The rock star who defected to North Korea — and now regrets it – National |


The 1960s were a turbulent time. Assassinations, riots, civil rights protests, and angry opposition to the war in Vietnam. This unrest wasn’t confined to North America, either. It seemed that the whole world was about to come apart at the seams.

Japan had its own issues. There was the Anpo struggle, an on-again, off-again series of protests against the post-WWII treaty that allowed the U.S. to maintain military bases in the country. Thousands were involved across the country, sometimes resulting in violent clashes with police. Along with university students around the world in 1968-69, Japan saw daigaku funsō (“university troubles”) that took on everything from the construction of Narita Airport to the management of post-secondary schools.

One of the most dangerous challenges to the status quo came from the Communist League, the precursor to the Japanese Red Army, a violent militant communist group that was eventually rightly branded a terrorist organization.

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This leads us back to Les Rallizes Dénudés, a psychedelic and experimental rock formed at Doshisha University in Kyoto in 1967. The group, a merger between the artistic ambitions of vocalist Takashi Mizutani and a radical theatre group known as Gendai Gekijo, itself wasn’t staunchly political, although they did perform for protestors and students during the late ’60s, including an event known as the Barricades A Go-Go concert in 1968. Individual members were also sympathetic to and participated in both the Anpo struggle and daigaku funsō, no one more so than bass player Moriaki Wakabayashi.

Wakabayashi was all-in when it came to participating in the Communist League’s Red Army Faction. On March 31, 1970, he was part of a group (Kyosando Sekigunha) that hijacked Japan Air Lines flight 351, which became known as the “Yodo-go” incident. The super far-left Red Army Faction, hoping to inspire a popular uprising in Japan — a Soviet-style proletarian revolution — that would remake the country as the headquarters for a greater global revolution against the U.S. and its allies.

About 20 minutes after the 727 took off from Haneda Airport (then known as Tokyo International) on a short hop to Fukuoka, a Communist League member named Takamaro Tamiya popped out of his seat with a samurai sword, yelled that the plane was being hijacked, and ordered the eight other members of the group — including Wakabayashi — to draw their weapons: more swords, steel pipes, and bombs. The pilots were then ordered to fly the plane to Cuba. Seven crew members and 122 passengers were now hostages. (Takashi Mizutani had been offered a role in the hijacking but he declined.)

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One problem: The 727-200 had a maximum range of 4,720 km. The distance from Tokyo to Havana is over 12,000 km. The aircraft didn’t have anywhere enough fuel capacity to make the jumps over the Pacific. Clearly, the Communist League knew little about civil aviation.

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When informed of that inconvenient fact, the hijackers demanded that the plane fly to Pyongyang in ultra-communist North Korea, a much more reasonable 1,300 km away but a destination that still required a refueling stop. After touching down in Fukuoka to gas up and to free 23 of the passengers, the plane took off again.

But authorities had a plan. Instead of flying to Pyongyang, the crew diverted the plane to Kimpo Airport in Seoul, South Korea. By the time it landed, the airport had been staged to look like something in North Korea. The hijackers disembarked, thinking they had successfully carried out their mission and could still somehow make it to Cuba where they hoped to be trained as guerilla fighters.

When they entered the terminal, something seemed … off. Why was American jazz music playing over the PA? Where was the welcoming committee from Kim Il-Sung’s DPRK? Uh-oh.

The hijackers were furious and promised no safe release of the remaining hostages until they were granted passage to North Korea where they could seek asylum. That seemed to be a reasonable plan, so the demands were granted and the plane few to Mirim Airport in the North on April 3. Moriaki Wakabayashi was among the defectors, surrendering himself to North Korean officials. He was fired from Les Rallizes Dénudés for obvious reasons. Everyone was placed on Interpol’s most-wanted list. The entire incident was considered a national embarrassment for Japan.

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Although they were initially welcomed as heroes of the great socialist revolution — at least in public with military medals and luxury accommodation in Pyongyang’s “village of the revolution” — things didn’t turn out so well for them. North Korea was annoyed that they were the hijackers second choice behind Cuba and treated their unwanted guests accordingly.

One of the hijackers was arrested hiding in Japan after entering the country on a fake passport. Another was arrested in Thailand and deported back to Japan. Two hijackers, including Takamaro Tamiya, died in the North. That leaves five survivors, among them Wakabayashi.

We know a little about the defected rocker. In 1976, Wakabayashi married another radical activist, one of several brides secretly flown in from Japan for the hijackers. His political views softened dramatically, saying in 2010 that hijacking a plane full of innocent people was “a selfish and conceited” idea and that he’d gladly return to Japan to face trial. As far was anyone knows, Wakabayashi is still living somewhere in North Korea. His fellow hijackers pleaded to go home for decades.

Meanwhile, Les Rallizes Dénudés continued as a band until 1988 and reunited between 1993 and 1996. The group’s mysterious leader, Takashi Mizutani, keeping a low profile, perhaps living in Paris for a while. Shows, recordings, and interviews were few and far between. Rumours are that he died in 2019.


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