The 76-year-old was incarcerated for her role in the armed attack on the French embassy in The Hague in September 1974

As she emerged from prison on Saturday morning, Fusako Shigenobu was surrounded by a small group of believers. Supporters of one of the founders of the Japanese Red Army terrorist organisation appear to be vastly outnumbered in Japanese society, however, with most people believing she got off lightly for her group’s reign of global terror in the 1970s and 1980s.

Some say she should do everything she can to compensate the families of the people her organisation murdered, while others say she should face the full extent of the law for more than a dozen other terrorist incidents. Perhaps the most charitable believe that she should simply fade into obscurity, so the nation would not have to be reminded of her militant philosophies.

Now 76 and being treated for cancer, Shigenobu left the medical wing of a Tokyo prison after completing a 20-year sentence for her role in the armed attack on the French embassy in The Hague in September 1974. Two Dutch police officers sustained gunshot wounds in the attack, while the French ambassador and a number of his staff were held captive. Ultimately, the hostages were exchanged for a jailed member of the group, US$300,000 in cash and a flight to Syria.

Japanese police step up hunt for ageing militants on the run since 1970s

Shigenobu did not take part in the attack but was later convicted of involvement in its planning.

She was not, however, formally charged with plotting the 1972 massacre at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport, in which 26 people were killed and a further 80 wounded. She also avoided being charged with a series of aircraft hijackings, hostage-taking incidents in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and the Philippines. Red Army terrorists also launched mortar bomb attacks on Western embassies in Jakarta and Rome, while a bomb at a bar at a US military facility in the Italian city of Naples in April 1988 left five dead.
On international wanted lists since the early 1970s, Shigenobu is believed to have left the Middle East in the early 1990s and returned to Japan undetected. She slipped back into the role of a middle-aged Japanese housewife in a suburb of Osaka until her arrest in November 2000.
Fusako Shigenobu, founder of the Japanese Red Army, is escorted by police after she was arrested in Osaka in November 2000. Photo: JiJi Press/AFP

She admitted that “mistakes” had been made, but added, “I am grateful that I have lived according to my desire to change the world for the better. I want to continue to reflect [on the past] and live with curiosity.”

Shigenobu’s release had been publicised and in addition to well-wishers, she was met by protesters who used loudhailers to demand she face punishment for the remainder of the Japanese Red Army’s crimes.

Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, believes she escaped relatively lightly.

Upon her release, Shigenobu told reporters, “I apologise for causing damage to people that I did not know. Now, I would like to focus on my medical treatment.”

Japanese Red Army former member Fusako Shigenobu (L) was released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence for committing terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 1980s. Photo: EPA-EFE/JiJi Press

“She was a founder of the organisation, she was a leader and she planned these attacks,” Shimada said. “Many innocent people died. I believe the 20-year sentence is far too light and that other attacks should have been part of the case against her.”

Shimada says it is “very unlikely” that Shigenobu will still be able to attract a following and he feels that many of her political beliefs have been “discredited” by time. Yet it is possible that a publisher might be tempted to offer her a contract for her memoirs.

“I do not necessarily think that is a bad thing as it would allow the rest of the world to see just what a terrorist is and how she thought,” he said. “But I also believe that if she does write her memoirs, all the profits should go to charity or the relatives of the group’s victims.”

Ken Kato, a registered member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan and an activist for conservative causes, believes that if the Japanese Red Army’s other attacks had been taken into consideration, she would have been given a life sentence.

Japan’’s Red Army founder Fusako Shigenobu is pictured at the moment of her release from jail. Photo: AFP

Unfortunately, too much time passed for the Japanese police to prepare a solid case on those other charges, while the statute of limitation on some had already expired.

“Her apology did not sound genuine to me and she was trying to distance herself by saying the attacks took place 50 years ago,” he said. “That may be true, but the relatives of the dead and those who were badly injured will never forget what happened.”

Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, pointed out that while people who complete a prison term in other countries are believed to have paid their debts to society, there is less tolerance in Japanese society.

“At the very least, she now has to disappear from the public eye and live the rest of her life quietly,” she said. “Society will not tolerate someone who has committed crimes such as this not keeping a low profile from now on.”