In November 2000, May Shigenobu stood speechless in front of her TV set in Beirut, staring at crackly satellite images of her mother, Fusako Shigenobu, giving the thumbs-up and smiling as she was led away by police in Osaka, half a world away.
To May, the gesture meant: “Don’t worry about me, I’m OK. You take care of yourself.’‘
To most people, the older Shigenobu is known as the founder of the deadly Japanese Red Army, a group dedicated to the cause of Palestinian liberation that hijacked planes, took hostages and launched a machinegun and grenade attack on Israel’s Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion Airport) in 1972, killing 26 people and injuring 78 others. Arrested in Japan after spending 25 years on the run, Fusako was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in February 2006 by a Japanese court for planning and procuring weapons for the Japanese Red Army’s 1974 storming of the French Embassy in The Hague, the Netherlands (a charge Fusako denies).
The Fusako that May knows, however, is very different. To May, Fusako is the protector she ran to when, as a child in Lebanon, the neighborhood kids threw stones at her for befriending a local Kurdish girl; the wise woman who told her “nothing is impossible”; and the friend she now turns to for everything from advice on her writing and love life to tips on how to be a better cook.
Fusako’s arrest, an event May had long dreaded, was a turning point in her life. Until then May had spent her whole life hiding her true identity and living an unsettled existence in various Middle Eastern countries, filled with fake IDs and sudden departures at night. Growing up, she was frequently separated from her mother for months at a time to protect her from retaliatory attacks by her mother’s enemies; each time they parted May feared that the goodbye would be their last.
A Japanese citizen since April 2001, May now speaks openly about her experiences and her mother’s cause, and has published a book in Japanese about her life, “Himitsu: Paresuchina Kara Sakura no Kuni e — Haha to Watashi no 28-Nen (Secrets: 28 Years With My Mother, From Palestine to the Land of Cherry Blossoms)” (Kodansha, 2002). There are still some secrets she must keep, though, to protect the lives of those close to her: the identity of her father (a Palestinian resistance fighter), for instance, and the names of the countries that sheltered her and her mother during the years they lived in hiding.
Fluent in Arabic, English, Japanese and French, these days May lives in Tokyo, works as a journalist, and teaches English at a cram school. Once a week, she is permitted to visit her mother at the Tokyo Detention House in Katsushika, where they talk through a plastic grille while guards record their conversation, but are not permitted to touch.
The Japan Times recently spent an hour with May Shigenobu, talking about her life in Japan, her thoughts about her mother’s cause, political developments in the Middle East and her own hopes for the future.
For years you’ve had to hide who your mother was, and your own true identity. You still need to conceal your father’s name. What was the first secret your mother told you to keep?
I don’t remember the first time, because I was born with secrets. It’s like you don’t really remember your first memory, or your first word. It’s just like that. It was part of my life. I was born into secrecy . . . the people we met, the people who visited us, the names of friends, the places that we had been to.
What was it like to disclose everything to your mother’s lawyer [after Fusako's arrest], so you could get Japanese citizenship?
It was really hard. It was something I wasn’t used to doing, explaining my real story, my real identity, even though I knew she was my mother’s lawyer and was trustworthy. I wasn’t used to telling people so many things, especially about my background. It was a really, really difficult experience. Every time I had to give information out, I felt as if I was doing something very wrong, and felt guilty.
Which particular secret was hardest to talk about?
The biggest thing was where I was born, and in which hospital. There in that hospital, there are documents that prove I was born there, so it was very necessary for the lawyer to know [this information]. On the other hand, it was an important secret that I had to keep, so that my identity, my existence wouldn’t be out in the open. Other things like when and where I met with my mother, the places I had lived throughout my life, where I studied — those were things that were really necessary for my lawyer to know in handling my citizenship procedure, but at the same time, they were the biggest secrets of my life.
Would you still be putting people who protected you in danger if you disclosed some of that information to me?
If I were to disclose which neighborhoods, which houses I lived in, especially if I was living with an Arab family, it may affect those who are still there. It may hurt them.
Were you ever angry with your mother? Did you ever wish your mother were more like other mothers?
It’s really strange, but I never felt anger toward my mother. Of course I would feel anger that we had to live that way. But that’s not because of my mother. It’s because what my mother and her colleagues were fighting for is not recognized. For some people — the minority, those who are the defeated, those who don’t have power around the world — we’re not criminals.
But didn’t you ever want a normal life?
I don’t blame my mother for the way I lived my life, for the way I am. On the contrary, I’m really, really happy for that experience, because I think I learned a lot from it. I had many good friends. I had many things to think about, many chances to make me think about the value of people, friendship, life, dreams, hope. It was, I think, a very enriching experience. I mean, I feel as if I’ve lived 100 years.
What do you think is the most important lesson you’ve learned from watching your mother?
I’ve learned a lot of things, but the most important thing is she would always say, “People are all equal.” There is no importance to color, race, religion. All those things together are not the person. Humans are all equal, and they all have to have the same rights. [My mother would also say] that it’s important to fight for equality for everyone , especially if you already have the stronger hand.
What about the rights of the people who died at Lod Airport? Is the use of violence acceptable?
You don’t have to accept oppression forever — I don’t think that oppression will listen to you. Look at the apartheid system. They won’t listen to you if you don’t resist. You have to resist, you have to be heard. Resistance must take many forms, but if it is to take the form of an armed struggle, that form of resistance must be directed at only against the occupier.
In Lebanon, you’re a hero’s daughter. Here in Japan, you’re a terrorist’s daughter. How do you deal with that dichotomy?
Actually they are both images I don’t agree with. I don’t think [my mother's] a hero, because she was simply doing something she really believed in; it wasn’t charity. And when you believe in something and you do it, in the process you learn and gain a lot. I think my mother maybe gained more from the Arab world than she gave.
And she’s not a terrorist. She never thought of killing people. She never intended to kill people. On the contrary, she was fighting to stop people from being killed and oppressed and discriminated against.
I think both are unfitting, so it’s not a dichotomy. For me, she’s just my mother.
What did your mother gain from her fight for the Palestinians?
I think she gained a sense of realism. To be in the real world is not about spouting theories and shouting slogans. The real struggle is in living the revolution. The people who are fighting against an occupation, they also have their families, they have to lead their own lives.
Do you experience any discrimination in Japan?
There is no direct discrimination. I was expecting some [before I came] to Japan. Mostly, [problems come from] people who just want to avoid trouble. One time, I went to a bank and they didn’t want to allow me to open a bank account. They said we don’t use or accept terrorist money.
What did you say?
I was, like, “What? If I’m going to earn money from my work, is that terrorist money? Come on, that’s not logical.” I walked away after talking for 30 minutes. But so long as there are people who understand you, then those prejudices are things you can overcome.
Is your mother still fighting now?
Yes. She’s fighting for her rights, for justice. Even through fighting in court [Fusako is appealing the Tokyo District Court sentence], she’s still fighting for justice. Injustice has to be fought with all one’s might, in all domains. It doesn’t have to be in a war zone. Injustice can be everywhere, and we have to fight it everywhere.
What does it mean to fight?
There is a perception that fighting means carrying arms. But you can fight in court. You can fight by doing what you do best. For instance, if you’re a journalist, you can fight to show what’s real, and say what’s right. Resistance means making your message heard, through teaching, learning, singing, dancing and communicating with other people. This is all resistance, this is all struggle. It’s not just [about] carrying arms. It’s not enough to carry arms. You have to get your message through to other people. Maybe then they will help you not to use arms. Maybe there will be a time when you don’t have to kill people to resist.
Didn’t your mother have that option?
I don’t think we can really judge what happened 30 years ago. It was a completely different era, when there was the Vietnam War and there was a really different mood and a different way of thinking. And unfortunately, there are situations, especially for the Palestinian people, where there is no other means for survival, other than to fight what is oppressing you.
Would your mother’s struggle have taken another form if she were born today?
My mother is a realist, as well as an idealist, and would abide by today’s standards, and I would as well. If I’m going to continue the fight for the Palestinian cause, I want to make use of communication and human networks. Knowledge is the most important weapon, and I want to inform people what’s going on.
What is your struggle right now?
My struggle is to show what I know, what I experienced, what I learned from the Middle East. The losers don’t have the means of publicizing their point of view. In war, it’s the same. Right now, the Palestinian, Arab and Islamic societies have no means of truly introducing what they’re fighting for, or their point of view. It’s my mission, my responsibility to try to do a small amount of that, as much as I can.
Where does the solution for the Middle Eastern situation start?
When superpowers, influential powers, remain neutral, that’s a start. The reason Israel has economic and political power is because it has the support of the United States. As the only superpower in this world, the U.S. should have the guts to say what’s wrong and what’s right. It’s wrong to say Sharon is a man of peace. Sharon massacred many Palestinians and wouldn’t have hesitated to do so again.
What would peace there look like?
It would have no walls. At least not that wall that’s now being built [by Israel]. Borders are OK, boundaries are OK, but not when they cut through villages, farms or schools. Security can be achieved when both sides are satisfied, not when there’s oppression. Security can’t be enforced. Peace cannot be enforced. I think if Israel respected the 1967 borders, there would be peace. No one is against having borders with Israel. They’re just asking for a just and viable territory.
Is there anything from your relationship with your mother that you would apply to yourself as a mother, if you were to have children in the future ?
Maybe that the time you spend with them is not the only way to prove that you love your children. That even in a short time, you can show your emotions, your love, your real and deep affection for your child by being wise.
How was your mother wise?
By being there when necessary. And by being able to explain, when she wasn’t going to be there, why she wasn’t. You can’t expect people to understand you if you don’t explain, but if you do they will understand you all the way. [My mother] wasn’t there for me all the time, but it was as though she was. I love her just the same, maybe even more. And I knew that she didn’t want to put me in danger by being with her. When we were together, I always felt that I was the priority in her life.
If you could make one wish come true for your mother right now, what would it be?
I wish she would be found innocent. I want her to enjoy the rest of her life without having to struggle, without having to hide, without thinking of all the people around us, and worrying about everyone’s security. I want her to live for herself, to enjoy the Japan that she loved, enjoy life with her sisters, brothers and family, to enjoy memories with her old schoolmates. I want her to enjoy all that before she’s 70 or 80.
If your mother had known 30 years ago the price that you both have had to pay, do you think she would have acted any differently?
I’m not paying the price. I think she’s suffering the most. But she doesn’t regret believing in what she did. And she does believe in rights for the Palestinians. I think that she would maybe change some things if she had to go through it again, but not the core of it. Not what she believes in.
Do you regret your mother’s actions?
I wouldn’t change my life, I wouldn’t change the way I was born, I wouldn’t change my mother if I were given a chance. I would want my life to be the way it was. I would want to be born in Lebanon, in Beirut. I would want to experience war, I would want meet all the friends and people I met. I would want to be hit with stones. I don’t want any of that to go away. I don’t feel bad about the way I lived or sad about the life I had. On the contrary, I am very, very grateful.