Assassination of Japan’s Shinzo Abe Stuns Nation

TOKYO—

Shinzo Abe,

a former Japanese prime minister, died after being shot Friday during an election campaign rally, sending shock waves through a country unaccustomed to gun violence.

Police arrested a 41-year-old man whom they said approached Mr. Abe from behind as he gave a speech in the city of Nara and fired twice with what appeared to be an improvised firearm. A doctor who treated Mr. Abe said he had gunshot wounds near the base of his neck and one bullet pierced his heart.

Mr. Abe, 67 years old, was the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history and remained powerful even after stepping down in 2020. During his term in office, he pushed to strengthen the nation’s military, beefed up cooperation with U.S. forces and made Tokyo a more muscular force in international diplomacy.

In testimony to his influence, condolences and tributes poured in from many nations including the allies Mr. Abe cultivated: India, Australia, the U.K. and, above all, the U.S.

“The United States has lost a trusted partner and an outspoken advocate for our shared ideals,” said the U.S. ambassador to Japan,

Rahm Emanuel.

India declared a national day of mourning. Australia’s prime minister called Mr. Abe’s death devastating.

The bloodshed unfolded at a campaign speech like thousands Mr. Abe had delivered during his nearly three decades as a member of Parliament. He was visiting Nara, in western Japan near Osaka, to deliver a speech on the street supporting a ruling-party candidate in elections Sunday for Parliament’s upper house. The city, which was capital of Japan in the eighth century, is known for its temples and shrines and has a population of about 350,000.

Security was light, as it almost always is at such events in Japan. Even when Mr. Abe was prime minister, anyone could get near him at campaign speeches without being checked for weapons.


Photos: Shinzo Abe, Former Japanese Prime Minister, Is Slain

Shooting death of the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history shocks the nation

Mourners gathered near the location of the fatal shooting of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday.

Kyodonews/Zuma Press

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The man who approached on this day, police said, was Tetsuya Yamagami, who lives in a Nara apartment near the shooting site. A person of that name served in Japan’s navy, known as the Maritime Self-Defense Force, from 2002 to 2005, according to the Defense Ministry.

The assailant carried an apparent homemade weapon. Video footage taken after the shooting showed a device on the ground that looked like two metal pipes bound together with tape.

Around 11:30 a.m., Mr. Abe began his stump speech. Shortly afterward, two loud bangs rang out, like the sound of fireworks. Authorities quickly pinned Mr. Yamagami to the ground and arrested him. But it was too late. Mr. Abe had fallen, stretched out on the ground with blood rushing through his white shirt.

A helicopter carried him to a hospital where he was declared dead at 5:03 p.m. local time.

Police said Mr. Yamagami told them he believed Mr. Abe had links to an unspecified group that Mr. Yamagami had a grudge against. It couldn’t be learned if the suspect had a lawyer. Later Friday, police carried out an object that they described as an explosive from his apartment building.

Prime Minister

Fumio Kishida

said campaigning for the election, in which the ruling coalition is expected to keep control of the government, would resume Saturday. He said that would show Japan’s freedoms couldn’t be undermined through violence.

“Free and fair elections, which are the basis of democracy, must be absolutely defended,” he said.

Still, the death of a leading politician at the hands of an assassin left Japanese wondering why their society, among the safest in the world, was touched by the type of gun violence they usually see only in far-off lands on television.

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Tetsuya Yamagami was detained near the shooting site on Friday in Nara, Japan.


Photo:

YOMIURI SHIMBUN / via REUTERS

The shooting “was such a shock,” said Shuma Ikeda, a 30-year-old office worker. “I’d never ever imagined such a thing would happen in Japan, in the middle of the day.”

Mr. Kishida ordered tighter security for candidates campaigning Saturday.

The shooting harked back more than a century to two Japanese leaders killed by assassins, former Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito in 1909 and Prime Minister Takashi Hara in 1921. Those prime ministers helped establish Japan, after centuries of feudalism, as a modern state with a powerful military and a multiparty constitutional system.

Mr. Abe’s influence in the early 21st century was just as great. In nearly nine years as prime minister—first in a brief 2006-07 stint and then from December 2012 to September 2020—he heightened Japan’s presence on the world stage, shedding restrictions on its military.

He sought, unsuccessfully, to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, adopted when the country was occupied by U.S. forces after World War II. But he pushed through a de facto revision with a 2015 law that enabled Japan to work more closely with the U.S. in regional conflicts.

When

Donald Trump

was elected president in 2016, Mr. Abe quickly flew to New York to present Mr. Trump with a Japanese golf club. The two went on to develop close tiesincluding on the golf course.

The tributes from the U.S., India and Australia were noteworthy because it was under Mr. Abe’s leadership that those three countries joined Japan in what is known as the Quad group, which seeks to contain China’s rise in the region. It was Mr. Abe who originated the phrase now widely used to describe the Quad’s goal: a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

President Biden on Friday called Mr. Abe a champion of the U.S.-Japan alliance. “His vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific will endure,” Mr. Biden said.

After leaving office, Mr. Abe proved himself among the hardiest of political survivors, once again beating back health issues to become head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction.

He was the most powerful backer of Mr. Kishida’s government, often pushing it in a hawkish direction. With North Korea in mind, Mr. Abe said Japan needed the ability to strike at enemy missile bases to forestall attacks on Japan.

This year, he urged the U.S. to make clear that it would militarily support Taiwana democratically self-ruled island, if China carried through on threats to invade. Soon after, Mr. Biden did precisely that on a trip to Tokyo.

Mr. Abe also sought, with mixed success, to revive Japan’s long-struggling economy with his “Abenomics” policies, including radical monetary easing and changes to encourage companies to listen more to their shareholders.

“Mr. Abe made significant achievements in getting Japan out of longstanding deflation and realizing sustainable economic growth,” said the

Bank of Japan’s

governor,

Haruhiko Kuroda,

who was picked by Mr. Abe in 2013.

Mr. Abe could be polarizing, and critics on the left said his policies exacerbated inequality. Opposition parties frequently attacked him over scandals including a deal involving government land that was seen as favorable to an Abe friend. After leaving office, he apologized for what he said was improper accounting related to a party for supporters who were in Tokyo to attend a government cherry-blossom viewing party.

His term was also marred by frequent clashes with South Korea, the other main U.S. ally in the region, often over history issues where Mr. Abe tended to believe that Japan had already apologized enough.

Critics on the right, fewer in number, believed Mr. Abe deferred too much to the nation’s centrist political consensus.

In the wake of the assassination, political differences dissolved and the nation was virtually united in horror at the kind of violence it has rarely experienced.

“This is a barbarous act that cannot be permitted,” said

Kenta Izumi,

head of the leading opposition Constitutional Democratic Party. “This shouldn’t happen in a democracy like ours.”

Japanese law generally limits gun ownership to the police and the military. It also allows for gun licenses for hunting and sports shooting, but only after rigorous background checks.

The last known case in Japan of an assassination with a gun of a prominent politician was in 2007, when the mayor of Nagasaki was shot by a member of a right-wing group.

Kazuya Funatsu, a 29-year-old consultant, said he wanted to know how the suspect got a gun.

“I was in Europe until a month ago and felt Japan’s peace would not last forever, but I never imagined such a major incident would occur this soon,” Mr. Funatsu said.

Write to Alastair Gale at alastair.gale@wsj.com and Miho Inada at miho.inada@wsj.com

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