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Shinzo Abe, Former Japanese Prime Minister, Assassinated by Gunman

Shinzo Abe
AP

Shinzo Abe, a former prime minister of Japan, has died after succumbing to injuries from gunshot wounds sustained during a campaign speech on Friday.

His death has been reported by Japanese public broadcaster NHK and the BBC. He died around 5 p.m. local time.

NHK camera footage showed Abe collapsed on the street, holding his chest, with the broadcasting corporation reporting that he experienced heart failure. Abe was rushed to the hospital by helicopter following the incident and a male suspect in his 40s was arrested at the scene on the suspicion of attempted murder. The man is reported to have been a member of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force until 2005.

Doctors who spent four and a half hours treating Abe confirmed that there were two bullet wounds, but did not find any bullets. The chest wound was deep enough to have penetrated very close to the heart. Local media reported that Abe lost over 100 units of blood.

At a press conference, the medical team at Nara Medical University reported that they were able to control the loss of blood, but were unable to restore Abe’s pulse.

The medics said it was a frontal wound and there was no neck wound, contradicting earlier media reports that said Abe was hit from behind and to the right hand side of his neck.

The suspect’s motive for shooting Abe also remains unclear. Mid-afternoon Friday, local media were reporting police sources that quoted the man saying he disagreed with Abe’s policies. Only hours later, they reported him as saying he had no political disagreement.

Abe stepped down as prime minister in 2020, citing health reasons. But he repeatedly said that he regretted not having completed his policy agenda and he remained visible on the political scene, despite being Japan’s longest serving prime minister. (He held office from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2012 to 2020.) He was in Nara campaigning on behalf of a fellow Liberal Democratic Party member ahead of the Upper House elections on Sunday.

Despite winning multiple elections, Abe has long been a deeply divisive figure in Japan, due to an ultra-nationalist stance that saw him wanting to revise the country’s pacifist constitution and change the military from its current status as a purely defensive force.

His repeated visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, which houses the remains of several war criminals, angered neighbors Korea and China. And under Abe, a territorial dispute with Russia was revived. While Abe’s politics brought him into conflict with Japan’s immediate neighbors, he struck up a lively relationship with then U.S. president Donald Trump.

In policy terms, Abe was also known for ‘Abenomics,’ a strategy to reinvigorate the stagnating national economy, and for ‘Womenomics,’ a package of workplace reforms and promises to improve gender representation. In both cases, the motivation may have been a need to reverse the effects of Japan’s ageing and shrinking population.

Abenomics used three policy “arrows” of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform to juice the economy. But Abe’s critics argued that in both Abenomics and Womenomics his structural reforms were timid and only minimally effective.

Japan’s male domination and privilege is currently being exposed in the media and entertainment industries by the repeated surfacing of sexual violence cases, limits on women’s careers and the continuation of octogenarian men in positions of power. A prominent example was Mori Yoshiro, himself a former prime minister, who was forced to resign as head of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics Organizing Committee in 2021, after criticizing women for talking too much and taking up time in meetings.

Abe was a regular visitor to the Tokyo International Film Festival, but it is unclear whether he felt close to the film industry, or rather sought out the spotlight that his presence at the opening ceremony provided. The tradition has been continued by current prime minister Fumio Kishida.

Abe could not take credit for the ‘Cool Japan’ campaign, started in 2010, to promote Japanese culture abroad. But he helped maintain it and was reported to have cast a jealous eye at the international cultural success earned in the 21st century by South Korea, thanks to film, music and TV.

Abe was prime minister in 2014 when the government brought in a new law to protect state secrets that riled the film industry. The law gave government bodies great latitude to classify information as state secrets, while levying punishments on those who leak such secrets to the public. A film lobby group expressed concern that the law might encourage a return to the sort of nationalism and militarism that led Japan into a disastrous war more than seven decades earlier. Organizations  representing journalists, lawyers, broadcast workers and other professionals voiced similar concerns.

Despite the international frictions, foreign leaders were quick to mourn Abe’s death and to signal it as an attack on democracy.

“The shooting that killed Prime Minister Abe is an unacceptable criminal act,” said South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol. “I extend my condolences to the bereaved family and the Japanese people who have lost the longest-serving Prime Minister and a respected politician in the history of Japan’s constitution.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Japan said: “Former Prime Minister Abe made contributions towards improving China-Japan relations during his term. We express our condolences on his death and send our sympathies to his family.”

Japan’s serving PM Kishida spoke of Abe as a friend, with whom he spoke regularly and from whom he learned a lot. “I condemn this act in the strongest possible words,” he said after returning from the campaign trail to his official residence in Tokyo. Kishida added that the elections on Sunday must go ahead and be free and fair.

Elsewhere, the U.K.’s outgoing PM, Boris Johnson, tweeted messages in both English and Japanese: “Incredibly sad news about Shinzo Abe. His global leadership through unchartered times will be remembered by many. My thoughts are with his family, friends and the Japanese people. The U.K. stands with you at this dark and sad time.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to be deeply affected by Abe’s death, and announced a national day of mourning on Saturday.

“I am shocked and saddened beyond words at the tragic demise of one of my dearest friends, Shinzo Abe,” tweeted Modi. “He was a towering global statesman, an outstanding leader, and a remarkable administrator. He dedicated his life to make Japan and the world a better place.

“My association with Mr. Abe goes back many years. I had got to know him during my tenure as Gujarat CM and our friendship continued after I became PM. His sharp insights on economy and global affairs always made a deep impression on me,” Modi continued.

“During my recent visit to Japan, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Abe again and discuss many issues. He was witty and insightful as always. Little did I know that this would be our last meeting. My heartfelt condolences to his family and the Japanese people.”