TOKYO (majriox news) – A few days ago, Hiroko Nagata died of a brain tumor at age 65 on death row in Musashino prison. With her an entire age passed, but her death went almost unnoticed in a country that was once riveted by her every action. Once one of the most violent and notorious members of the Japanese United Red Army, her passing merited nothing more than a few articles in the back pages of some newspapers. Her life and her era is something that most Japanese would like to forget.
Like Italy and Germany in the 60s, the Vietnam War spawned an entire generation of radicals whose quest for ideological purity and attempt to separate themselves from their own bourgeois past led them deeper and deeper into the rationalization of violence and staging of an all-out war on the state that they viewed as an oppressor and American tool.
Like the Red Army in Italy and the Bader-Meinhoff Gang in Germany, Japan’s Red Army were killed or captured by police, split into factions who fought with each other or fled to the supposed sanctuary of Communist states. In Japan the Red Army turned their violence increasingly inward as a combination of paranoia and genuine betrayal turned group member against group member, leading to kangaroo courts dispensing “revolutionary justice” and the murder of any member suspected of “right wing deviationism,” “desertion” or of being a police agent. Leading some of the bloodiest of this violence was Hiroko Nagata.
“Hiroko Nagata’s punishment for her Red Army activities — the most extreme of which was committing or instigating the killings of a dozen of her own organization’s members — was nearly 40 years of legal purgatory, in a solitary cell on death row, in a country that last executed a female in 1965,” says Mark Schreiber, author of the 1996 non-fiction book Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan. “I think one reason why the authorities have been disinclined to consider amnesty to Nagata and her colleagues is that for several decades the Japanese Red Army engaged in guerrilla attacks, hijackings and other terrorist acts on five continents, creating a huge international embarrassment for Japan.”
The group, which continued for almost two decades, attacked embassies, bombed buildings, and killed 26 people and injured more than 80 people at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv in 1972. In Japan five members took a hostage at the Asama Mountain Lodge in the Karuizawa resort north of Tokyo in 1972 and had a gun battle with police.
Nagata and the Red Army’s chair Tsueno Mori initiated violent purges of its group’s members. It started with intimidating their victims about minor offenses and escalated into beatings, starvation and finally the death of 14 of its members. Six were tied to trees outside where they froze to death in the freezing mountain temperatures. One was killed for asking for some tissue paper while inside his sleeping bag and some were killed for trying to escape.
Nagata’s support group
Nagata changed her negative image by writing many books while in prison and gained a following of supporters, including thousands of women. They complained the media made her into a caricature of a “crazed-she devil.”
“Not surprisingly media portrayals of Nagata were uniformly negative,” said Andrew Horvat, Japan Expert and former Japan Representative of the Asia Foundation. “While she is described often as going into a ‘hysterical rage’ when excited, there were other members of the group who probably acted no better or worse.”
Japan’s best-known Buddhist nun and novelist Harumi Setouchi, who exchanged letters with Nagata, has said, “Killing fellow members like that was wrong no matter what. In 1911, anarchist Sugako Kanno (whose biography she wrote) was hanged after having been found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Emperor Meiji.
“All they wanted was to make the country and the world a better place. Nagata and Kanno had acted not out of greed. They had passion for their ideal world. I feel sympathetic towards people like them.” Setouchi called Nagata courageous for fighting her battle with a cancerous tumor. She was bedridden for the last few years of her life and died of multiple organ failure.
Atsuyuki Sassa, a former elite police officer who led the siege of the mountain lodge in 1972, disagrees. She criticized Japan’s justice system for keeping her alive for nearly four decades after her crimes. Sassa told Jiji Press that death row inmates with ideological motives are usually kept alive in Japan, where the justice minister must order executions individually.
“So much tax money was spent on Nagata, who received operations and kept alive,” he said. “No one thinks about the police officers who were killed in the line of duty.”
It was impossible to live through this era without being profoundly touched by it, according to Takeda Guntaro, a college student at the time, who now runs a bar in Ikebukuro.
“It was entirely unlike today,” he says. “Ikeburko was once the center of the Chukakuha, which was the most notorious and violent of all the leftist groups. A customer pointed out the article about Nagata’s death in the paper and we must have ended up talking for two or three hours about the Red Army, the siege of Tokyo University and the JAL hijacking to North Korea.
“What sticks in my mind about this conversation was what he said before he left, ‘Back then, it didn’t matter what you believed just as long as you believed it absolutely.’ That summed up Nagata and her entire era.”