A useful resource about one of the most complex and misunderstood areas of the Japanese New Left will finally be available in English. Moreover, though issued by an academic publisher, it will not be prohibitively expensive for the general reader since University of Hawaii Press seems to have heard our prayers and is releasing Destiny: The Secret Operations of the Yodogō Exiles in July in Kindle and paperback editions as well as the usual hardcover.
First published in 1998, Destiny is an award-winning non-fiction book by Kōji Takazawa, detailing his investigation into the after-lives of the Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) radicals who hijacked a JAL plane, nicknamed the Yodogō, in 1970. Hoping to reach Cuba, they ended up stuck in North Korea. Takazawa (a pen name) was an associate of Sekigun-ha and helped edit and publish the group’s propaganda organs. However, he found himself increasingly unable to trust what the hijackers were saying when he went to North Korea to visit. After the death of the leading figure among the hijackers, Takamuro Tamiya, in 1995, he began to probe their and their wives’ alleged involvement in abductions of Japanese citizens from Europe in the years after the Yodogō arrived so dramatically in Pyongyang.
Since those events we have become so used to plane takeovers, downings and jinxes that take place in the skies that it is easy to forget how terrifying and protracted the experience was for the hostages and others involved in Japan’s first airplane hijacking. In particular, we have a habit of remembering the Yodogō incident not even only for its sensational elements, but also for its more bizarre ones: the reference to a popular manga in the hijackers’ statement; the use of toy weapons to hijack the plane; the total failure to get to their planned destination.
But what is actually most interesting is what happened next. The hijackers were brainwashed into the North Korean ideology, juche. Female sympathisers were tricked to come over from Japan and then given to the hijackers as spouses. Naturally, these conjugal arrangements were not always happy ones, nor were all the hijackers content with their lot. At least one member and his wife died in what seems to have been an escape attempt. And in the 1970s and 1980s, as Takazawa revealed, the group was possibly connected to abductions of young Japanese men and women in Europe. This was a shocking disclosure to their supporters in Japan, whose ranks were still relatively strong in the late 1990s shortly before the return of a clutch of members of another Sekigun-ha offshoot based abroad, the Japanese Red Army, which was then disbanded. Since the late 1980s some members of the Yodogō group had turned up in Japan and elsewhere in Asia under suspicious circumstances. As relations between North Korea and Japan partially thawed in the 1990s, other spouses and their children came back to Japan, keen to leave their exile even as knowing they faced certain arrest on passport violation charges. In a sense, the 1990s and early 2000s witnessed the death throes of this most spectacular section of the Japanese New Left, where various ghosts were laid to rest and skeletons came out of the closet. By now, though, Takazawa had alienated his former colleagues in the radical Left with his “betrayal”.
The remaining Yodogō group members still live in the same complex in North Korea and have even started using Twitter through an intermediary organisation. They deny the abduction allegations and continue to rely on a support network that exists in Japan to disseminate their side of the story.
It is no surprise that the English translation of Takazawa’s lengthy book comes from the University of Hawaii Press as that institution also houses his unique archive of materials related to the New Left and social movements in Japan. It is also where Professor Patricia G. Steinhoff has taught for many years and she has supervised the forthcoming translation, which actually has six credited translators. No one is more qualified to edit this book than Steinhoff, the foremost western expert on the Japanese New Left and 1960-70s protest movements. In particular, she has devoted most of her career to studying Sekigun-ha and its spin-offs, Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) and the Japanese Red Army. (Disclosure: I have met and liaised with Professor Steinhoff, and she was helpful in clarifying certain questions and providing unpublished papers when I was writing Dissenting Japan. I also visited the Takazawa Collection.)
Officially Steinhoff has two more books forthcoming, bringing together the fruits of her decades of research: one on the Sekigun-ha as a domestic group and another on the Japanese Red Army. After the arrest and trials of most of the major members of the latter, court documents and published memoirs have finally helped shed light on much of the mystery of the high-profile incidents from the 1970s and 1980s. In writing my own book, I struggled at times to find reliable information and had to make do with piecing things together from media reports and one-sided memoirs. The resulting mosaic is, by necessity, somewhat imperfect. Steinhoff, though, has extensive personal connections with both wings of the Red Army and can draw on a vast bank of information and experiences not public yet. When her books eventually come out, they will undoubtedly be the definitive texts.
Not reading French, I cannot make a judgement about Michaël Prazan’s Les Fanatiques: Histoire de l’armée rouge japonaise, which was published in 2002 (the title is certainly less than promising), but I can say with conviction that the only English-language book-length treatment of the JRA, Blood and Rage: The Story of the Japanese Red Army (1990) by William R. Farrell, is written with cringing sensationalism and littered with misinformation. Some of this is due to the apparent right-wing agenda that Farrell brings to his theme but another cause is his reliance on data provided by government sources. In the second half of the 1980s much of this was exaggerated and inaccurate, fuelled by paranoia and fear-mongering rather than genuine understanding of what the JRA were doing.
Like buses, you wait ages for a decent book about 1960s and 1970s Japanese counterculture, and then two come along at once. By some strange wizardry of the Shintō gods, around the same time as Dissenting Japan was released, an academic book was published in Germany on a similar subject. Von Revolution zu Befreiung: Studentenbewegung, Antiimperialismus und Terrorismus in Japan (Campus Verlag) by Till Knaudt came out in May 2016 and, in a way, is the kind of book I myself might have written had my ambit been purely academic. For better or worse, I attempted to paint on a larger canvas (from 1945 through to Fukushima) with broad brushstrokes, but Knaudt, who is based at the Institut für Japanologie at the University of Heidelberg, has a tighter focus on a single period of time and a series of interlinked movements of anti-imperialism, transnational revolutionary struggle and decolonial causes. His book details many figures and developments that I only had space to touch on very briefly. This includes, for example, the now obscure intervention of Tsuneo Umenai, a fugitive Sekigun-ha activist who wrote a remarkable tract in 1972 announcing his break with Marxist thought and his embrace of the “revolution of the wretched” ideas of Ryū Ōta. Knaudt examines the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front, which was also heavily associated with Ōta’s ideas, as well as the involvement of New Left radicals in activism for the Ainu and workers in slums like Kamagasaki.
Knaudt’s extremely worthwhile and welcome monograph joins a small body of book-length publications on related topics: Zengakuren: Japan’s Revolutionary Students (1970), edited by Stuart Dowsey; La Gauche Révolutionnaire au Japon (1970) by Bernard Béraud; Against the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japan (1984), by David E. Apter and Nagayo Sawa; Fire Across the Sea: The Vietnam War and Japan 1965-1975 (1987) by Thomas R.H. Havens; and Japan’s New Left Movements: Legacies for Civil Society (2014) by Takemasa Andō.