On her 8th birthday, Mei Shigenobu’s mother sat her daughter down and told her that she was the leader of the Japanese Red Army Faction, a group of revolutionary Marxists fighting to violently overthrow global capitalism. It was part of a very unconventional childhood.
Mei grew up in Palestine, hunted by Japanese authorities and Israeli secret agents, rarely far from war and death. She lived with refugees and political dissidents. The normal background sound, for much of her early life, was “machine guns,” she recalls in a recent interview.
Today, she is 41 and her mother is in a Japanese prison, suffering from cancer and serving out a 20-year sentence on terrorism offenses. Shigenobu divides her life between Tokyo and Beirut, the once war-torn city that shaped her as a young girl.
“I’m happy to have a foot in both places. I consider Japan my home,” she says, though also lamenting the rightward drift in the country over the past decade. “But that doesn’t mean that you become un-Japanese — it’s something in you.”
Mei is the subject of a fascinating documentary, released in Japan this month, which follows the adult daughters of Fusako Shigenobu and Ulrike Meinhof, two of the most famous and controversial female Red Army revolutionaries of the late 20th century.
Directed by Irish filmmaker Shane O’Sullivan, “Children of the Revolution” is partly a historical record of the violent upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, and partly an exploration of how kids live with their parents’ choices. For Mei and Bettina Rohl (Meinhof’s daughter), it was also an opportunity to bypass crude media caricatures and speak directly about their notorious mothers.
“I’m sure there are going to be a lot of people thinking, ‘Yes, OK, these terrorists were mothers also,’ but for them they are still criminals,” says Shigenobu. “Japanese people have an image of my mother as being a wicked, brutal person and that’s not what I know of her. People don’t have a chance to see who she really was.”
Both women leaders had conventional, bourgeois childhoods before being radicalized by the anti-Vietnam War movement. Shigenobu’s father was a major in the Japanese Imperial Army, Meinhof’s was an art historian.
Meinhof, a former journalist, helped launch a campaign of bombings and robberies against capitalist targets before hanging herself in prison in 1976. Shigenobu became a student leader, then decamped to Lebanon in 1971 to support the cause of Palestinian refugees who were expelled after the creation of Israel in 1948. For better or worse, her organization is forever associated with a botched 1972 attack on Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport in which 26 people died and 80 were injured.
The Lod bloodbath was one of the nadirs of the post-1960s revolutionary movement, which descended from mass action into sometimes desperate acts of individual terrorism. But Mei insists the event has been misunderstood.
“It was not the Red Army but a Palestine Liberation Army operation,” she says. “And it was crossfire that killed people. It was Israel that refused any inquiry into how these people were killed.”
Both children had to share their mothers with an often hostile world. Shigenobu was away for much of her daughter’s childhood, fighting alongside a Palestinian revolutionary, who Mei later learned, at age 16, was her father. In 2000, from thousands of miles away in Lebanon, she watched her mother’s arrest in Japan on television.
For years, Mei often changed schools and names to stay under the radar and protect her mother from capture or assassination. She was stateless until, after much legal wrangling, Japan gave her a passport when she was 28 years old.
“That life was hardest of all on Mei,” Masao Adachi, a former Japanese Red Army member says in the documentary. “I still feel sorry for her even now.”
Both Bettina and Mei became journalists: Mei worked for Japanese broadcaster Asahi Newstar, then later in Arabic for the Middle East Broadcasting Center, a satellite service run by the United Arab Emirates. She says she still supports the Palestinian cause but, like her mother, now renounces the use of violence to achieve it.
Fusako has been incarcerated since November 2000 and is in Hachioji Medical Prison, where she has had three operations for cancer. She has written books in an attempt, says Mei, to set the record straight. Many of Shigenobu’s supporters think the conviction that will keep her in prison for at least another decade, is flawed.
“It’s very, very tough for me to see her in prison after being convicted without real proof,” admits Mei. “But she’s a very positive person who doesn’t show her pain.
“I feel that me being angry or depressed won’t change anything, and it won’t make her happy. So what I can do is try to inform people of the reality. For me, forgetting her and the issues she fought for would be the worst thing that can happen.”
“Children of the Revolution” is showing now at Theatre Shinjuku in Tokyo. Tickets are ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.ttcg.jp/theatre_shinjuku.