TOKYO — On Mei Shigenobu's eighth birthday, her mother revealed a closely guarded secret: Everyone living in their house was a member of the Japanese Red Army terrorist group. "I've known that since I was 3 or 4," she told her mother, a woman on Japan's most-wanted list. "But you seemed to want to keep it a secret, so I pretended not to know."
A lifetime of pretending came to an end in April when the 28-year-old dropped her assumed name and flew to Japan from Beirut after the arrest of her mother, Fusako Shigenobu, in Osaka. Six weeks later, three other children of Red Army guerrillas followed from North Korea to start new lives and discover their ancestral homeland.
These young people came into the world as fugitives and were raised by parents who once shared a leftist zeal. But their lives were starkly different.
In the early 1970s, the Red Army broke into several factions. Shigenobu and her group headed for Lebanon, where they hid in a community of their own creation in the midst of a civil war. A second group hijacked a Japan Airlines jet to North Korea, where they lived more or less openly but under strict rules set by their reclusive Communist hosts.
The four daughters interviewed are a study in contrasts: A poised, confident and thoughtful Mei Shigenobu voices strong views on Israel, U.S. foreign policy, globalization and what she sees as Japan's spiritual emptiness and loss of traditional values. Her three extremely shy, even shellshocked counterparts from North Korea say they want to go to Tokyo Disneyland and Japan's popular Uniqlo clothing store.
On Wednesday, however, Mei woke up to a changed world: Her mother, from behind bars, had ordered the dissolution of the Red Army, according to a statement faxed to the daily Yomiuri Shimbun.
Mei says her childhood was characterized by frequent moves, aliases, a readiness to leave best friends behind at a moment's notice and long periods of separation from her mother. Early on, she learned that even a minor slip could cost the lives of everyone she loved at the hands of Israel's ever-vigilant Mossad intelligence service, which was intent on tracking them down after her mother allegedly masterminded a 1972 Red Army attack on Tel Aviv's airport that killed 24 people and wounded 76.
Yet her early years were also filled with many ordinary joys, including dating, listening to pop music, swimming and gossiping with close friends.
She was born March 1, 1973, in Lebanon, to Fusako Shigenobu and a man whose identity remains a secret to outsiders, other than that he was a fighter for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
In a book written from jail about her relationship with her daughter, Fusako Shigenobu paints a picture of a hardened revolutionary poring over Dr. Spock books as she tries to change diapers and allay the anxieties common to any new mother.
Mei says her first eight or nine years were spent in a commune, an island of mostly Japanese Red Army members living in various Palestinian camps filled with refugees who shared the group's aim of an independent Palestinian state. Her mother would often be gone for months at a time, and Mei would sometimes plead to be taken along, only to be told it was too cold.
During her mother's long absences, other Japanese Red Army comrades filled in, helping her with homework, making school lunches, putting her to bed. She considers them part of her family.
The group was very organized, with schedules and rotating chore lists. Mei says most big decisions were made by consensus, with even the opinion of the youngest taken into account during discussions and lively debates.
Over time, the group's hope of changing the world gradually faded, but its members organized their home along three revolutionary pillars: solidarity, self-sacrifice and self-criticism. Each day, Mei says, members assembled to consider and criticize their own mistakes and suggest ways to avoid them in the future.
Asked about the Red Army's violent past and the loss of innocent lives, Mei says her mother and comrades reflected certain values of another age, when armed struggle seemed to some the only way to bring about quick change.
The Tel Aviv operation wasn't supposed to kill anyone, she adds, asserting that Israel blocked an investigation into who actually fired the bullets. "If they had looked at the origin of those bullets, it would be a different story," she says. "The airport security people shot at people."
In her book, Fusako expresses regret that her daughter never had a normal childhood. When a young Mei was asked to appear on a student news show, for instance, she had to decline, given the risk such exposure represented to the group. "Because I was wanted, I couldn't make your life free," Fusako writes. "I apologize."