Our reaction to the news of the shooting of the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was one of shock and disbelief in equal measure. What followed was a frenzy of trying to piece together news reports and gossip to make sense of the events, until his eventual death was announced hours later.
At first glance, Abe’s assassination dates back to the 1920s and 1930s when the assassination of former prime ministers (Hara Kei, Hamaguchi Osachi, Inukai Tsuyoshi, Takahashi Korekiyo, Saitō Makoto) was a feature of Japanese politics. We do not easily associate political assassination and violence in post-war democratic and pacifist Japan. With this in mind, it is not surprising that many reports have focused on political violence in Japan as “almost unheard of”. However, as in any country, sudden and extreme acts of political violence are not unprecedented in Japan.
During Abe’s second term in office (2012-20), one of his most controversial initiatives was the reinterpretation of Japan’s exercise of its right to collective self-defense. This was seen as part of a steady shift towards a more militarized Japan, and resulted in two very public cases of people setting themselves on fire in June and November 2014 in protest. In the latter case, the person is dead.
During Abe’s first term (2006-7), Mayor of Nagasaki Itō Icchō was shot by a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime syndicate, for a seemingly insignificant matter of compensation for damage to his car. In 1990, Itō’s predecessor, Motoshima Hitoshiwas also the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt by a right-wing extremist following public comments he made regarding Emperor Hirohito’s war responsibility.
In 2006, the home of Katō Kōichi, a politician of the Liberal Democratic Party, was the subject of arson by a right-winger angered by comments Katō had criticized regarding Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirō’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine has long been a controversial symbol of Japan’s wartime legacy.
failure Rebellion by world-renowned writer Mishima Yukio in 1970 shocked Japan and had deep roots in his own ultra-nationalist political views. Mishima had founded the Shield Society, a paramilitary organization, two years before the coup, recruiting far-right members, who wanted to restore the Emperor’s political powers. Famously, Mishima committed ritual suicide when the coup attempt lack.
1960 was a tumultuous year in post-war Japanese history following the revision of the US-Japan security treaty. Abe’s grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, was the victim of a failed assassination attempt in July of the same year. Later the same year, the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party Asanuma Inejiro was stabbed to death by a radical ultra-nationalist student.
Asanuma was a vocal critic of Japan’s ties with the United States and also sought closer relations with communist states in Asia. A photograph of the attack won the Pulitzer Prize.
These examples are all actions of individuals. Japan is also no stranger to political violence organized by groups of people. Undoubtedly the most devastating incident of post-war political violence was the Tokyo sarin gas attacks in March 1995. In the hands of a religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, major subway stations serving Tokyo’s political centers were targeted in an attempt to initiate the end of the world. The nerve agent killed 14 people and injured more than 1,000 people. The cult’s leader, Asahara Shōkō alongside key cult members, was executed in 2018.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Japan experienced domestic terror at the hands of a series of leftist revolutionary groups. The most famous of these was the Japanese Red Army (JRA), which hijacked planes, attacked embassies and businesses, as well as civilians. Wanted posters for those involved with the JRA still appear in Japanese train stations, and recently the Tokyo police made videos reminding the public that the members are still at large.
As the numbers show, gun crime is rare in Japan the political violence is therefore shocking and extreme. However, as is the case in other countries (just think of the murders of MPs Jo Cox and David Amess in the UK), it is unfortunately far from unknown.
Unfortunately, Shinzo Abe is just the latest in a long line of politically motivated attacks. Unfortunately, the highly visible nature of criminal prosecutions in Japan provides perpetrators with a broad platform to air their views. It doesn’t just happen in Japan. The judicial process has been used for political grandstanding in recent cases across Europe and the United States, with the Breivik case in Norway as a particularly poignant example. The same could happen in Japan in due course.
Many words will be written about this event over the hours, days and years to come, but at this point our sympathies go out to Abe’s family.