The student movement that began to protest revising the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in 1960 was 7 years old when Yasuhiro Uegaki entered Hirosaki University in Aomori Prefecture in April 1967. The campus in northern Japan was still quiet, and the physics student was indifferent to politics.
Five years later, however, he was deeply involved in antigovernment campaigns as a member of the United Red Army.
“I was a nonpolitical student at first. But I became one of the organizers of strikes on my university’s campus (in 1969), pushed by my classmates just because I used to organize drinking parties,” 59-year-old Uegaki recalled during a recent phone interview after explaining his actions at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan to discuss the film “Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama Sanso e no Michi (United Red Army — The Path to Asama Mountain Lodge).”
That year, Uegaki met an executive member of the Red Army who asked him to make explosives for the group, which was an ultraleftist organisation formed by radicals who believed in communism and aspired to start a revolution by force. Part of the group later formed the United Red Army.
“At the time, I thought we had to begin armed struggle. Riot police crushed student strikes, so if we wanted to win over them, we needed weapons,” he said.
Uegaki joined a violent rally in Tokyo in October 1969 as a Red Army member and threw firebombs and stones at riot police. He was among 1,300 campaigners arrested and served 14 months in prison.
Violent acts continued against the government, which the radicals accused of supporting the decade-long Vietnam War via the treaty with the Americans.
Uegaki was released in December 1970. The United Red Army was formed a year later when he and eight other Red Army members joined about 20 members of the leftist group Kakumei Saha (Revolutionary Left Sect).
Uegaki was not involved in the nine-day standoff between police and five United Red Army members at the Asama Mountain Lodge in Nagano in 1972. But he did take part in the military drills in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture that preceded the incident — and participated in the killing of 12 URA comrades during disciplinary action.
“To make ourselves communize, I thought seeking self-criticism of each member was necessary,” Uegaki said. “I doubted we needed to fasten the members to a pole and hit them. But I was just a soldier of the sect, and executing (other members under orders from leaders) was what soldiers had to do.”
Uegaki was arrested by a police patrol on Feb. 19, 1972, in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, when he and three other members went to town to buy food and other supplies.
Five other URA members who stayed in the mountains tried to flee from police and ended up barricading themselves inside the lodge at Asama.
“Police officers told me that night that the five members took over the lodge. I wanted them to fight as long as possible and not to give up easily,” Uegaki said.
The five fugitives lost the gun battle with police (hundreds surrounded the lodge) and were arrested on Feb. 28, 1972. Japanese media reported the shootout round-the-clock, and a viewing rating on NHK’s news program broadcasting it live hit 50.8 percent that day, according to Video Research Ltd.
Leftist activities have since lost sympathizers and public support. Uegaki believes that religious cults have replaced ultraleftist sects in attracting young radicals — a case in point being the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the sarin terrorist attacks in the subway systems in Tokyo in 1995.
Having spent 27 years in prison for murdering the URA members and other offenses, Uegaki now runs a snack bar named Baron in Shizuoka City.
“I wish the incidents had never occurred,” he said. “The United Red Army did not leave anything positive (to future generations). But it did reveal some problems” faced by Japanese for decades.
Acceptance of violence is one, Uegaki says, citing the alleged hazing death last year of novice sumo wrestler Tokitaizan by seniors under the guise of training.
“We have not overcome this deep-rooted problem even (a few decades) after the United Red Army brought it to the surface,” Uegaki said.