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Japan probes Abe assassination motive as police chief admits ‘problems’

People pray near the site where former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was killed on July 8. (Issei Kato/Reuters)
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TOKYO — The top law enforcement official in Nara, where former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated on Friday, acknowledged security lapses at the political rally where Abe was killed, and pledged to identify and resolve the flaws.

Investigations are underway into the security protocols, as well as the gunman’s motives and homemade firearms, as Japan reels from the shocking shooting of its longest-serving prime minister. Abe was rallying support for a candidate in Sunday’s upper-house legislative elections on an open street, when a gunman went behind him and fired two shots.

“It is undeniable that there were problems with the security for former prime minister Abe, and we will immediately identify the problems and take appropriate measures to resolve them,” said Tomoaki Onizuka, head of Nara prefecture police, at a Saturday news conference.

President Biden on July 8 called the assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe “horrific” and “shocking.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Onizuka said police were informed of Abe’s appearance just a day before — shorter notice than usual for a campaign event. He approved the security plan on the day of the event and had no concerns with it at the time. It is unclear whether, or how many, armed security personnel were present.

Police are investigating whether the security setup was similar to that of a June 28 event that Abe attended in the same location. They are also looking into whether the placement and number of security staff may have changed, particularly behind Abe.

Shinzo Abe, long-serving Japanese leader, slain at 67

The apparent gunman, a 41-year-old unemployed man from Nara named Tetsuya Yamagami, told investigators he believed that Abe was linked to a group he hated, police said. Police have declined to identify the group, citing the ongoing investigation.

On Saturday, a long line of mourners paid their respects at the site of the shooting in Nara, near Osaka. Abe’s body was returned to Tokyo in a hearse, and Fumio Kishida visited his predecessor’s home to offer his condolences. Other leaders from their conservative Liberal Democratic Party stood outside Abe’s residence and bowed as his body arrived.

The Abe family will hold a wake on Monday and funeral on Tuesday for relatives and close acquaintances. Plans for a potential state funeral have not been released.

Police have shared little information about the alleged shooter, but some details trickled out Saturday through police sources in Japanese media. Yamagami was a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force member for three years in his early 20s. Police found multiple homemade guns in his home Friday. He was arrested on-site, and police say he admitted to the killing, which he said was not politically motivated.

He told investigators that his mother had become bankrupt after spending her money to support a religious group, according to Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, which cited police sources. He said his family fell apart because of his mother’s obsession with the group, and he targeted Abe “out of resentment,” Mainichi reported.

Yamagami told police he intended to kill Abe with an explosive but instead used what he considered to be the most lethal weapon for the attack, public broadcaster NHK reported.

The suspect had followed Abe to his previous speeches and was in the western city of Okayama, where Abe was campaigning on Thursday night, according to the Kyodo News agency. Police are investigating whether Yamagami followed Abe with the intent of finding the right time to kill him.

Abe assassination resurfaces Japan’s complex legacy in China, South Korea

Japan reserves capital punishment for “atrocious crimes,” which refers to multiple murders or a murder that is deemed particularly heinous. Abe’s assassination may fit that criterion.

In Japan, campaign events have minimal visible security. Attacks on politicians are rare in postwar Japan, which has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world and almost no gun violence. The number of armed guards present varies, depending on the event.

On Saturday, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida returned to the campaign trail with heightened security. Hundreds of attendees at Kishida’s outdoor event in Yamanashi, west of Tokyo, went through bag checks and metal detectors. Kishida spoke on a stage mounted on a van, surrounded by police and distanced from the crowd, ahead of Sunday’s election.

Supporters of opposition parties urged voters to separate their grief from their ballot. They are concerned about a potential rally-around-the-flag effect that would motivate a sympathy vote for the LDP, or increase the turnout of the conservative party’s supporters. One of the trending terms on Twitter in Japan was “a vote is not a funeral offering.”

Japanese media struggled to balance covering the assassination while not advantaging Abe’s ruling party in the final stretch of the campaign. One television outlet blurred out the faces of LDP candidates, but on another channel, anchors wore black clothes and focused heavily on Abe’s legacy.

The LDP, which has dominated Japanese politics since its founding in 1955, is expected to be victorious. If the party maintains or expands its control of the House of Councillors, it would clear the path for Kishida, elected in October, to enact some of his most ambitious policy proposals.

Kishida has introduced a vague economic overhaul plan and is considering increases in defense spending, an issue in a country with a pacifist constitution that Abe long tried to amend.

Security around Abe’s home in Tokyo had tightened overnight, with more police officers on-site. Abe, one of the most recognizable and divisive politicians in Japan, had freely walked his dog and taken selfies with passersby with no visible protection.

Japan’s National Police Agency has launched a probe into the security protocols that were in place for Abe.

Abe was guarded by a team from Nara’s police department and officers from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, according to Japanese news outlet Jiji Press.

What are Japan’s gun laws? Abe killing shocks nation where shootings are rare.

Kishida spoke on the phone with President Biden on Saturday morning. After the shooting, Biden visited the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Washington and signed a condolence book.

“On behalf of the Biden family and all of America we extend our heartfelt sympathy to the Abe family and the people of Japan,” Biden wrote. “It is not only a loss to his wife and family — and the people of Japan, but a loss to the world. A man of peace and judgment — he will be missed.”

Abe, who was 67, remained a power broker in his party even after leaving office. He was a towering figure at home and abroad who hailed from a prominent political family. He served a brief first stint as premier in 2006, making him the youngest person to become prime minister of postwar Japan.

He died Friday of blood loss less than five hours after being shot in the neck and chest. The assassin fired twice, and the second shot caused both wounds, police said — raising questions of what type of gun and ammunition had been used.

News of the shooting reverberated throughout the country, which has low crime rates and some of the world’s most restrictive gun laws. Firearms are scarce, as are fatal shootings, of which there was exactly one in all of 2021.

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.

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