Interpreter for Red Army terrorist still indignant 50 years after Tel Aviv attack

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tomoo Ishida, professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba, speaks with The Yomiuri Shimbun in Ibaraki Prefecture in April.

It was 50 years ago on May 30 that three Japanese Red Army members opened fire with automatic weapons at Lod international airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, killing or wounding about 100 people.

Looking back on the incident, Tomoo Ishida, who served as the interpreter during the interrogations, recalled the anger he felt listening to one of the terrorists try to justify such a ruthless act in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

“I felt a strong resentment at their completely distorted sense of justice,” said Ishida, now 90 and a professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba.

Ishida, who was studying Israeli history at a university there at the time, had gone to the airport in the early hours of May 31, 1972, to pick up a friend from Tokyo. Even though it was around 1:30 a.m., the airport was busy.

The entrance to the terminal building was crowded, and Japanese words such as “kamikaze” and “harakiri” were being bandied about. Several hours earlier, three Japanese men from an Air France flight from Paris had sprayed the lobby with random shots from automatic rifles.

More than 20 tourists and others lie dead, and, including the injured, the victims totaled over 100.

Worried about his friend’s safety, Ishida went over and spoke to an Israeli soldier standing nearby. The soldier replied, “Are you Japanese? If so, come with me.” Ishida was asked to interpret for the lone surviving terrorist.

Sitting across from him in a room in the airport was Kozo Okamoto.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Kozo Okamoto in 1997

Okamoto was among the founding members of the Japanese Red Army, which was formed in Lebanon by extremist groups that evolved from the student movements of the 1960s.

In the 1970s, the group focused its terrorist acts mainly on embassy takeovers and hijackings. From the late 1980s, the group curtailed its activities, and in 2001, then-leader Fusako Shigenobu announced its dissolution. Okamoto, now 74, is among seven former members who remain on an international wanted list.

When Ishida first encountered Okamoto at Lod airport, he was wearing a muddy running shirt and sitting on a chair. With the world on alert over a series of terrorist attacks, the interrogators wanted Okamoto to reveal the details of the plot.

Okamoto only answered questions posed in English with a simple “yes” or “no.” He appeared relaxed and seemed only intent on providing the minimum information required.

The only time he showed any emotion was when he left the room and was shown the bodies of Tsuyoshi Okudaira and Yasuyuki Yasuda, who were believed to have blown themselves up with grenades. Okudaira was just 26 at the time, and Yasuda 25.

Okamoto suddenly burst into tears and starting wailing.

Okamoto seemed to feel regret that he was the only one who survived. When an interrogator told Okamoto that after he was done with the questioning, he would give the Japanese a gun loaded with one bullet, Okamoto, perhaps thinking he would be allowed to commit suicide, began talking about the military training he received in Lebanon prior to the attack and other matters.

But when the questioning ended, the interrogator never declared that the investigation was over, and Okamoto was never given a gun. It was just a means for extracting a confession. The interrogation technique was later condemned as inappropriate.

Ishida also served as Okamoto’s interpreter at his trial. “It is my mission to link with [Palestinian and other] revolutionary forces and change the world,” Okamoto said in justifying his actions in court.

Ishida was not convinced. “He did not properly understand the history of the Jewish people and the situation of Israel,” Ishida said.

Okamoto was sentenced to life in prison, but was released in 1985 and received political asylum from Lebanon in 2000. He is said to be in contact with Japanese supporters and keeping abreast of the news in Japan.

Fifty years after the incident that gave him a first-hand look at the Japanese Red Army, Ishida hopes such groups can be prevented from ever being formed in the future.

“Behavior that brandishes a unilateral sense of justice is still going on around the world,” he said. “We must never forget what happened, and must learn from the mistakes made by our fellow Japanese.”