Visiting a Japanese Village in North Korea

Despite my best endeavours to force people to read heavily researched, rambling essays several thousand words long, the most popular articles on this blog have tended to be the news pieces, hastily posted warts and all. One such was a shameless republishing effort in May 2014, where I showcased the photographs run that day in the Mainichi Shimbun taken by Reinin Shiino of the Yodogō Group’s so-called “Revolution Village” in North Korea, the secluded base in the world’s most secretive state where Japan’s first airplane hijackers call home.

Traffic hummed along nicely that month (and got another boost when the Yodogō Group started tweeting in the autumn of the same year); interest in the Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) and its queer, abortive initial attempt at overseas adventurism seems high.

reinin shiino book yodogo group hijackers

This is a follow-up, since the rules of the market demand that every hit deserves a sequel. Shiino published a book in late 2014 called 98% of What You See About North Korea on TV is a Lie (it’s part of a series of books using this title to tackle various controversial themes) in which he covers his trip to see the Yodogō hijackers. His book is ostensibly about North Korea in general — and our misconceptions — but he talks a lot about the surviving Yodogō commandos, adding to an already dense pile of literature about this odd tale in the pantheon of the Japanese New Left.

While I received my modest share of the “buzz”, Shiino found himself at the centre of a small media storm generated by his images, the first of their kind. The Mainichi Shimbun published an article with five colour photos that he took in April 2014. It was soon followed up with requests from other newspapers and media outlets to republish the photos. In the end, most of the major names featured his camerawork and he was himself interviewed.

Ironically, his attempts to interest weekly or monthly media outlets in an article contribution prior to his trip were a failure, despite offering them a scoop — the first time a journalist had officially seen and reported on the “village”.

While there wasn’t much “news” in Shiino’s output, the photos did provide some curious clues to the lives of these ageing hijackers. A large satellite dish. A quondam terrorist using a computer. A photo of Moriaki Wakabayashi’s room with three football shirts and a scarf on the wall; this long-in-the-tooth radical was a soccer fan.

Fuji TV followed up on Shiino’s exclusive with a 20-minute video taken by a freelance producer who quickly ventured to the Yodogō complex on the outskirts of Pyongyang.

It was Shiino’s fifth visit to North Korea in April 2014 when he was able to get to the Japanese Village, with the help of Yukio Yamanaka, the head of the Kyūen Renraku Sentā (Relief Liaison Center), a non-partisan support network originally established in the late 1960’s to assist arrested student activists with legal counsel and which continues this work today, including representing many people or groups, political or otherwise, demonized by the media. Shiino, Yamanaka, documentary film-maker Tatsuya Mori and three others assisting the former hijackers in their civil suit against the Japanese police, which has issued arrest warrants for some of them in connection with abduction allegations, thus preventing them from returning to Japan.

sekigun-ha red army yodogo hijacker north korea village living facilities

Photo: Reinin Shiino

Shiino is no objective reporter. He admits to being part of their support group and this is precisely how he was handed his scoop (it would also make him a target of security police surveillance). The abduction cases are a most thorny area, as evidence is arguably circumstantial or based on testimony by aggrieved former parties, such as Megumi Yao, the ex-wife of late hijacker Yasuhiro Shibata. But even those on the Left tend to concede that some of the hijackers and/or their spouses were involved with the snatchings in Europe (some of the wives themselves were allegedly victims of abduction during the 1970’s and the marriages were not all happy ones). However, Shiino does not address this head-on in his book, not least since he has already published another collection of interviews with the Yodogō Group, who strenuously deny the charges.

The Yodogō incident itself is one of the most exhilarating and consistently intriguing events from the height of Japan’s New Left movements. The hijacking was both a success and a dismal failure. After taking over the JAL plane on March 31st, 1970, they tried to direct it to North Korea (actually intended to be a mere stopover on their way to revolutionary Cuba) but were informed that they didn’t have enough fuel. The Yodogō (the name of the aircraft) had to stop in Fukuoka first and, after a diversion to a South Korea airstrip, which the Americans and Koreans tried to mock up as DPRK, sat around for a long time before being able to proceed over the border (minus the civilian hostages). The hijackers had not contacted the North Koreans at all; after they finally got airborne again the pilot had no idea if Pyongyang would treat them as a friendly — or if the North Korean military would shoot them down. The hijackers had themselves only made it onto the plane in their second attempt; an earlier plan was scuppered when the majority of the team missed the boarding because they didn’t know their train ticket wouldn’t get them straight to the plane. For crying out loud, they didn’t even have spare underwear with them!

The callow hijackers were actually saved from the American and South Korean legerdemain by a female flight attendant. They saw a sign saying “We welcome the Sekigun-ha” and then felt the first inkling that the airport might not be Pyongyang. “They wouldn’t ‘welcome’ us like that,” they recall to Shiino. After all, the North Koreans hadn’t even known they were coming. The rice fields they spotted from the plane seemed too small for the collective farming techniques of the communist state. They could also see Shell oil tanks and foreign airplanes from the windows of the Yodogō, the logos and names partially hidden.

yodogo hijacking incident japan

Venturing outside, they asked a nearby solider: “Here, Seoul?” “Seoul, Seoul,” came the reply. Regardless, they opened the door fully, at which point someone tried to rush onto the plane. The hijackers returned to the aircraft, screaming “Shut the door!” It was a flight attendant who immediately obeyed and likely saved them from languishing in a Japanese or South Korean jail for years hence.

Three days later, after letting everyone go and exchanging them for a government minister (he also thoughtfully “lent” them some underwear), they flew on to North Korea with the same crew. However, they were unable to find Pyongyang Airport and so the Yodogō was forced to land at Mirim, a nearby alternative airport with only a short runway. Mercifully, the North Koreans didn’t throw them in prison like they feared for the first hours, though neither did the Party let their valuable Japanese comrades leave for Cuba. They were put up at a top hotel in Pyongyang, along with their hostage and the crew (who later flew the Yodogō back to Japan), before after a few days being housed in the Japanese Village. (Many years on, the hijackers wrote a letter apologising to one of their victims for the distress of the incident.)

The “village” is now a tumbledown affair compared to its zenith, when it housed dozens of people — hijackers, spouses, children and staff. Six of the spouses and all twenty offspring have returned to Japan, with the former arrested for their troubles on passport charges. Six remain in limbo in North Korea, with three of them facing serious abduction charges (strictly speaking, the nine hijackers committed their crime before Japan had a hijacking law so they could not be charged with taking over the Yodogō per se). Some hijackers have died — not always naturally, it seems — in Korea and Japan; others have been arrested outside their supposed home in the Democratic People’s Republic, including in Japan.

It was originally called the Revolution Village for the first year before the North Koreans educated the guests how their Sekigun-ha ideology was mistaken (there could be no “revolution” by their Blanquist methods), after which the sign was taken down and the site renamed the Japanese Village.

Now this complex, some 20km north-east of Pyongyang in the mountains, has been “opened” at last. One of the buildings is now a guest house, a pension for staying with former revolutionaries. Once there was a automobile repair shop there as well as a fish business and a foreign currency exchange. These are closed and the office was redundant. The residents then returned the facilities to the government. By 2013 optical fibres had been laid since the foreigners had time on their hands but little means of communicating with their supporters back in Japan. In all, four buildings are no longer used by the remaining Yodogō Group and so in its reduced circumstances, the village can be visited and gawked at.

There you might meet the four hijackers still alive — Shirō Akagi the book worm, Moriaki Wakabayashi the football fanatic, Kimihiro Uomoto/Abe the fishmonger, and Takahiro Konishi the de facto leader — and the two remaining spouses, Sakiko Kuroda (Wakabayashi’s wife) and Yoriko Mori (who was married to Takamaro Tamiya, the deceased original commander of the hijacking operation).

yodogo hijackers wanted poster

Police poster showing the officially surviving former Yodogō hijackers and two spouses still in North Korea. Takeshi Okamoto (bottom left) is also included here but is believed almost certainly to be dead.

Reinin Shiino himself is a bit of an enigma. Born in 1949, his name suggests a nom de plume (the resemblance to a certain Russian revolutionary is too uncanny) but is apparently genuine. His connections with the New Left goes back to his time at Keio University, where he matriculated in 1968. Like so many of his peers, he left college without graduating, though he drifted away from the student movement in 1973 for reasons not made clear in his biography. He then returned to the fold, so to speak, in more recent times. Earlier this year he also published a quasi-photographic guidebook about his six visits to North Korea between 2012 and 2014, especially the women he met there and the Yodogō Group. The fate of these superannuated radicals continues to exert its magnetic pull on people.


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