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The War Nerd December 15, 2005
The Japanese Red Army
How Little We Knew Ye By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

FRESNO - A lot of newspaper columnists are worried that the word "terrorism" is "losing its power to horrify" because we're using it too often. I worry too about this too, only from kind of a different angle. I worry that we're handing out the word "terrorist" to every no-class single-A bushwhacking gang in the world, when it should only apply to groups that have earned it, gangs with a few real scalps on their belts. I'm talking standards here. I'm trying to stop grade inflation, like what happened to the Purple Heart when they started giving it away for paper-cuts.

The way I see it, "terrorism" is one of the few really serious, scary, real words left. Curse words don't have any power since the gritty TV shows started using them for effect. All the "hate speech" stuff is off-limits. What's left of the old hard stuff? Just a few words and "terrorism" is one of the best.

We need to remember what the word really means, to look at some old-school terrorists, original gangstas, so we have a standard to measure new gangs against.

And that's why I'm going to tell you the amazing story of the Japanese Red Army, the best pure terrorists, pound for pound, in history.

Serious terror buffs talk about the JRA with maximum respect, maybe even awe. Even the State Department showed their respect for the JRA by making it the first group named to the official list of terrorist groups. So we're talking about Heisman killers here, the can't-miss picks of Terror.

I get the feeling a lot of Japanese feel the same way. You know that movie Battle Royale? Well, if you don't you better go rent it, because it's got some of the best kill scenes ever, and the victims are popular kids from a high school. What more could a war nerd want in a flick?

Anyway, if you know that movie, you'll remember a scene that shows how much cool Japanese kids respect the JRA. It's the scene where the leader of the nerds shows his friends a little pendant he wears, unscrews it and takes out a detonator. He tells his friends that his radical uncle was planning to use this detonator to blow up the Diet, the Japanese senate.

But the plan fizzled, the uncle fled to make revolution in other countries, and the kid got the detonator as a keepsake. He's obviously talking about the JRA. And what I like about this scene is that there's no whiney "anti-violence" crap; the kid's majorly proud of his uncle, and his friends are totally impressed. That made me all warm and cheery, like an S&L director opening the vault the day after deregulation kicked in.

Maybe this means the ol' Banzai spirit is coming back to Japan. God, that'd be great. The Japanese were among the world's greatest soldiers, fliers and sailors until they lost heart in 1945. Can't blame them for that, I guess; nukes are a real bummer, no denying it. Millions of dead scattered from the Coral Sea to the Aleutians, Tokyo reduced to burnt bones and ash-it'd get anybody down.

But c'mon, my noble Nipponese warrior pals, it's been fifty years. You've been good too long, like the bumpersticker says. Let's shine those bayonets, dust off those maps of Manchuria, rethink Australia's coastal defenses! Let's be Japanese again, not just confused spiky-haired tourists and girls who won't wear anything but black!

I've seen enough Manga and Hentai movies to know you Japanese men still like the rough stuff, so why not move from animation to, if you know what I mean, live action? Allow me to suggest you start by invading North Korea. Everybody'd love you for it, because they want Kim taken out but don't have the Roe to do it themselves. They'd forgive a whole bunch of Nanjing-style block parties so long as you wacked The Dear Leader in the process.

People have tried, now and then, to convince Japan's wimpy "Self Defense Force" to stop acting like a Quaker college's marching band and get mean again. So far it hasn't worked. My favorite example here happened in l970, a bad time for militarists everywhere.

The man who tried to rouse Japan's military spirit was a writer named Yukio Mishima. A freak, no denying that, but at least he was anti-peace, pro-war-he had "moral clarity," as they say. Not your typical militarist, though-Mishima was an "avant-garde" novelist. Haven't read his books, but I'd imagine "avant-garde" means his books make no sense even in translation. He was also a flaming mariposa, gay as a Spartan bath attendant. Worked out non-stop, got very buffed (for a Japanese) and was always posing with his shirt off, trying to look Imperial, with that rising-sun flag wrapped around him, or wearing a samurai sword and headband-only he's always got that "Hi there, Sailor" expression which pretty much ruins the effect.

Still, his heart was in the right place, and I'm not going to do gay jokes because I realized after high school that in those four lousy years, no gay guy ever called me fatso.

Mishima proved his guts, and I mean that literally, on November 25, 1970, the day he died. He was sick of the new, feeble, peacenik Japan. So he decided to seize a Self-Defense base called Camp Ichigaya where he hoped to harangue the troops into getting back to old-school Imperialism and militarism stuff, like the good old days of 1939. The rest of his plan was kind of hazy, but he sort of hoped this would ignite something.

Mishima showed up at the base with four guys from his private army, the "Shield Society." An interesting group: not too big, about 100 members. And I hear Mishima picked them for their looks more than their fighting ability. Great uniforms, though.

What happened at the base that day is just plain hilarious, one of the funniest war stories ever. Mishima's party of five tromped into the commander's office. So far so good. Then Mishima took out his sword. The base commander flinched, so Mishima told him it was "for ceremonial purposes."

Which was a fib, because a second later, Mishima was threatening the CO with the blade while his men tied the poor paper-shuffling Colonel Klinko-san to his desk.

By this time about 800 soldiers were outside wondering what the Hell was going on. Mishima went out and started trying to whip the troops into a war frenzy.

Well, as the old showmen used to say, "tough crowd, tough crowd!" James Brown couldn't have got an "Amen!" from that crowd. As for Mishima, they laughed at the poor guy. He couldn't buy a "Banzai!" It turned into a standup comic's nightmare: they started heckling Mishima.

I've seen photos of Mishima making his final speech, and you can see why he bombed with the troops. For one thing he looks ridiculous, got this 1930's gay tunic thing on, and even though he's trying to scowl all stern like Mussolini he still has that same gym-mirror pose. He's just not scary.

Besides, it was 1970; the troops were probably stoned. Maybe if Cheech and Chong had staged a coup they'd've had a chance, but a serious Imperial throwback like Mishima made no sense to them at all.

They started tearing down Mishima's banners. So Mishima stopped, thought it over, and went back into the CO's office. He told the tied-up CO he was going to "shout banzai to the Emperor" and did, the old-school way: by kneeling, taking off the tunic and ripping his belly open. His disciples helped ease the pain by cutting his head off-still the best anesthetic around, beheading. Works faster than Morphine, lasts longer.

After Mishima's head rolled off, one of them, a copycat, ripped his own belly open and had his head removed. He was probably the kind of kid who'd jump off a bridge if Johnny down the street did.

So here's the scene in the CO's office: we've got two heads on the floor, a really messy carpet they probably had to throw away, and a desk jockey General who was probably wondering if these wackos were going to add him to the pile of skulls or leave him alive to explain to his superiors how his base got seized by a gay novelist and his four boyfriends. That's a rock and a pretty durn hard place for a career officer.

Mishima's crazy death-day was the last time anybody tried to put any team spirit in Japan's poor old Self-Defense Force. The right wing was worn out, discredited by the war. The army was a joke. So where did young Japanese bloods eager for some action go in 1970? Simple: the far Left, the one place where violence was cool and hip.

The people who founded the JRA were that type, conquistadors disguised as commies. They talked Marx, but they were in it for the blood, right from the start. They had no "people"; the Japanese population thought they were crazy, and the JRA despised the sararii-man world. So this was pure splatter, with no ethnic, class or astrological-sign base to worry about.

The JRA was tiny; never more than a hundred-odd members. But every one was a smart, disciplined and ruthless killer. That's why I say that pound for pound, man for man, they were the best terrorists ever.

There were other terrorists from middle-class rich countries back then, like the Baader-Meinhof Faction in (1970s West) Germany and (1980s Italy) Red Brigades. But compared to Fusako's JRA, these Euro-trash terrorists were squeamish dilettantes. Unlike the JRA, they didn't usually target civvies, and settled for the odd kidnap, picking off an official or two per year just to keep in practice. They cared more about the ideological crap than action.

JRA killers weren't squeamish that way. They never hesitated, always tried for maximum casualties. That's one of the weird aspects of their group: if the leaders of 1930s Japan had watched 1970s Japanese TV, the only people they'd be proud to call comrades were these commies of the JRA-because they were the real reincarnation of the Kamikaze spirit.

The craziest of all was their leader, a woman named Fusako Shigenobu-a pioneer in blasting the glass ceiling for women as CEOs of terror gangs. So how come she never gets mentioned in those feminist heroes lists? Cowards!

Fusako formed the JRA by quitting a less bloodcrazed hard-Left party and taking the crazies with her. It was 1970, same year Mishima did his last one-man show. She was more practical than that dreamy writer. Her boys didn't fool with swords; they stuck to automatic weapons. Because guns work, and swords are for Lord of the Rings dorks.

In fact, I just remembered another scene from Battle Royale that makes the same point. Remember the scene, early on, when the psycho killer wipes out a bunch of kids on the beach and looks over their weapons to see if they're worth taking? He grabs the AK, naturally, and a grenade-then he picks up a set of nunchucks, sneers at them and throws them away. You want to kill, get a gun. You want to impress other dweebs, carry a knife. Or nunchucks.

Fusako decided to kick off the JRA with a few spectacular field trips. Like all Japanese, the JRA's new recruits loved world travel. Only they didn't pack a lot of cameras. This was before there was any real airport security, so the JRA could zip around the world doing its version of revolution.

In their first year as a gang, the JRA hijacked a JAL flight to North Korea. It was a battle of the three-letter groups, JAL vs. JRA, and JRA won hands down. The JAL crew flew them to lovely Pyongyang with no delay at all.

Yup, you read right: they hijacked a plane TO North Korea. I don't know if that's comedy or just insane, but you have to admire the sheer gung-ho spirit behind it.

From then on, JAL was the JRA's hijack airline of choice, their flying chauffeurs. In 1973 a mixed JRA/PFLP team grabbed a JAL flight over Europe and diverted it to the Libyan desert, offloaded the passengers and blew it up. There was one casualty, a PFLP woman who got herself blown up with the plane. Must have slept through the pre-explosion announcement that all passengers must disembark using the emergency exits before the aircraft is detonated.

The JRA was also the only terrorist group I know that thought globally, really took that commie "worldwide revolution" stuff seriously. They were always up for a bloodbath in Japan, but if that wasn't happening they spun their globes and picked someplace else to start blasting. I suspect that was partly because even these wackos realized there wasn't going to be a revolution in Japan. They offered their services to comrades everywhere, free of charge charity-terror.

The first group to take them up on it was the Palestinians, who after all provided Fusako with her inspiration in the first place. They asked the JRA to hit their Israeli enemies, and as usual the JRA was there with a can-do attitude. The result was a bloody slaughter at Lod Airport in Israel in 1972. Three JRA men flew in to Lod without attracting suspicion, because hey, it's three Japanese guys in suits, polite and quiet and harmless. Well, the whole notion that Asians are wimps is wrong to start with, and this time the world paid for stereotyping.

Guess where they had their weapons. You won't believe it: violin cases. Yup, like some old gangster movie. Man, people in 1970:well, it's like Beavis and Butthead say, "This movie is from back when people were stupid."

Nobody searched the cases. Nobody did a thing as the polite little guys opened the cases, took out machine guns, and started to, er, play their instruments. They played non-stop, spraying the crowds, until one of them ran out of ammo. His two friends did the comradely, Samurai thing by blowing him away. One of the two still alive did a different hi-tech hara-kiri by pulling the pin on a grenade and holding it like a corsage against his chest. The third guy wimped out and tried to hide in the crowd. Not too bright, this guy; "I'm just another broodspattered Japanese guy mingring with you Israeris, dum-dee-dum...Fitting right in... Hava-nageera-hava-nageera-hava..."

This letdown of the JRA bleated. He confessed the JRA had taken the job on contract from George Habash's PFLP, a small but deadly Palestinian group that was eventually pretty much wiped out by Mossad, one guy at a time. In 1970 their yearbook was still full, though-didn't have all those black X's over the seniors' pictures yet-and the JRA showed them the ultimate respect, terror-style, by doing their bloody laundry for them.

The three-man JRA team managed to kill 26 people at Lod-not bad for a brief shooting spree. You have to remember, humans are big mammals, good design--hard to kill. Only a shot to the head will do it for sure, and even then if it's a .22 the victim may live (he'll drool more than a stoned St. Bernard, and he won't be a major contributor to the global economy, but he'll live.)

Unfortunately for the JRA and its PFLP backers, the civvies who died that day were mostly-and I'm sorry, but this is more comedy-well, they were Puerto Rican Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Sixteen of them dead. Puerto Rico. Like it's not bad enough already, their tourists get splattered on a holy journey. If only my old parish had been on tour instead-damn, if the JRA had blasted our "youth pastor" on one of his Israel/Jordan tours I'd have sent them all the lotus flowers they wanted.

Just to be fair, the JRA scheduled another splatter tour of a Muslim country's airport: in 1976 they opened fire in Istanbul Airport, and scored 11 kills. It was another favor to the PFLP, designed to punish the Turks for being soft on Israel. I haven't been able to find out if the 11 dead were Puerto Rican, but I wouldn't be surprised.

In the late 1970s they started looking at the Asian market, with spectacular results: in 1975 they took hostage a whole diplomatic party in Malaysia, and promised to kill them all unless Japan released five of their imprisoned comrades. Other groups try this kind of thing, but you wonder if they're bluffing. Nobody, but nobody, thought the JRA was bluffing, and five JRA vets were out of their cells and on a flight to Libya faster than a Beni Hana chef slices up shrimp.

It worked so well the JRA asked their pals at JAL to step aside as they hijacked another JAL flight, this time in Bombay. They demanded a big cash payment and the release of six JRA prisoners-and got it, as promptly as the last time.

And the JRA was tough but fair; they were just as hard on themselves as on the rest of the world. As in, capital punishment for everybody! When Fusako decided the group was getting too slack, she marched them into a remote Japanese mountain retreat where she conducted her own trials for ideological crimes. As a result of these legal proceedings, 14 JRA members were given the lightest sentence allowed: death by hanging.

Eventually the Japanese cops sniffed out their hideout, and the JRA turned that mountain lodge into another Bataan. Two cops died, but the gore was over all too soon and most of the JRA rank and file was in prison (after a good kicking around by the dead cops' friends).

Their glory days were almost over, but they never stopped trying, trying. In 1988 the JRA bombed a GI hangout in Naples, killing five people. What's much more interesting is that about the same time, a JRA vet named Yu Kikumura was arrested on the New Jersey turnpike with a trunk full of bombs. He was planning to blow up a stateside base, sort of a duet with Naples. I wonder what Yu thought of Jersey. Never been there, but from the pictures I've seen it looks like it could use some radical re-landscaping.

By now the JRA's cadre was getting on in years, mellowing-just didn't feel like killing civvies some days, what with the arthritis and the lower back problems. They were dispersed all over the world, but so tired they started slipping up, getting caught. The final blow was when Fusako got caught in 2000 and, during her trial, announced that she was renouncing terror and going into politics, trying to take power "by legal means." The State department even took the JRA off its red list and demoted them to "groups that need watching."

Sad, like Jordan's baseball career, a disgrace to former greatness.

Saddest thing of all is that without the guns behind her, Fusako trying to talk the voters into electing her dictator of the revolution is as silly as Mishima's standup routine in front of those jeering peacenik "troops" back in 1970. Fusako lasted longer than Mishima did, but she forgot the one thing he did right: when the fun's over, kill yourself before you get turned into a running joke.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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