May Shigenobu, child of the revolution
How a small group of Japanese revolutionaries secretly aided the Palestinian cause from Lebanon.
Beirut, Lebanon – To say May Shigenobu had an unusual upbringing would be something of an understatement.
As a child, May had several aliases and was always on the move to protect her from kidnapping or assassination.
If her true identity was close to being revealed, she would be given a new passport, a new nationality, a new name and a new backstory.
“I always had to hide my true background, mainly from the Israelis,” May explains as we sit down at a cafe in Beirut’s bustling Harma district.
These may seem like drastic measures, but they make more sense if you are the daughter of Fusako Shigenobu, founder of the Japanese Red Army (JRA).
Fusako arrived in Lebanon in 1971 without a word of Arabic in her lexicon, but soon managed to make her intentions crystal clear. She was there to offer support to the Palestinian struggle.
It was in Lebanon that Shigenobu founded the JRA, a Marxist-Leninist organisation seeking the overthrow of the Japanese government, the destruction of capitalism and imperialism, and the start of a worldwide revolution.
It was the emphasis on internationalism that drove Shigenobu to align with the Palestinian cause.
Her small but dedicated group of Japanese revolutionaries struck up an organisational relationship with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who at that time had a strong presence throughout Lebanon, including in the Palestinian refugee camps surrounding Beirut.
Once established, the JRA became involved in a series of high-profile international operations including aircraft hijackings and hostage-takings.
The strategy was designed to draw attention to the Palestinian cause, which had suffered devastating defeats in 1948 and 1967. It was in the midst of this campaign that baby May was born.
May’s father was also a leader of the PFLP at that time, but she avoids identifying him for security reasons.
“It’s not like it was 100 years ago; a lot of people would still be affected by unnecessary information going out,” May said.
“You might be surprised but in general people didn’t know about specific members of this organisation.
“My mother took on the Arab name Mariam, but very few ever knew who Mariam was or what her real name was.
“It wasn’t like I was the daughter of a famous person. But I was the daughter of a famous organisation. And I feel proud and lucky to have had a whole community of these idealistic, self-sacrificing people around me, raising me.”
Despite being surrounded by people deeply involved in the struggle, May says it was safer for her and for everyone, that she remained in the dark about the specifics of their activities.
“As a child, I didn’t know much.”
May, now a freelance journalist and TV producer, says: “That was mostly for security reasons.
“You never know which situation I might be in where I could mistakenly say something or get lured into saying something.
“I knew who the people around me were, and what they were fighting for, but I didn’t know the details.”
Terrorist or freedom fighter?
The details have been reported as including an attack on the Israeli Lod Airport in 1972 by three Japanese gunmen which left 22 people dead.
The only person involved in the attack to survive, Kozo Okamoto, was imprisoned by Israel before being released in a prisoner swap in 1985.
He lives in Beirut to this day and remains the only person to have ever been granted political asylum in Lebanon.
While most media at the time reported the attack as an early act by the JRA, this narrative is disputed by May who says it came before the formation of the organisation.
“At the time there was no such thing as the Japanese Red Army. It was carried out by activists from different leftist movements in Japan who wanted to act in solidarity with the Palestinians,” she says.
Nevertheless, there are many who would condemn her mother and her comrades as “terrorists” responsible for the deaths of civilians. Again, May says this is due to a false portrayal of the group propagated by sections of the media.
“Firstly, their military actions were quite rightly always intended to avoid harming civilians and they were successful in this,” she responds, with little hesitation.
“Secondly, whether you are a terrorist or a freedom fighter depends on which side you are on. It doesn’t have a clear definition.
“Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist at one time, Gandhi was considered a terrorist at one time. But are they terrorists today? Of course not. History has recognised them as leaders and heroes of their nation. How history defines you all depends on if you win or lose in the struggle.”
Nevertheless, May believes the tactics employed by the JRA are no longer necessary in today’s world. There are other ways to spread the message and support struggles.
“In the past, we didn’t have the connectivity that we have today – we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have satellite television and we didn’t have social media,” she argues.
“It was very difficult for activists to spread the word about the struggle they wanted to convey to people around the world.
“For them to be able to attract attention and inform others, they had to do drastic things. To get the cameras or the microphones attending to their cause and asking about it. It didn’t matter if they were criticised in the report; it would give a platform to talk about the things they were fighting for.
“Today you don’t need to use armed struggle in all locations unless it’s a location that is under direct occupation, where people need to have all sorts of options to resist as is their right under the United Nations.”
In July 2000, Fusako Shigenobu returned to Japan under a fake identity, checking into a hotel under a man’s name.
However, her cover was blown and she was arrested by the Japanese police amid great media fanfare.
She was sentenced to 20-years in prison for orchestrating the 1974 siege of the French embassy in The Hague, a conviction May says was achieved on the basis of flimsy evidence.
May travels back to Japan regularly to see her mother but is pessimistic about the chances of her being out before her 2023 release date.
“I would love her to be released early but they want to keep her as long as possible. Societies usually move on but in terms of Japan it is a very different country – it’s not a place where they hope for social rehabilitation.”
May’s life has been shaped by those days of struggle in the 1970s. She grew up without a proper childhood. She was forced to disappear and lose touch with any friends she made and her elderly mother is serving a long sentence in jail.
If she felt a bit bitter at the hand she was drawn in life, it would be understandable. But there is not a hint of it.
“I believe in the need to continue for the same cause,” she argues.
“The Japanese Red Army were internationalists. If this movement was still active today, it would be supporting the civil rights movement in the US, or the oppression that the people of Rohingya are facing in Myanmar.
“Their idea of supporting people who are facing injustice and discrimination is still right even today. Most of the time the world is not kind to activists and people who are fighting against the system, but we need to think of the people who are truly in need of their support.
“Every action, however small, still matters and makes a difference.”
Time may have passed, and tactics may have changed, but there’s no doubt that May Shigenobu remains committed to the same cause as her mother. She is, after all, a child of the revolution.