Japanese police report possible arrest of Masaaki Ōsaka, wanted for 1971 Shibuya riot death

Japanese media is reporting that police may have arrested one of the most wanted fugitives in Japan, the Chūkaku-ha activist Masaaki Ōsaka.

Now in his late sixties, Ōsaka has been on the run since the 1970s in connection with the death of a police officer in the Shibuya Riot Incident in November 1971. Officers from the Ōsaka Police Public Security Bureau arrested two men in Hiroshima City during a search of a site allegedly associated with the far-left radical group Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction), which is said to have supported Ōsaka during his life underground. According to media reports late last night (May 22nd), Kansai police announced that one of the pair was arrested on suspicion of obstructing police in the performance of public duties (in other words, not co-operating with the search and trying to get away) and, based on his physical appearance, seems to be the fugitive.

The raid was carried out on May 18th after police had watched the apartment in Hiroshima, waiting for when they could identity and catch the occupants. The ostensibly excuse for the raid was that the other man arrested had stayed at a hotel under a different name, which is a minor charge often used to detain activists. The pair, including the man suspected of being Ōsaka, is refusing to speak to police — the favoured tactic of arrested radicals in Japan, known as kanzen mokuhi or kanmoku — so police will attempt to use DNA testing to confirm his identity. While police do not have records of Ōsaka’s fingerprints or DNA, they may be able to use a family member’s DNA to help determine the suspect.

masaaki osaka wanted fugitive japan chukaku-ha

No mention of the arrests appears in the most recent edition of the Chūkaku-ha organ, Zenshin, which was published on May 22nd. The official Chūkaku-ha blog, though, posted a brief text on May 22nd denouncing the arrests of “two comrades” as “oppression” and a “frame-up”. A fuller response can be expected in the next issue of Zenshin.

The culmination of several large-scale violent disturbances from 1967 onwards, the riot in Shibuya on November 14th, 1971 was part of a protest over the terms of the reversion of Okinawa, which recently marked 45 years since its return to Japanese sovereignty. A group of some 400 Chūkaku-ha activists attacked police, resulting in several injuries and the death of Tsuneo Nakamura, a 21-year-old riot police officer, when he was beaten and set on fire. Many activists were arrested over the riot, including Fumiaki Hoshino, who remains in prison on a full-life sentence for the death of the officer despite his conviction resting almost solely on confessions that were later withdrawn.

Named as a suspect and wanted by police since 1972, Ōsaka’s 23-year-old face has been a permanent fixture on group and individual wanted posters at police substations and train stations for decades. With the 45th anniversary of the riot last year, police renewed the campaign yet again with new posters and announced an award for information leading to the arrest of Ōsaka. (It is unclear if a tip led to the search in Hiroshima and thus whether a reward will be paid out.)

If the detained activist is indeed Ōsaka, it would be the most sensational arrest of its kind for years. It would also be a victory for the police tactics of raiding bases associated with radical or formerly militant groups on various pretences in the hope of accumulating other pieces of evidence or arresting activists there by chance. In this way, Tokyo Metropolitan Police announced in January that such a search had apparently allowed them finally to identity the head of Kakumaru-ha (Revolutionary Marxist Faction), who has been living underground for years under assumed names.

Police would regularly release such developments in regards to Ōsaka, such as the search of a ajito (secret base) in January last year that revealed clues about the fugitive’s previous whereabouts. As reported here in April, Ōsaka was placed on the public wanted list in 1984 but police would receive only an average of ten tips per year. The renewal of the campaign last November added 50,000 new posters nationwide and generated plenty of press coverage, leading to 27 tips in a single month.

shibuya riot incident chukakuha 1971

Shibuya Riot Incident
November 14th, 1971

The arrest is also fortuitous timing for the government as it is set to pass its controversial conspiracy bill in the face of widespread public distrust and street protests. Presented as a necessary step for battling terrorism, the potential arrest of a famous fugitive like this may convince some voters that law and order needs to be protected whatever the perceived cost to civil liberties.

That being said, the arrest of Ōsaka throws up legal questions. Can someone be reliably charged with a crime that happened over 45 years ago, when evidence and witness testimony is now so dated? And, as in the case with the dubious evidence against Hoshino, how can you ever accurately identify specific individuals to blame for a death that took place during a riot?

The statute of limitations for murder was removed in 2010. Ōsaka is still wanted on a number of charges related to the 1971 riot and police would certainly be able to bring the harshest possible indictment, given the significant symbolism of closing this long-running case. Another activist, Yukio Okumiyama, whose trial for involvement in the death of Nakamura was stopped in 1981 due to mental illness, passed away earlier this year at the age of 68.


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