TOKYO — The assassination of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, at a political rally Friday rocked a country where strict firearms laws mean gun violence is almost unheard of, as world leaders past and present expressed shock and sadness at the death of the man who worked to increase Japan’s global influence.
Investigation began into the gunman’s motives and security measures that were in place for the former leader, who was attacked while stumping for a fellow party member in Nara, near Osaka. Abe, one of the country’s most recognizable political figures, was a staple on the campaign trail ahead of elections to the upper house of parliament Sunday.
After the assassination brought the campaign to a halt, candidates headed back on the road Saturday with enhanced security measures — there were limits on directly interacting with crowds — in what Prime Minister Fumio Kishida described as an act to prevent violence from altering the country’s democratic process.
“Elections are the foundation of democracy, which we must defend. We cannot give in to violence. For this reason, we will continue to fight the election campaign until the very end,” Kishida said Friday, after the announcement of Abe’s death.
President Biden said he was “stunned, outraged, and deeply saddened by the news” about the killing of a longtime staunch American ally. Kishida spoke with Biden Saturday morning.
“This is a tragedy for Japan and for all who knew him,” Biden said. “Even at the moment he was attacked, he was engaged in the work of democracy.” Biden added that “gun violence always leaves a deep scar on the communities that are affected by it.” The debate over guns in the United States has heightened in recent weeks after a number of mass shootings, including at a grocery store, an elementary school and a July Fourth parade.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the attack a “brutal and cowardly murder,” adding that a “wonderful person, great democrat and champion of the multilateral world order has passed away.”
Abe, 67, was fatally shot while engaged in a quintessential political act in a country where many would have said such an event was least likely to occur.
Japan has some of the world’s most restrictive gun laws and firearms are scarce, as are fatal shootings, of which there was exactly one in all of 2021.
But Abe was killed by a man wielding what appeared to be a crude but effective “homemade” gun, police said, held together by what appeared to be tape. It looked as if it had two barrels and it was unclear how it was made. Firearms experts who reviewed images of the weapon at The Washington Post’s request described it as “craft-made,” probably from readily obtainable materials.
Footage of the event showed that while Abe was giving a speech, one gunshot was fired from behind him, creating a plume of smoke. He turned around and looked over his left shoulder and then a second shot was fired, with another plume of smoke. Abe fell forward to the ground and the gunman was apprehended.
Doctors said there were two wounds on Abe’s neck area, near his chest. According to Nara police, the second gunshot caused both wounds, raising further questions about what type of gun and ammunition were used.
Videos showed a chaotic scene, with Abe unmoving and lying on the ground as attendees yelled for an ambulance.
Hidetada Fukushima, head of the emergency center at Nara Medical University Hospital, said Abe had no vital signs when he arrived at 12:20 p.m. Friday. Despite efforts to save him, including a transfusion, Abe died of blood loss less than five hours later.
Police arrested the suspect, a 41-year-old man from Nara named Tetsuya Yamagami, and seized his gun. Yamagami was a member of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force for three years, defense officials told Japanese media.
Yamagami said he wanted to attack Abe because he believed Abe was connected to a group that he hated, police said, declining to name the group. Police found multiple handmade guns at Yamagami’s home.
Abe, a power broker in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was a towering figure at home and abroad who hailed from a prominent political family. He was the youngest person to become prime minister of postwar Japan.
At an emotional news conference after Abe’s death, Kishida praised his former colleague as “a dear friend who loved this country.”
“To lose such a figure in this manner is absolutely devastating,” he said.
Earlier, appearing close to tears, the prime minister described the attack as a “despicable and barbaric act.”
Abe oversaw a period of relative stability as prime minister from 2012 to 2020, raising Japan’s global image and emphasizing a strong alliance with the United States, even as then-President Donald Trump tested long-standing relationships with allies. The pair forged a personal relationship and often played golf together.
But as a Japanese nationalist, Abe was sometimes a polarizing figure. He made several visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial that recognizes war criminals, among others, prompting fury from some of Japan’s neighbors, especially China, that suffered under the country’s imperial militarism.
Abe focused on reviving Japan’s stagnating economy through a package dubbed “Abenomics,” and he sought to expand Japan’s military. Controversially, he tried to modify the country’s pacifist postwar constitution; even after leaving office, he continued to push for Japan to increase its defensive capabilities, most recently suggesting after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Japan should discuss a nuclear “sharing” program similar to NATO members.
In a statement, leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a diplomatic grouping of like-minded countries that Abe helped shape, praised Abe’s role in increasing the role of the Quad. Leaders of Australia, India and the United States, the three members in addition to Japan, called Abe a “transformative leader for Japan and for Japanese relations with each one of our countries.”
“He also played a formative role in the founding of the Quad partnership, and worked tirelessly to advance a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific. Our hearts are with the people of Japan — and Prime Minister Kishida — in this moment of grief. We will honor Prime Minister Abe’s memory.”
Despite the controversies that tangled up his stints in power, Abe’s popularity soared after he left office.
He had led the country from 2006 to 2007 but stepped down because of chronic ulcerative colitis, the same condition that led to his resignation in 2020.
Abe’s maternal grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, survived an assassination attempt in 1960 when he was stabbed in the thigh during a reception at the prime minister’s office.
Firearms are strictly regulated in Japan, and gun violence is most often associated with the yakuza, the Japanese criminal network. Last year, eight of the 10 shootings in Japan were related to the yakuza, according to the National Police Agency, resulting in one death and four injuries.
Anyone trying to obtain a gun in Japan needs to apply for a permit, attend a class on gun safety and laws, and pass a written test. There is a full-day training course on safe shooting techniques. There are multiple rounds of checks and verification on the gun owner’s background and health, including information about their family, mental health, personal debt and criminal record. The gun must be registered with and inspected by police.