An attack on democracy: Japan grapples with killing of former PM Abe

In country with strict gun laws and relatively low crime, shooting at political rally has sparked fury and shock

People offer prayers near the site of the fatal shooting of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in Nara, western Japan July 9, 2022. (Kyodo News via AP)
People offer prayers near the site of the fatal shooting of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in Nara, western Japan July 9, 2022. (Kyodo News via AP)

TOKYO (AP) — An attack on democracy and freedom of speech. A throwback to the political murders of prewar Japan. Terrorism.

Public outrage, handwringing and vows of defiance by politicians and on social media are widespread following the daylight assassination by homemade gun of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, a major political force even after he stepped down in 2020 as the nation’s longest-serving political leader.

“The bullet pierced the foundation of democracy,” the liberal Asahi newspaper, a regular foil of the conservative, sometimes history-revisionist Abe, said in a front-page editorial after the killing. “We tremble with rage.”

Part of the collective fury is because crime is so rare in Japan, where it’s not uncommon to see cellphones and purses lying unattended in cafes. Gun attacks are vanishingly rare, especially in recent years and especially in political settings, though they have happened.

But the shock can also be traced to the setting: Abe was killed near a crowded train station, in the middle of a campaign speech for parliamentary elections, something that Japan, despite a long history of one-party political domination and growing voter apathy, takes seriously.

Mikito Chinen, a writer and doctor, declared on Twitter that he voted Sunday because “it’s important to demonstrate that democracy will not be defeated by violence.”

This attack is unique, marking the first assassination of a former or serving leader in postwar Japan, said Mitsuru Fukuda, a crisis management professor at Nihon University, and its consequences could be grave.

“Our society may have become one where politicians and dignitaries can be targeted any time, and that is making people uneasy about getting attacked for freely expressing their views,” Fukuda said.

In this image from a video, Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes a campaign speech in Nara, western Japan shortly before he was shot on July 8, 2022. (Kyodo News via AP, File)

Many remember the political and social turmoil of prewar Japan, when the authorities demanded unquestioned obedience on the home front as imperial troops marched across Asia; it was the antithesis of democracy, a time when assassinations, government intimidation of dissidents and curbs on free speech and assembly were rife.

In modern liberal democracies, political killing is almost unheard of, though there are still examples of political violence, such as the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington.

The motive of Abe’s suspected gunman, who was arrested after being tackled by security, isn’t yet clear, though police and media reports indicate that it wasn’t political.

But the reemergence of assassination just days before national elections in one of the world’s most stable and affluent countries — and one that acts, along with its US ally, as a political and security bulwark against decidedly undemocratic neighboring nations like China and North Korea — has raised fears that something fundamental has changed.

“Japan is a democracy, so the murder of a former prime minister is an attack on us all,” The Japan Times said in an editorial. “This was an act of terrorism.”

Political leaders carried on with their campaigns after Abe’s death, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that Abe was once the leader of scoring an even bigger victory Sunday than expected.

“In the middle of our election, which is the foundation of democracy, we absolutely must never let violence shut out free speech,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said ahead of the election, amid heightened security.

Despite Japan’s high living standards and enviable safety, there are occasional acts of extreme violence, including attacks carried out by those who express a sense of failure and isolation.

One of the most recent was in October, when a man dressed in a Joker outfit stabbed an elderly man, then spread oil before setting a fire on a Tokyo subway and attempting to attack more people with a knife.

In the realm of politics, perhaps the most striking postwar assassination came in 1960, when a rightist attacked socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma with a sword before an audience of thousands.

Gun attacks, however, are a different story.

Japan has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world, based on orders issued in 1946 by occupying US forces. According to the latest Justice Ministry’s annual crime paper, police made 21 firearms arrests in 2020; 12 were gang related.

In 1994, a gunman shot at but missed Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa during a speech. Nagasaki Mayor Iccho Ito was assassinated by gunshot in 2007.

Then-Socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma, left, is attacked by a rightist with a sword during his speech in Tokyo on Oct. 12, 1960. (Kyodo News via AP)

Stephen Nagy, a professor of politics and international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said many of the people he’s talked to consider Abe’s attack “a lone wolf incident,” not an assault on democracy.

“The primary concern was about the vacuum in leadership that will emerge as the largest political faction (Abe’s) has just lost their leader and this will have implications for the trajectory of domestic politics,” Nagy said.

Compared to the United States and Europe, security for political and business leaders in Japan has often been less strict, except for at special, high-profile international events.

That was partly because of the perception of a lack of threat.

But the nature of the very public attack on Abe could lead to an emergency review of the way Japan guards its officials, and a tightening of security at election campaigns or large-scale events.

Japan used to be safe enough for politicians to get close to ordinary people, to chat and shake hands, Fukuda said. “It was a happy environment, but we may be losing it.”

“In a society where the risk of assassination is realistic, security levels have to be raised,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate development, but we cannot protect our safety otherwise.”

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