Political leaders of every stripe have expressed anger, sorrow and their fears for Japan’s democracy following the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who died at age 67 of his wounds at a hospital in Nara on Friday.
The weapon was apparently a handmade gun wielded by a 41-year-old man, a one-time member of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, who reportedly told police that he was “dissatisfied” with Abe and intended to kill him. Abe was delivering a campaign speech on a street in Nara Prefecture when he was shot twice at around 11.30 a.m. Most of Japan’s major networks, including public broadcast giant NHK, and the private sector NTV, TBS, Fuji and TV Asahi channels, ditched their schedules to cover the shooting.
Born in 1954 to a prominent political family — his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960 and his father Shintaro Abe held several Cabinet posts in a long career — Abe studied public policy at the University of Southern California as a graduate student in 1979. After returning to Japan, he worked briefly in the corporate world before switching to government and politics.
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1993 from his native Yamaguchi Prefecture as a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which his grandfather had co-founded, Abe served as prime minister from 2005 to 2006 and then again from 2012 to 2020 — the longest such stint in the modern era.
During his long tenure as Japan’s top leader Abe stirred up controversy and became embroiled in scandals, including alleged favoritism in a land deal for a private school backed by Abe and his wife Akie. However, such missteps were forgotten in Friday’s outpouring of condolences from both political allies and enemies.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke to reporters at his official residence in Tokyo shortly after Abe’s death, saying “I have no words to express my regret.” He tearfully added that “I had hoped that he would survive, but my prayers were in vain.” Noting that Abe’s death had occurred in the midst of an election, “which is the foundation of democracy,” Kishida called the shooting “a despicable and barbaric act.”
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, a former TV news anchor turned politician who split from the LDP to form her own party in 2017, described the assassination as “a barbaric act that cannot be tolerated – it’s a challenge to democracy.” Telling reporters that “I feel intense anger,” she added, “I pray that everyone stays safe.”
Also, Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party, whose pacifistic and progressive stances put it into direct opposition to the conservative Abe, chimed in with both Kishida and Koike, noting that “violence during elections, which is the basis of democracy, is a challenge to democracy itself.” The SDP, she added, “denounces such violence in the strongest terms.”
The concerns for Japan’s current democratic form of government, which dates to the early post-war period when the U.S.-led Occupation imposed a constitution enshrining free and fair elections, have deep historical roots.
In the period from Japan’s opening to the West in the 1850s after 250 years of isolation to the start of its war with the U.S. and its allies in 1941, politically motivated killings were a frequent occurrence, including the assassinations of sitting prime ministers in 1930 and 1932 and the murder of four government and military leaders in a failed 1936 coup. These and other incidents of political violence paved the way for the takeover of the government by the militarists who led Japan into World War 2.
In the post-war period, Socialist Party chairman Inejiro Asanuma was knifed to death by a right-wing student in front of TV cameras in 1960, while Prime Minister Takeo Miki was physically assaulted by a rightist in 1975 and former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa was shot at but not wounded by another rightist in 1994.
The most recent assassination prior to Abe’s was that of Nagasaki mayor Itcho Ito, shot to death in 2007 by a local gang boss over an alleged grudge. There is no one pattern to these incidents, save violence against political figures by the disgruntled at the social and ideological extremes.
Abe’s killer seems to fall into this group, though his motives remain unclear. As the campaign for the Upper House election proceeds to its conclusion on Sunday, both politicians and the security forces that guard them will be on high alert for his successor.