Japanese Red Army: A Communist terror organisation


    1. Introduction.

    The Japanese Red Army (JRA) was a communist terrorist organisation that operated worldwide. The JRA was active between 1971 and 2001 when it was officially disbanded by its leader. They formed it by the merger of two revolutionary communist factions within Japan, the Red Army Faction and the United Red Army. Both groups believed terrorist actions were the only way to bring about the revolution that it craved. 

    2. Doctrine of the Japanese Red Army.

    The goal of the JRA was to revolutionise Japan, based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. It ultimately sought to unite the world under the banner of communism. (source) Although only disbanded officially in 2001, the group was most active during the 1970s and 1980s. And was one of, if not the most well know leftist terrorist organisations in the world.

    Furthermore, sensitive to the political, social and moral problems in Japan under the conservative American-leaning government, the JRA saw itself as the vanguard of a world revolution under which terror was not a means but an end. (source) The group’s slogan was “One, Two, many Vietnams.”

    The extreme views and methods of the JRA ultimately meant it received little support at home in Japan. Therefore, it sought to forge links with other radical groups around the world. Which became essential to its survival because of the police crackdown back in Japan. Because of this pressure applied by the Japanese state, the JRA fled to Lebanon in 1971. Where it strengthened ties with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

    2.1. JRA Joins the Palestinian cause.

    After fleeing to Lebanon in 1971, the JRA aligned itself with the PFLP. This was a natural fit. The PLFP were also a Marxist-Leninist group that saw violence as the end not a means to an end. (source)

    The JRA aligned itself to the Palestinian cause, as it could not gain recognition of its cause in Japan. This was despite them acting on the international stage. The JRA relied heavily on the support of the PLFP for funding and training. Much of the propaganda the JRA released in the 1970s was designed for recruitment, focused on PLFP training and the JRA’s participation in the armed Palestinian cause. (source)

    Consequently, this symbiotic relationship leads to both the JRA and the PFLP conducting joint operations. Most notably, the Lod airport massacre that occurred in 1972.

    3. Organisation and leadership of the JRA.

    The JRA’s leader was Fusako Shigenobu otherwise known as the Red Queen or Empress of Terror, (source) and her husband Takeshi Okudaira. and her husband Takeshi Okudaira. Okudaira would later die in the Lod Airport attack in 1972. The group focussed on recruiting those with a revolutionary mind from universities in Japan.

    The group operated like a tightly structured centralised organisation. At its height, it had thirty to forty members. With six hardcore members and an unknown number of sympathisers. (source) The orders given to its soldiers from its leader, Shigenobu, were absolute. Subsequently, its soldiers would only receive tactical information before an attack. (source)

    Furthermore, the JRA’s links to the PLFP made it one of the first terrorist organisations to have an international focal point. They also aligned it with the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Red Brigades of Italy. (source)

    Japanese Red Army leader
    Leader of the Japanese Red Army Fusako Shigenobu (source)

    4. Tactics, Techniques and Procedures.

    The JRA used tactics in its infancy that was closely aligned with Japanese Samurai culture. Its propensity for close personal attacks such as bank robberies, hijackings and hostage-taking were all actions that involved personal contact with those being attacked. (source)

    These tactics changed in 1977. The group focused more on bombings and rocket launches. This tactical switch happened because it had to focus on maintaining its numbers and being further away from the target with an escape route facilitated that goal.

    5. Notable operations of the JRA.

    Hijackings, bombings and hostage-taking are the style of attacks the JRA were famous for. The group attacked airports, hijacked commercial airlines, targeted embassies and also targeted US personnel. The deadliest attack carried out by the group was the 1972 Lod airport massacre in which it killed 26 people and wounded a further 80.

    5.1. The Lod Airport Massacre May 1972.

    This was without doubt the JRA’s most deadly attack. With the PLFP, the group killed 26 people and wounded and injured a further 80. The JRA and PFLP used a deadly combination of machine guns and hand grenades in the attack. The attack’s original goal had been to kill as many Jewish people as possible. However, what transpired was the killing of seventeen Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico, eight Israelis and one Canadian. Amongst the Israeli victims were future presidential candidate Aharon Katzir. (source)

    The JRA attackers realised that capture was imminent. Two, including leader Takeshi Okudaira, entered a suicide pact with another attacker, in which one shot the other before blowing himself up with a hand grenade. The third attacker was one of the JRA leaders, Kozo Okamoto. Subsequently, Okamoto was captured and imprisoned until 1985, when he was released in a prisoner exchange. (source)

    5.2. The 1974 French Embassy siege – The Hague.

    On Friday the 13th of September 1974, three ‘soldiers’ of the JRA stormed the French embassy in The Hague, the Netherlands. The leader of the JRA, Fusako Shigenobu, ordered the attack. It demanded the release of its member, Yatsuka Furuya, having taken the ambassador and ten others hostage. The attackers also demanded one million dollars and the use of an aircraft. The siege lasted five days, with the Dutch and French authorities ultimately negotiating with the terrorist and capitulating to the JRA’s demands.

    In conjunction with the siege at the embassy, the PLFP attacked Paris. The PLFP threw a grenade into a café killing two and injuring 34 others. The PLFP claimed responsibility for the attack. This attack is ultimately why the French government negotiated with the JRA hostage takers. (source)

    Japanese Red Army Siege - The Hague
    JRA siege of the French Embassy, The Hague – 1974 (source)

    5.3. Hijacking Japan Airlines flight 472 – 1977.

    On the 28th of September 1977, the JRA hijack Japan Airlines flight 472 with 156 people on board. The hijackers forced the plane to land in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The demands of the hijackers were again the release of its members and $6 million.

    The Japanese government, taking a different approach to the British and American approaches on non-negotiation, agreed to the demands on the 1st of October 1977. A chartered Japan Airlines flight flew to Dhaka, where the exchange of money and six of prisoners took place. The JRA hijackers then flew to Damascus and Kuwait City, where the JRA released eleven more hostages. Algiers was the final destination of the hijacked plane. The hijackers escaped with many still at large. (source)

    The significance of this hijacking is not to be understated. It led the Japanese government to create a Special Assault Team designed to deal with any future terrorist activity. This task is now carried out by the Japanese Special Forces Group. (source)

    5.4. Japanese Red Army Attacks US service personnel – 1988 Naples, Italy.

    In April 1988, it detonated a car bomb outside the United Service Organisation military recreational facility in Naples, Italy. This attack killed five, including an American, and injured fifteen others, including four US sailors. The JRA, Junzo Okudaira, carried it out. The attack took place on the second anniversary of the US bombing of Libya in 1986. Okudaira has never been caught and was convicted in 1993 of murder in absentia. (source)

    6. Downfall of Japan’s international terrorist organisation.

    From 1990, the JRA was not active. The group went into hiding following a string of arrests in Romania, Peru and other countries. In 1997, authorities arrested five members of the JRA in Lebanon, which has been its operating base since 1972. This is apart from Kozo Okamoto, who has political asylum in the country. (source) The downfall of the Soviet Union impacted its demise in 1990. It would have relied on the Soviet Union to give it legitimacy in its Marxist-Leninist goals. Therefore, without the Soviet Union, the JRA found it difficult to recruit new ‘soldiers’ to its cause.

    The final nail in the coffin for the JRA was the arrest of its leader Fusako Shigenobu in Osaka, in 2000, by Japanese authorities. In April 2001, she announced the disbanding of the group. Shigenobu announced she would pursue her goals through legitimate political means. (source)

    The arrest of so many JRA members was because of an increase in police and intelligence liaison. This led to the capture of many of the senior members of the terrorist organisation.

    7. The hunt continues for JRA terrorists.

    With the JRA disbanded and inactive on the terrorist stage for over two decades, the Japanese government is still seeking information on those that it has not captured. In February 2022, the Tokyo Police Department released a video for more information on wanted JRA members. The charges against the wanted members include terrorism and identity fraud. The Tokyo Police Department believe that although the group is officially no longer active, its member who are fugitives still have links to international terrorist organisations. (source)

    8. Summary.

    The Japanese Red Army is Japan’s equivalent of the modern terrorist organisations we think of today. It was driven by a desire to bring about change to the class system in Japan and American influence in its home nation. Ultimately, even with the scale and horror of its attacks, the JRA failed in its objectives to bring about global change. The only surviving legacy is that it deemed those who are still at large dangerous enough for Japanese authorities to still be hunting them.

    Bobby Payne
    Bobby Payne
    Bobby has ten years experience in contracts management and business ownership. He is an alumni of the University of East Anglia where he studied history, focussing on Spanish colonisation. He is currently studying MA Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University. His research focus is on terrorism and geopolitics.

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