TOKYO – Shinzo Abe, Japan’s most influential former prime minister, was punching on behalf of a junior politician from his party near a train station in Japan’s old capital, Nara, Friday morning when he collapsed bleeding on the street. He was shot in the neck, doctors said, by a gunman who later admitted he had come to kill him.
Less than six hours later, Mr. Abe, the longest-serving leader in Japan’s history, died at the age of 67.
Until Friday’s campaign shutdown assassination, the public and Japanese news media had largely ignored parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday, when Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party was expected to sail to victory.
Now the party will have to advance in the polls without the man who led the agenda for the past decade and had the power to anoint future leaders even after he left the prime minister’s office.
Fumio Kishida, the current prime minister, who returned to Tokyo after his campaign in northern Japan when he heard the news, called the killing “an act of cowardly barbarity” in comments to reporters after doctors at Nara Medical University Hospital reported the death of Abe had announced . Mr Kishida vowed on Sunday to continue with “free and fair elections that are the foundation of democracy”, Mr Kishida said that “it is truly regrettable to lose a towering politician who has left tremendous achievements in several fields. “
The shooting comes at a pivotal time for Japan as it seeks to gain a stronger leadership position in the region, despite mounting threats from its neighbors in China and North Korea. And with images of extreme violence from Ukraine and the United States playing out on screens in Japan, the public is alarmed by the possibility that the country they assumed was safe may not be.
Shortly after the 11:30 am Friday morning shooting, police gave chase and arrested Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, at the scene. He has been charged with murder. Police officials said he used a “homemade” gun and confessed to planning to kill Mr Abe because he believed the former prime minister had some association with a group that Mr Yamagami “held a grudge against”.
In a news conference Friday night, police officials from Nara Prefectural Office said that Mr. Yamagami had made the double-barreled rifle, which is about 16 inches long and 7 inches wide, and that police found several similar weapons in his apartment near the site.
Authorities have not said what charges he will face or what punishment they will demand. Japan is one of the few highly developed countries that has the death penalty; six people have been executed by hanging in the past three years. The law allows the death penalty for murder, but is rarely applied for a single murder.
Shockwaves reverberated through the Japanese political establishment and among a general public unaccustomed to such violent crime, especially in a country with some of the strictest gun laws in the world.
“I am in complete shock,” said Ayane Kubota, 37, on his way home from work in Tokyo and scrolling through Twitter to catch up on the Friday night news. “This is so un-Japanese. You never hear about gun violence here. You hear about it all the time on TV in the United States, but not here.”
Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was attacked in an assassination attempt in 1960, shortly after he stepped down as prime minister. He was stabbed six times in the thigh by a member of a small ultra-nationalist group but, unlike his grandson, survived.
On Friday in Nara, where a makeshift memorial to Mr Abe grew all afternoon at the scene of the shooting, Hijiri Mizokawa, 18, joined her father and grandmother to lay flowers for the fallen leader on a pile of watermelon slices. , sweets and bottles of juice. “It’s so scary,” said Ms. Mizokawa, “I still can’t believe this kind of terror can happen in Japan.”
Condolences poured in from around the world for Mr. Abe, who had forged relationships with world leaders during his nearly eight-year tenure. As a jet-set diplomat, he worked closely with allies, but also reached out to countries like Russia with which Japan had precarious relations. While the United States hesitated in its commitment to Asia, Mr. Abe cast off Japan as the regional leader upholding free trade and the rule of law against an increasingly aggressive China.
At home, Mr. Abe risked his legacy by trying to turn Japan into what he called a “normal” country, capable of defending itself and even going into battle after more than 70 years of pacifism imposed in a constitution written by the post-war American occupiers. In Sunday’s election, the Liberal Democrats will be running on a platform that will include Mr Abe’s proposal to revise the constitution to explicitly recognize the existence of the country’s self-defense forces.
According to the Ministry of Defense, a man named by the suspect served three years in the Japanese self-defense forces between 2002 and 2005.
Cell phone videos taken by bystanders during Friday morning’s campaign event showed a man in a gray T-shirt and khaki pants standing silently behind Mr. Abe as he first began speaking.
Standing on a platform against a traffic barrier on a street close to a train station in Nara, Mr Abe shook his fist and declaimed into a microphone as he praised Kei Sato, 43, who is running for reelection to the upper house of Parliament .
Suddenly people heard two loud bangs, like the sound of clattering tires. Masao Nakanishi, 80, standing in front of Mr Abe, said he saw the former prime minister fall on the street. Cell phone videos shown on NHK, the public broadcaster, showed the man in the gray shirt and khaki pants, later identified as Mr. Yamagami, aiming and firing at Mr Abe as smoke billowed from his gun. Police said Mr Abe looked behind him after the first shot and was then hit by a second blast.
A campaign official shouted for help, pleaded for medical professionals and pleaded for an oxygen mask or defibrillator, Mr. nakanishi.
Three men in suits, presumably part of Mr. Abe’s security detail, Mr. Yamagami to the ground. What showed in videos and photos, he had brushed aside like a crude, homemade gun.
Ambulances and fire engines rushed to the crime scene and while rescuers performed CPR, Mr. Abe covered with a large blue tarpaulin. Rescuers loaded him onto a stretcher, and under the cover of the tarp, loaded him onto a medical evacuation helicopter that took him to Nara Medical University Hospital, where he landed, already in cardiopulmonary arrest, at 12:20 p.m.
Doctors worked all afternoon to stabilize him, but Hidetada Fukushima, the professor in charge of emergency medicine at the hospital, said that despite blood transfusions and attempts to stop massive bleeding from his heart, Mr. Abe died shortly after 5 p.m., around the time his wife, Akie Abe, arrived at the hospital.
Political leaders from across the spectrum paid their respects. Yuriko Koike, the Tokyo governor who had sometimes tangled up with Mr. Abe, was in tears as she described her shock and “great anger.”
Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a veteran of the Constitutional Democratic Party and a current candidate in Sunday’s Senate election, wrote on Twitter that she had often debated Mr Abe. “We’ve often fought each other with our own beliefs,” she says wrote† “That’s why I absolutely cannot allow this violence that kills speech.”
Mr. Abe could be divisive among the public over his right-wing views on constitutional reform, women’s right to keep their names after marriage, and historical revisionism about Japan’s wartime atrocities. On social media, he was attacked by some commentators even as he lay dying in the hospital.
But his political opponents soon came to his defense. Renho Saito, a former opposition party leader, canceled her campaign schedule on Friday, calling on people to stop posting “heartless comments” on social media.
“I do not want to associate myself with ideological beliefs, but with a desire to protect democracy and ensure that these atrocities are not allowed to continue,” Ms Saito wrote on Twitter.
In Nara early Friday evening, police officers cordoned off the shooting site as officers continued to collect fragments from the street and in the bushes along the sidewalks. Behind yellow police tape, watermarks could be seen on the street covering the morning’s bloodstains.
Motoko Rich, Makiko Inoue and Hikari Hida reported from Tokyo, and Hisako Ueno from Nara, Japan.