Japanese Red Army terrorists dream of going home

Richard Lloyd Parry reports on the dilemmas facing a hijack gang and the children they have fathered in exile

Tokyo - "I hope they will be able to visit me in Japan," says Tomoko Konishi. "They're lovely girls, you know. Very nice, decent, normal Japanese girls." The photograph bears her out: in it, Mrs Konishi, 74, stands stiffly with her two granddaughters - pretty, rather earnest-looking teenagers who stare unsmilingly into the camera. But, whatever their granny thinks, Ritsuko and Yumi Konishi are not your average Japanese schoolgirls. The family reunion she is planning is reopening a 25-year- old controversy about one of Japan's most notorious crimes.

At the centre of the case is Takahiro Konishi, 51, son of Tomoko and father of the two girls. In March 1970, as leader of the Red Army Faction, he led one of the most sensational hijacks in history. Nine student revolutionaries, armed with guns and swords, seized a Japan Airlines jet carrying 138 people. After landing in South Korea, they swapped the passengers and crew for a single hostage: the Japanese deputy minister of transport, who had volunteered to take their place. From Seoul they flew to Pyongyang, where they were welcomed by North Korea as heroes and political refugees. The Japanese demanded their repatriation but, lacking diplomatic relations with Pyongyang,they were ignored.

Other Red Army members in Japan were imprisoned for planning the crime but from North Korea almost no news was heard. Then came a remarkable disclosure: three years ago, in an interview with a Japanese newspaper, the late dictator, Kim Il Sung, referred to the hijackers in unflattering terms: "They cannot truly be called revolutionaries, because they live comfortably with their wives and children." The hijackers, it turned out, had Japanese wives, Red Army sympathisers who had smuggled themselves into North Korea via Eastern Europe.

Supporters' groups began visiting Mr Konishi and his comrades and uncovered new surprises: for years, Pyongyang supported them, but recently, as it made twitchy attempts to attract Western aid, its welcome for the terrorists appears to have cooled. In 1990, the government withdrew financial support. The erstwhile student terrorists now run their own travel agency and import- export business, trading with former Communist states.

But North Korea's economyis in crisis: after summer floods and wretched harvests, there are predictions of famine. Since the death of Kim last year, few observers know who commands power. Understandably, all but one of the hijackers now wish to return to Japan.

The wives are wanted for passport violations; the best that the hijackers themselves can look forward to is long prison sentences. But among them they have fathered 18 children, the eldest Mr Konishi's daughter Ritsuko, 18.

Like all parents, they want the best for them. "The children are Japanese," says Yukio Yamanaka, of the Salvation Centre, a left-wing group which supports their repatriation, "but all their classmates are Korean. The education they receive is nationalistic, all about 'our glorious mother- country'. In Pyongyang there is just the Kim Il Sung University; Japan has hundreds of universities to choose from. Their grandparents visit them and tell them about Japan: they just want to visit and see what it is like."

At present, the children are stateless. On her recent visit, Mrs Konishi obtained her granddaughters' birth certificates and this month they were submitted to the authorities with the aim of obtaining passports for the sisters. The case is unprecedented and Japan's Byzantine bureaucracy is sure to take a good deal of time reaching a decision. But Mr Yamanaka is confident that all the hijackers' children will eventually return to Japan.

What awaits them when they do? Quite apart from the inevitable suspicion that they are spies, Japanese society is notoriously intolerant of former exiles. Even children who have grown up in Europe or America often face bullying and alienation when they return to Japan.

There is a tendency, too, to project the sins of the fathers on to succeeding generations. The children of another public enemy - Shoko Asahara, guru of the Aum Shinri Kyo sect, suspected of the sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March - are facing this problem in their home town, where suspicious parents are resisting attempts to enroll them in the local school.

As a family, the Konishis can live together only in North Korea. "Unless they can all come back together, it cannot be a homecoming in the real sense," says Mrs Konishi. "My granddaughters are innocent, but I expect a lot of difficulties ahead."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Travel
travel
News
news
News
Sir James Dyson: 'Students must be inspired to take up the challenge of engineering'
i100
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £24,000

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An enthusiastic individual is r...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - West Midlands - OTE £35,000

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - Yorkshire & Humber - OTE £35,000

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?