You almost never hear them in Japan—gunshots. But at around 11:30 a.m. on Friday, two rang out in the central Japanese city of Nara. The target was former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, one of the country’s longest-serving prime ministers and among the most influential political figures in modern Japan. Abe was giving a public speech in the street, campaigning in support of the Liberal Democratic Party candidates ahead of Sunday’s Upper House elections.
When the attacker fired, the crowd broke into a panic. With gunshot wounds to the chest and neck, Abe was transported via emergency helicopter to receive treatment, and confirmed dead shortly after 5 p.m. the same day. The suspected killer, 41-year-old unemployed man Tetsuya Yamagami, was a former member of the Japanese navy and used a homemade gun in the shooting. NHK reports from the local police state that Yamagami intended to kill Abe, but that he did not have a grudge against the former PM for political reasons.
The assassination, on the eve of an election no less, has come as an unprecedented shock to the nation. Japan has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world, with a gun death rate of just 1 death per 5 million people, one of the lowest rates of any nation. In fact, per police data compiled by Julia Minuma at the Washington Post, in 2021, there was just a single gun death in the country.
Political assassinations in Japan are even more rare. The most recent comparable events are the stabbing of Socialist party leader Inejiro Asanuma by an extreme right-wing activist in 1960 and the shooting of PM Tsuyoshi Inukai in an attempted military coup in 1932. In 1990, Nagasaki’s mayor survived an attempted assassination, and then in 2007, his successor was shot and murdered by a member of the yakuza. But Abe’s shooting marks a new landmark event in Japanese history. While Abe has attracted crowds of angry protestors before for his militaristic security legislation, political violence overall is overwhelmingly uncommon, and historically it has most frequently been directed at minority groups like ethnic Zainichi Koreans.
Shinzo Abe led the nation from 2006 to 2007 and 2012 to 2020 atop the center-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as a confident, consensus leader after several years of chaotic Japanese politics and the disastrous 2011 earthquake and tsunami. He transformed the lagging Japanese economy with his Abenomics, presiding over an era of revived but mild economic growth, corporate profits, and rising income inequality. Just as notable was Abe’s push for constitutional reform, seeking to remilitarize Japan in light of the looming threat from China. This latter initiative in particular made Abe a respected figure among Japanese nationalists and far-right extremists and angered Asian neighbors.
Since the assassination, crowds of people have come to pay their respects at the site of the shooting in Nara, leaving flowers and bottles of sake. The outpour of reactions on Japanese social media ran the gauntlet from sorrow to anger to accusations that the suspect must have been an ethnic Korean. A viral tweet from an Abe fan account said, “The result of us Japanese being so drunk on peace is that we couldn’t protect Mr. Abe.” Japan’s right wing is enraged, and its left is sorrowful and fearful.
The nearly unfathomable potential ripple effects extend from Sunday’s election to every facet of Japan’s future. After stepping down due to health issues in 2020, Abe continued to campaign for increased government spending and defense budgets. Current PM Fumio Kishida is known as a moderate within the LDP, and has notably distanced himself from Abenomics, which the Japanese public had largely lost confidence in, and instead has focused on reducing inequality and bolstering the middle class.
But Kishida does stand close to Abe’s position on revising Japan’s pacifist constitution to strengthen its military. A strong showing in Sunday’s election for the LDP could give serious momentum to such efforts. In recent months, Abe had continued to emphasize that he strongly supports the policies of Kishida’s government. The former prime minister aggressively consolidated power and control over the media during his tenure, and he was investigated several times for election law violations. (Although Abe was spared from indictments last December.)
Little remains known about Tetsuya Yamagami and his intentions. An AP report said that he had plotted to kill Abe because he “believed rumors about the former leader’s connection to a certain organization that police did not identify.” The assassination, while on the one hand out of nowhere, does follow a line of incidents with a similar theme: a reclusive, unemployed man in his 20s to 40s commits an act of horrific violence on the basis of some grudge. Those include the 2021 Tokyo subway attack, the 2019 Kyoto Animation studio arson and Kawasaki stabbing spree, and a 2008 incident in Akihabara where a man hit pedestrians with a truck and stabbed other passersby. These incidents share some eerie similarities with recent mass shootings in the U.S., often perpetrated by angry young men.
In a gun-free Japan with typically peaceful politics, Shinzo Abe getting shot and killed in broad daylight was an outrageous event, impossible to imagine before Friday. The results of Sunday’s election will signal its immediate impacts on Japanese politics, but they will hardly tell us everything about where the nation will go from here. Rather, it will take many weeks, months, and years to determine the true meaning of such a historic murder.