Historical Fragment/Film Review: Wakamatsu Kōji’s “United Red Army”

On February 19th 1972 at a remote mountain lodge, near Karuizawa in the Nagano prefecture, Japan (home to the 1964 Summer Olympics and the 1998 Winter Olympics), a group of 5 United Red Army have taken the lodge’s caretaker’s wife hostage and hold out against a police siege for 9 days. 2 police officers and 1 civilian are killed (a university professor who tried to meet the URA members to negotiate for the release of the hostage) during the siege; the 5 radicals are arrested unharmed. In the following days the horrifying tale of the inner-party life of the extremely small United Red Army (URA), the lynchings of 14 of their own members, shocks Japan and the Japanese Left and in fact becomes but the beginning of the slow but torturous decline of the Japanese Left as it degenerates into factional killings (over 100 Leftists had been killed in the inter-factional fighting by the late 1980’s). Wakamatsu Kōji’s (若松孝二) “United Red Army” (2008) is a brilliant, but truly terrifying, docu-drama that provides a history that leads up to the events at the Asama-Sansō lodge. What follows is a combination of research that I have done about the Red Army Faction (RAF, not to be confused by the German group with a similar name), JRA and URA and events mentioned in the film (I must admit that I do not discuss the JRA at length because I have not had enough time to fully research their development after 1972). Thus, the following blog post is both a review of the film and a political history of the organizations mentioned (some of the stuff mentioned below is not mentioned in the film, but knowing this history puts a lot of the early events in the film in context). Indeed, for those who may not have the patience to read the complete blog entry and want me to just get to the punch line, I think that the film is amazing, but very difficult to watch. Indeed, I would argue that this film could be used effectively as anti-communist propaganda as the events that the film so beautifully depicts are truly horrific and would scare any sane person away from the Left. However, the film leaves the audience with the anguish of wondering how such nightmarish events could have happened inside an organization that professed the need for a communist revolution and the establishment of a communist society that was not wracked by the horrors of Stalinism and capitalism alike.

The film starts with a thumbnail sketch of the historical developments in the Japanese Left starting with the second Ampo struggle against the US-Japan Security Treaty and the split of the Communist League (Red Army Faction) from the Communist League (the Bund) in July 1969. The Bund itself was originally formed in 1958 by a group of Zengakuren members and leaders (the Zengakuren stands for Zen Nihon Gakusei Jichikai Sō Rengō (全日本学生自治会総連) or the All-Japan Federation of Student Self-Government Associations, and is an umbrella group for numerous different student groups although by the 1960’s several competing Zengakuren’s existed, each controlled by a different socialist/communist group) that split from the Japanese Communist Party in light of Khruschev’s Secret Speech and the JCP’s policies towards the Security Treaty, the student movement, and the question of the one-step or two-step revolution. The Bund quickly came to adopt Trotskyism like much of the anti-JCP Left (also known as the “mainstream” and indeed it makes sense to call Trotskyism the mainstream as it was the most dominant tradition outside of the JCP’s “Stalinism”/Khrushchevism, besides of course the Japanese Socialist Party. There is an interesting scene in the film in which the tortured victim is repeatedly denounced as a “Stalinist”). The Bund was centrally involved in the first Ampo struggle in 1960 and collapsed shortly thereafter (1961) into numerous small sects due to the failure of the Ampo struggle. The different Bundists sects reorganized themselves into Communist League – Unity Faction in July 1965 in the midst of the ever deepening university struggles, the war in Vietnam and in preparation for the Ampo Struggles. The Bund again was a major force in the street battles, coordinated direct actions and university occupations across the country and was regularly pitted in violent street battles with the police.

Indeed, the unified Bund’s student organization soon emerged as one of the largest student groups on Japanese campuses. However, by 1969 tensions had arisen within the Bund’s central committee regarding the direction that the struggle should take thereafter. The Bund itself was largely concentrated in the Tokyo and the Kansai area around Osaka and Kyoto. The Kansai group argued, much like the Weather Underground, that the time had come to start a revolution in Japan using an urban political-military strategy. The Tokyo group opposed such a plan and deemed it adventurist and premature. It is at this juncture that Wakamatsu’s film really starts. The Tokyo group initially tried to repress the Kansai faction leading to inter-factional attacks between the Kansai and Tokyo factions including an attack on the Tokyo faction’s main leader and the Tokyo faction taking Takaya Shiomi (chairman of the the Kansai faction) hostage. In September 1969 at a public meeting organized by the Kansai faction called “The Great Red Army Political Meeting”, the Kansai faction announced the formal formation of the Communist League – Red Army Faction (RAF), and announced the following slogans, “Escalate the Present Struggle into Armed Revolution”, “Simultaneous Worldwide Revolution” and “Create a World Party, a World Red Army and a World Revolutionary Front”. Amongst the attendees were Shigenobu Fusako (重信 房子), future leader of the Japanese Red Army (in the Middle East), and Tsuneo Mori (森 恒夫), future leader of the Japanese Red Army (in Japan). The Red Army Faction was comprised of three sections: the Central Army, the Local Armies and the Partisan Squads (although in the film the entire focus is on the Central Army which became part of the United Red Army. It is unclear whether from the literature as to what was the exact constitution of the Local Armies, however, it is likely that the Partisan Squads and the legal front that was established became the recruitment grounds for the JRA in the Middle East in future years). On September 22nd the RAF started attacks against police boxes in Osaka with molotov cocktails, and started a series of revolutionary expropriations (these revolutionary expropriations continued into 1971). Due to the success of these actions the RAF quickly came under pressure from police surveillance and saw the mass arrests of their underground and aboveground members. On November 5th the police in an early morning raid on a mountain lodge at the Daibosatsu Pass in Yamananashi Prefecture, surprised and arrested 53 members of the Red Army that were there on a program of ‘special training”. Chairman Shiomi was also arrested, thus resulting in the near collapse of the organization. These mass arrests resulted in two key developments: 1) the rise of Tsuneo Mori to the Chairmanship of the party; and 2)  the remaining fragments of the organization came to theorize that it may be too difficult for an urban guerrilla army to get the necessary training in Japan itself, and results in a group of JRA members hijacking Japan Airlines (JAL) Flight 351 on  March 1970 which is re-directed to North Korea (this would become the JRA in North Korea), Shigenobu’s departure in 1971 to Beirut to receive training from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (JRA in the Middle East) at the behest of Mori, and the Mori group in Japan (later merging with the Japanese Communist Party (Revolutionary Left Faction) to form the URA; apparently Mori was less keen on establishing worldwide bases and continued to believe that domestic guerrilla training was possible). It is thus at this point that the story of the JRA becomes between two different narratives about the JTA in the Middle East and Japan (ideally there should be a third narrative about those JRA members that went to North Korea, however there is little information about this group besides the fact that they were apparently “brainwashed” by the North Korean government to act as spies on behalf of North Korea and were given companionship by Japanese women abducted by the North Korean government), although they remained interwoven until at least 1972.

Mori and the few comrades that remained in Japan continued to have a fair amount of cash and safe houses that had been acquired through donations and continuous revolutionary appropriations, but did not have easy access to firearms. Thus, they got in touch with another small far-left group that was committed to Maoism and urban guerrilla warfare, the Japanese Communist Party (Revolutionary Left Faction), which was under the leadership of Nagata Hiroko (永田 洋子), who like Mori, had been recently catapulted into the Chairmanship of her organization due to her organizing skills and the recent arrest/death (I have yet to figure this out) of the former Chairman during a raid on a police station. There is very little information that I have been able to find in English on the Japanese Communist Party (Revolutionary Left Wing) or Nihon Kyōsantō Kukumei Saha, but it seems that they were a split from another Maoist group, the Japanese Communist Party (Left Faction) which apparently was itself a 1966 split from the Japanese Communist Party (if people have more information please do tell me and others in the comments). The  Japanese Communist Party (Revolutionary Left Faction), although having a number of firearms due to successful expropriations, lacked funds and safe houses. Thus, the marriage between the two organizations was one of convenience. The two organizations soon began to begin conducting joint trainings and finally result in the merger of the two organizations to form the United Red Army (連合赤軍 Rengō Sekigun). I will not tell more about what happens to this organization in the following months because this is the subject matter of the film. The film wonderfully demonstrates the brutality and the odd theoretical developments that the new organization develops including: 1) Mori’s development of the theory of “communization” (kyōsanshugika), which had been mentioned in earlier RAF writings, by merging of self-criticism (jikohihan) and sōkatsu (which is a collective critical examination of the problems that an organization faces); 2) the introduction of violence into the process of communization, and; 3) death by defeatism (敗北死 Haiboku shi). The film does a powerful job conveying these historical incidents, although it is indeed true that some of the film is not an accurate depiction of the real life events (such as the moment at which one of the top Revolutionary Left Wing member’s, Hiroshi Sakaguchi, admits his own opposition to the party policies, which in the film is conducted in the throes of a three-way love triangle whereas in reality occurred at a Central Committee meeting), although sometimes this is a good thing as the events of real life are far more horrific than what can be depicted on the screen. It is interesting to note that in the early months of the joint training the discussions within the organization were lively and active, and slowly became strangled through the authoritarian and bureaucratic tendencies of the leadership of the organization, Mori and Nagata, especially through the consistent practice of commandism, and the minutes of lively discussions soon become a series of speeches by the top leaders.

Shigenobu, who is consistently depicted in the film as being a strong committed revolutionary (and completely unconnected from incidents that occur during the joint training), flies to Beirut in the early 1971, and thus only appears in the early part of the film. Thus, all that follows in this section is stuff that I have researched on my own. She is soon joined by Tsuyoshi Okudaira, who would be in charge of the attack on the Lod Airport in 1972. She also  in 1971 meets two avant-garde filmmakers who were JRA sympathizers in Japan and on returning from Europe decided to make a film about the JRA-PFLP relationship, Wakamatsu Kōji and Masao Adachi (足立正生; Adachi himself will remain in Lebanon for the next 28 years as a JRA member and was charged in 2001 for passport violations which resulted in a 4 year sentence which was suspended to 18 months. He has recently made a film about Okudaira). The resulting film, “Red Army – PFLP: Declaration of World War” (also translated as “Manifesto for World Revolution” which makes more sense – a poor copy of the film can be seen here), was a revolutionary experimental documentary film that sympathetically depicts the guerrilla struggle of the Palestinians and utilizes, as a dear friend of mine tells me, the revolutionary film theory called the “theory of the landscape” (fûkeiron) and was shown in late 1971 in Japan to increase recruitment for the JRA in the Middle East. A member of the PFLP also spoke at the screening and made a passionate appeal for solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The JRA was thus able to recruit members from the Partisan groups and the legal front that had not joined the Central Army in the mountains. In 1972 after hearing about the lynchings and the Asamo-Sansō Incident, Shigenobu came under increasing pressure from the PFLP who were incredibly puzzled and disturbed by the events. Shigenobu and Okudaira thus penned, “My Love, My Revolution” (わが愛わが革命) (which unfortunately has never been translated into English) as a response to the events and irrevocably broke from the URA. Furthermore, the attack on the Lod Airport was conducted on behalf of the PFLP to demonstrate their solidarity the Palestinian cause and to further distance themselves from the horrific events in Japan. Indeed, it became clear, the JRA in the Middle East was now simply the JRA and had nothing to do with the URA. The JRA becomes increasingly dependent on the PFLP for infrastructure and funding because many of their links with the movement in Japan had been broken, although they do continue to receive some funding and support from JRA members in Europe who had been forced to leave Japan due to increasing police repression. The Japanese Left, including the last few remaining elements JRA, but also other Left factions experience increasing levels of police surveillance and crackdown as the Japanese government tries to repress the Left due to its consistent embarrassment at the actions of the JRA internationally and their incapacity to catch them. By the 1980’s the JRA and the PFLP part ways because of tensions that arise due to the PFLP’s increasing narrow focus on the Palestinian struggle and nationalism, rather than the worldwide revolution that Shigenobu and other members of the JRA are fighting for. It has been suggested by some authors that the JRA, like other urban guerrilla groups like the one led by Illich Ramírez Sánchez (better known as Carlos The Jackal, who aided the JRA in at least two different actions), did turn to Muammar Ghaddafi for funding, and that Shigenobu’s arrest in Osaka, Japan in 2000 may have been evidence that she was trying to re-establish a domestic Japanese network to continue the struggle. Shigenobu formally disbanded the JRA in 2001 and in recent years there have been a number of arrests of other JRA members, although several remain in hiding.

For more information, please see the interview with Dr. Patricia Steinhoff with Neojaponisme; “Death by Defeatism and other Fables: The Social Dynamics of the Rengō Sekigun Purge” Takie Lebra, ed., Japanese Social Organization. University of Hawaii Press, 1992; “Three Women Who Loved the Left: Radical Women Leaders in the Japanese Red Army Movement” in Anne Imamura, ed., Re-Imaging Japanese Women.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

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5 thoughts on “Historical Fragment/Film Review: Wakamatsu Kōji’s “United Red Army”

  1. I keep on being hampered from watching my copy of the film through a combination of bad subtitles and anxiety over whether I’m ready to subject myself to a couple hours of what sounds like a very intense film. Thanks for the post!

  2. Know any serious English language scholarship on the post-60’s development of the Japanese radical Left (factional violence, Narita airport etc)? My own search came up short.

    1. The only serious scholarship that I have been able to find is all by Dr. Patricia Steinhoff who has several articles, and is currently working on a book (a Japanese edition is already available) on the Japanese Left and is also working on a translation of a book by one of the JRA members in N. Korea, I believe. I am very keen to publish Shigenobu and Okudaira’s, “My Love, My Revolution” (わが愛わが革命) and Shigenobu’s most recent book about her time in the JRA. Perhaps, someone will find this and translate it and allow me to publish it.

  3. Anyone knows more about My Love, My Revolution by Shigenobu? Any English translation? Thanks.

    1. There is no English translation. I would love for someone to translate it. I am not even sure if its easy to find it in Japanese. Unfortunately, the Japanese New Left is not a particularly well-covered topic in English-language secondary literature. There are from what I remember 2-3 books on the topic and a few articles. Patricia Steinhoff seems to be the only person currently doing serious work on it. Although, I would recommend the recent book by Gavin Walker that details some of the debates within the Japanese communist movement.

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