This article is part of The Funambulist 41 (May-June 2022). On May 28, 2022, Fusako Shigenobu will be free from the Japanese prison where she was forced to spent the last 21.5 years. We wanted to celebrate her commitment to the liberation of Palestine in our current issue by commissioning a piece to her daughter, May Shigenobu. For the occasion, we placed May’s text in open access. You may order the issue if you’d like to have it on paper.
One month before the release of Fusako Shigenobu after she spent the last 21.5 years in a Japanese prison, we asked May Shigenobu to draw a political portrait of her mother as an homage to the incarnate example of internationalist solidarity. She describes Fusako’s early year of activism leading her to take high responsibilities in the Japanese Red Army before relocating to Beirut in order to play an active role in the Palestinian liberation struggle.
The morning of November 8, 2000 was cold yet sunny. I was chatting with my friends at the university in Beirut, preparing to attend my first class of the day, when my phone rang. “Is your family okay?”, the caller—a familiar voice—asked in a coded manner. I was suddenly made aware that something had happened to someone in my secret Japanese community, my family. I was no longer focused on my friends› conversations, nor on my classes, no matter how hard I tried. Finally, I gave in to my anxiety and headed back home to see if I could glean any information about what happened from the news.
In the span of less than a month, while my mother was being detained and interrogated by the Japanese government, she wrote a 200-page report describing our clandestine life as mother and daughter, on the floor of her detention cell. Thanks to this, I finally obtained my Japanese citizenship after 27 years of living as an undocumented and stateless person. The report was later published as a book, entitled I Gave Birth to You Under an Apple Tree (2001). It was the first of several books she would publish from prison.
Fusako Shigenobu was born in Setagaya, Tokyo, on September 28, 1945, the same month Japan formally signed the surrender to U.S. armed forces at the end of World War II. Fusako’s childhood and early life in post-war Japan was nothing out of the ordinary. She was the third of four children born in a poverty-stricken Japan to educated and previously privileged parents. Her father had worked as a volunteer teacher in Buddhist temple schools after World War I, and was later conscripted to join the Japanese Imperial Army. There, he joined a group of nationalist officers in order to rebel against the political elite, who were profiting off Japan’s imperialist wars of expansion in Asia. For his participation in this group, he was punished and exiled to Manchuria, which was under Japanese colonial rule at the time. For much of her early life, Fusako was overshadowed by her nationalist activist father, and remained apolitical.
After graduating from high school Fusako began working at a multinational corporation called Kikkoman. This was an elite, white collar job that would have put her on a steady path toward lifetime employment and thus membership in Japan’s economic elite. However, her motivation for working at Kikkoman was primarily to put herself through college. After years of working evening shifts, she would eventually earn a dual degree in Political Economy and History.
The normalcy in her life stopped on her first day of attending Meiji University, when she joined a student sit-in protesting tuition hikes at the university, an issue that directly affected her as a working student. From that day on, she was awakened to the world of student activism by Zengakuren, a league of student associations that was initially concerned with campus issues, workers rights, and poverty, but later evolved to the radical New-Left activism of anti-Vietnam war, anti-AMPO security pact between Japan and the U.S., as well as anti-capitalism and global anti-imperialism. In 1969, Fusako joined the radical Red Army Faction (RAF) and rose up its ranks to finally become head of the International Relations Bureau.
In 1970, at a time when international attention was focused on the U.S. war in Vietnam, Fusako was introduced to an Arabist in Japan and started to learn about the Palestinian struggle against Israeli settler colonialism and occupation. This changed everything. From then on, she decided to dedicate her life to the Palestinian struggle. She forged bonds of solidarity with the Palestinians in Lebanon, calling on her fellow activists back in Japan to join in the act of solidarity in whatever field they were skilled at.
The Japanese Red Army (JRA) is mostly known in Japan and elsewhere for its armed struggle and military operations against capitalist and imperialist interests around the world, which often took the form of hijacks and hostage-taking. However, it is much lesser known that the JRA undertook consistent and effective solidarity with the Palestinian people through humanitarian, artistic, and grassroots efforts.
Fusako had initially worked at Al Hadaf magazine, the public relations office of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), alongside its editor-in-chief Ghassan Kanafani. Her role there strengthened Japanese support for the Palestinian cause by keeping Japanese leftist activists informed of what was happening on the ground in the Palestinian struggle and the Middle East. She also provided logistical support to Japanese volunteers who arrived, connecting them to related Palestinian partners.
Some Japanese medics went to Lebanon to open clinics in refugee camps, or to train people in acupuncture; artists contributed artwork or co-produced plays, while writers wrote about or translated the writings of prominent Palestinians such as Kanafani. For decades, the JRA performed the kind of work that NGOs have taken on. The only difference was its ideological framework and the fact that they were volunteers.
Fusako was forced into underground life shortly after the 1972 PFLP operation on Lydd airport in historic Palestine/Israel, because one of the three Japanese who took part in the attack was arrested. It became known to the Israeli settler government that Japanese activists were now taking part in the PFLP armed operations led by Wadie Haddad. As such, they became potential assassination targets for the Israeli State.
Fusako Shigenobu’s arrest warrant was issued by the Interpol, after one of the hostages at the French embassy in The Hague (another one of PFLP External Operations with Japanese volunteers in 1974) initially falsely identified her as amongst the hostage takers. This false testimony was later retracted but the Interpol warrant remained.
However, when she was arrested in Japan, Fusako was first charged with two counts of passport forgery. The prosecution then brought her “Hague operation involvement” to the forefront, to insure a longer jail term. Throughout her six-year court hearings (2001-2006), the prosecution could not present any concrete evidence, but instead based their accusations on statements taken from interrogations of former JRA members (of whom two witnesses stated on the stand that they were either coerced or blackmailed to sign).
My mother was sentenced to 20 years (but really spent 21.5 years in prison) for an operation she had no hand in directly or indirectly, even according to prosecutors› witnesses and others that came to testify such as Leila Khaled (who worked with Haddad at that time). The fact that there was no concrete evidence of her involvement in the event did not stop the judge from handing down “attempted manslaughter.” with the reasoning of possibility and likelihood of conspiring with Japanese commandos.
After attending most of the six years of court hearings and seeing extensive press presence in court, I observed very little content coverage in the media. When Fusako was accused of “possibly conspiring,” I realized that it was mostly a political prosecution masquerading as “democratic justice”.
The moment I emerged from hiding also marked the beginning of my journey with countering decades of state-sponsored propaganda about my mother, along with her revolutionary leftist organization, the Japanese Red Army, and their dedication to Palestine’s liberation.
Placed on a pedestal that requires me to condemn my own mother’s actions, my life’s work was determined the moment I disclosed my identity. Although millions around the world may believe the state-sponsored propaganda that labels her a “terrorist,” as her daughter, I know who Fusako Shigenobu really is.
I experienced firsthand the love and dedication she had not just for me, but for all people and especially those who are oppressed. I know her true motivations and what she sacrificed for, ideals that few cling to in a world that is driven too often by power, money, and greed. She taught me not only to be kind, or that all discrimination is unjust, but that we must work to end such injustices.
As a foreigner trying to express solidarity with another people, my mother has always told me that her life as a revolutionary and as a mother has been a constant learning curve. Ultimately, she found that ideology was not enough, and that family, love, camaraderie, and solidarity were equally important elements of a revolutionary struggle.
Love is a shared foundation… Our comrades are family.
(From I Decided to Give Birth to You Under the Apple Tree)
As a zealous political activist firmly backed by leftist anticolonial and anti-imperialist ideological background, my mother became someone who understands that revolution is not limited to an ideological framework, and that it has to be lived and practiced with others through inclusive life experiences.
As much as she might have changed, the world has also changed with how activism is practiced. Alliances have shifted, new grassroots movement tools have been created… The only constant between then and now is the Israeli settler colonisation of Palestine, its aggression and discrimination against the Palestinian people, and the need to fight against this injustice with all forms of solidarity.
She has only lived 26 years in Japan, half a century ago. It will be a lot to get used to, and much to catch up, along with many friends, places, and memories to revisit. Many of her friends and acquaintances have unfortunately passed away, and I do worry about her safety and the cruelty that she might face in Japanese society, where she is still perceived as a “terrorist.” However, I do look forward to the time, at long-last, I will have with her to explore together her homeland that she really loves. I anticipate that we will have many long hours of discussing politics as we used to, and engage in many informative humanitarian projects to continue our solidarity work to fight oppression, inequality, and injustice around the world. ■