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."
But Mei says her mother gave her so much in other ways, even though normal childhood friendships were difficult. "It was always frustrating when we moved, especially in my case, because I had to cut all contacts and couldn't call, write or visit friends," she says. "But in the long run, I learned a lot. It makes you learn to start from zero."
Mei says she saw her mother intermittently. But when they were together--a day here, a week there, at most a couple of months--her mother made the most of it. "It was quality time," Mei says.
"I miss that time and don't think it will be possible to ever live like that again," Mei says. "People have separated; some are in jail with very long sentences."
By the early 1980s, the group started to stand out more, even in war-ravaged Lebanon, and its members decided to split up. From then on, she lived in smaller groups, sometimes with Arab families. The end of the Cold War forced them to go even further underground. "There was less money and fewer people by that time," she says, "but mostly it got more dangerous."
Her mother's life as a fugitive ended Nov. 8 on an Osaka street, where police caught her, carrying a laptop computer and $9,000 in cash. A nearby hide-out turned up two fake passports that showed she'd recently traveled between Japan and China. As she was taken into custody, she flashed a thumbs-up sign for the cameras.
"It was a shock for me," Mei says, "but in a way I was always expecting it too."
Mei has moved to Japan in large part to be close to her mother, whom she visits in prison several times a week. "I'm proud of my family," she says. "I don't mind if other people have a problem with that. I don't, and I think I'm the important person in this." She says she feels she belongs in Japan, the nation of her mother's birth, even if she doesn't end up living here forever.
Mei has not met the three young women from North Korea--Ritsuko Konishi, 23; Azumi Tanaka, 22; and Asaka Tamiya, 22, the daughter of faction leader Takamaro Tamiya--but says she hopes to soon to compare notes.
There is a gentle simplicity about the three from North Korea--the image of deer in the headlights comes to mind. "They may be a bit overwhelmed right now," says Yukio Yamanaka, who heads the Rescue Liaison Center, which is providing legal and material support for the North Korean group. "I think Mei Shigenobu is much more mature."
Their lives as children of accused terrorists were very different from Mei's. Almost as soon as the nine hijackers of the JAL flight touched down in 1970 in the North's capital, Pyongyang, they were sent to a Communist education camp and given instruction in the Korean language. Last year, Washington told North Korea it would need to give up its Red Army exiles if it wanted to remove itself from the U.S. watch list of nations that support terrorism.
Since their arrival in Japan, the three young women have lived in the corner of a low-rise apartment building on the outskirts of Tokyo. Four of the hijackers remain in Pyongyang along with their wives and 17 other children.
The families run hard-currency shops in Pyongyang, where they reportedly sell luxuries such as electric appliances, underwear and liquor. Some also operate foreign trading companies, which allows them to travel outside the isolated country.
By North Korean standards, the young women are obviously elites, experts say. "Looking at the daughters' faces and hearing their language, they certainly are from the North Korean privileged class," says Yoichi Mabe, president of the Japan-Korea Economic Research Institute.
But the three say they lived pretty much like children anywhere and are happy to be starting over in Japan. "Japan is about the same as I imagined from Japanese scenes on satellite television or videotapes," Tamiya says.
Makiko Inoue in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.