DNA test proves elderly construction worker was one of Japan’s most wanted fugitives

<span>A wanted poster for Satoshi Kirishima (centre top), who spent almost 50 years on the run until admitting on his deathbed that he was a member of the terrorist group East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front. A DNA test confirmed his claim.</span><span>Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP</span>
A wanted poster for Satoshi Kirishima (centre top), who spent almost 50 years on the run until admitting on his deathbed that he was a member of the terrorist group East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front. A DNA test confirmed his claim.Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Satoshi Kirishima spent almost half a century evading arrest, until mortality intervened.

As deathbed confessions go, his was astonishing: having lived a double life as a construction worker, the 70-year-old was admitted last month to a hospital near Tokyo where he told staff he was, in fact, one of Japan’s most wanted fugitives.

In a more recent image provided to Japanese media by an acquaintance, it is just possible to discern a resemblance with the black-and-white photograph that has adorned Japanese police boxes for decades showing a bespectacled, smiling university student with shoulder-length hair.

While he shared details of his family and his organisation that only he could have known, it wasn’t until this week that DNA evidence confirmed that the terminally ill patient was indeed Kirishima, part of a radical group responsible for a nine-month reign of terror in the mid-1970s that shook Japan.

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His decision to turn himself in rekindled collective memories of a time when well-organised leftwing extremists posed a serious threat to the public, both in Japan and overseas.

As a member of the sasori (scorpion) unit of the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front, Kirishima allegedly planted and detonated a homemade bomb that damaged a building in the Ginza neighbourhood of Tokyo district in April 1975. There were no casualties.

He was also suspected of involvement in four other attacks the same year targeting major Japanese corporations the group identified as “collaborators” in Japan’s militarist misadventures in the first half of the 20th century.

In the most notorious incident, the group planted a bomb at the Tokyo headquarters of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, killing eight people and injuring more than 360 others, apparently because the firm had supplied US forces during the Vietnam war. It remained Japan’s deadliest terrorist attack until the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

Shortly before he died of stomach cancer in late January at the same hospital he had attended as an outpatient for about a year, Kirishima told staff: “I want to meet my death with my real name,” adding that he regretted his part in the attacks.

While police have referred the bombing cases to prosecutors, Kirishima’s death means the families of his group’s victims will never get their day in court. It has also forced investigators to establish how a high-profile criminal was able to hide in plain sight for 49 years.

In May 1975, police arrested eight people, including Masashi Daidoji, over their involvement in the attacks. He and one other were sentenced to hang, but Daidoji died of cancer in May 2017 while on death row.

Born in Hiroshima prefecture, Kirishima attended a local school, beginning his life as a political extremist while he was studying law at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.

His confession means it has at least been possible to form a clearer picture of what appears to have been a modest, blameless, existence during his decades on the run.

Going by the name Hiroshi Uchida, he spent about 40 years working for a building firm in Fujisawa, a city south of Tokyo. He reportedly avoided bank transactions and asked to be paid in cash to avoid leaving a paper trail that could lead to his capture. He did not have a driving licence, mobile phone or health insurance, and paid for hospital treatment out of his own pocket.

“Uchida” visited his local sento public bath and dropped into a bar – where he was affectionately known as “Ucchi” – to drink beer and listen to rock music, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said, adding that he shared little about himself with fellow drinkers.

Kirishima may have found closure of sorts, but the families of his victims voiced frustration that he had waited so long to unburden himself. For one relative, whose then 23-year-old sister was killed in the Mitsubishi bombing, his mea culpa had come “too late”, he told the Yomiuri.