May Shigenobu: Daughter of the Japanese Red Army

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May Shigenobu
Image caption,
May Shigenobu is a journalist in Japan

As the daughter of the Japanese Red Army's founder and a Palestinian freedom fighter, May Shigenobu grew up on the run.

She kept her identity secret and spent long periods without her mother throughout her childhood, but it was a happy one.

She now lives in Japan where she works as a journalist for a broadcaster in the Middle East.

"At first, when I was very young we would move house every month or so, especially when I was living with members of the Japanese Red Army.

Their Asian features stood out in Middle Eastern society and someone could leak information, intentionally or unintentionally, about us being in the neighbourhood.

I did see my mother, but not as much as a normal family. I was with her for about a total of four or five years, but it was all quality time so it was ok.

I had a brother and a sister, though we weren't related by blood - they were children of my mother's comrades - we felt like family.

Whenever my mother was around she was very keen on teaching us Japanese. And there was time to do fun things like writing and acting in plays, composing music for it or going on small picnics and trips within the country.

No friends

I asked her once who my father was, when I was quite young. She promised that she would tell me when I was 16 years old and she kept her promise.

He was a Palestinian fighter like my mother - I actually knew him and had suspicions that he was my father because of the special love and attention he would show. It wasn't really difficult to guess.

He has passed away now and I'm not sure he was aware that I knew about him.

I used to use several names per year when I was very young, depending on security and how many times I had to change schools and neighbourhoods.

The difficult thing was that people in the Middle East are very friendly, but they also tend to ask a lot of personal questions, about your family and your history, so every time I had to change my identity I had to think hard about all the details of that identity.

I didn't have long-lasting friendships because I couldn't stay in one place for long, and I couldn't stay in touch with people once I left. I always had to disappear suddenly and remove any trace of myself.


We spent time living in refugee camps but just for a short periods; while I was doing volunteer work in clinics or while we were looking for a new place to live.

I sometimes lived in Palestinian refugee camps to be more in contact with the reality of what my mother and her group were fighting for.

I did ask her once, rhetorically, why we had to live in that kind of situation, where we were always unstable and always worried about not making security mistakes.

She tried to explain as best she could how it was important for all of us to protect each other. She seemed very sorry and sad that I had to live this way.

Seeing her feel sad for me made me realise I should have never asked that question.

At any time I could have been kidnapped or even killed with my mother. There were Palestinian leaders who were assassinated with their children, so it was always a possibility.

Still, I have always thought that she was a good mother. I'm not sure that I could be as enduring and calm, and as reasonable and realistic under all the stress that she was carrying.

She was responsible, not just for me, but also for the other children in the Japanese Red Army and the whole group. I'm sure that was a difficult thing for anybody to be able to handle.

Image caption,
Fusako Shigenobu set up the Japanese Red Army to support Palestinian freedom fighters

As an adult it became even harder to have close friends when I was attending university in Lebanon. I felt more strongly towards my friends and had a stronger urge to create an honest bond with them, but at the same time I had the obligation of never revealing who I was - because this would put others in danger.

In 2000, I found that my mother had been arrested in Japan, it was a shock. Even though I was prepared to hear this someday, I really didn't expect it to happen. I was shocked but I was also relieved that she had not been assassinated.

Last hug

My mother's arrest was the reason I came to Japan for the first time. I had mixed feelings; even though I had never been there it felt a little nostalgic. I had seen a Japanese society at work in a minuscule way inside the house when I was growing up, coming to Japan brought me back those memories.

After she was arrested I revealed my true identity officially and openly, I went back to my friends in Lebanon and explained my past to them. All of them were understanding and my university friends are still very close friends now.

On 8 March 2006, my mother was jailed for 20 years. I used to visit her every week but now that she has received her final sentence and finished all court procedures, she can only have two 15-minute visits a month - one from me and one from other relatives and friends.

It was her birthday on 28 September and the guard gave us about 20 minutes. We always talk in a rush because we have plenty of things to tell and ask each other.

She comes prepared with written notes in order not to forget what to ask and tell. I also write things down too, if there is something I want to tell her about and don't want to forget.

Since she was arrested I haven't been able to have physical contact with her, except once.

She had an operation for intestinal cancer a year and a half ago. When I went to visit her after the operation she was still immobile in her hospital bed.

I was allowed to see her in her room, so I had the chance to hug her for the first time in more than ten years. That was the only time I could hug her in a very long time.

I'm not sure I could be as strong, as patient, and as steadfast as she was. But I try to be, she is a role model for me."

Listen to May Shigenobu on Outlook from the BBC World Service. Download the podcast here.