TOKYO: An attack on democracy and freedom of expression. A return to the political murders of pre-war Japan. Terrorism.
Public outrage, thumps and defiant vows from politicians and social media are widespread following the broad daylight assassination by a homemade firearm of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a political force major even after stepping down in 2020 as the country’s longest-serving political leader.
“The bullet has pierced the foundations of democracy,” said the liberal Asahi newspaper, a regular foil to conservative, sometimes history-revisionist Abe, in a front-page op-ed after the murder. “We are shaking with rage.”
Part of the collective furor is that crime is so rare in Japan, where it’s not uncommon to see unattended cellphones and purses in cafes. Gun attacks are extremely rare, particularly in recent years and especially in political contexts, although they have occurred.
But the shock can also be attributed to the setting: Abe was killed near a crowded train station, in the middle of a campaign speech for the legislative elections, something that Japan, despite a long history of one-party political dominance and growing voter apathy, takes it seriously.
Mikito Chinen, a writer and doctor, said on Twitter that he voted on 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 post-war Japan, said Mitsuru Fukuda, professor of crisis management at Nihon University, and its consequences could be severe.
“Our society may have become a society where politicians and dignitaries can be targeted at any time, which makes people uncomfortable about being attacked for freely expressing their opinions,” Fukuda said.
Many here remember the political and social turmoil of pre-war Japan, when the authorities demanded unchallenged obedience on the home front as imperial troops marched through Asia; it was the antithesis of democracy, a time when assassinations, government intimidation of dissidents, and restrictions on free speech and assembly were commonplace.
In modern liberal democracies, political murder is almost unheard of, although there are still examples of political violence, such as the January 6, 2021 uprising at the US Capitol in Washington.
The motive of Abe’s alleged shooter, who was arrested after being pulled over by security, is not yet clear, although police and media say it was not political.
But the resurgence of assassinations days before national elections in one of the most stable and wealthy countries in the world – and which acts, together with its American ally, as a political and security bulwark against staunchly undemocratic neighboring nations like China and North Korea – raised fears that something fundamental had changed.
“Japan is a democracy, so the murder of a former prime minister is an attack on all of us,” the Japan Times said in an editorial. “It was an act of terrorism.”
Political leaders continued their campaigns after Abe’s death, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that Abe once led to an even bigger-than-expected victory on Sunday.
“In the midst of our election, which is the foundation of democracy, we must absolutely never allow violence to block freedom of expression,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said ahead of the election, amid tight security.
Despite Japan’s high standard of living and enviable security, there are occasional acts of extreme violence, including attacks 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 spilled oil before setting fire to a Tokyo subway and attempting to kill him. attack other people with a knife.
In politics, perhaps the most striking post-war assassination came in 1960, when a right-winger attacked socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma with a sword in front of 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 US occupation forces. According to the Justice Department’s latest annual crime report, police made 21 arrests with firearms in 2020; 12 were gang-related.
In 1994 a gunman shot the prime minister but missed Morihiro Hosokawa during a speech. Nagasaki Mayor Iccho Ito was shot and killed in 2007.
Stephen Nagy, a professor of politics and international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo, said many people he spoke to saw Abe’s attack as “a lone wolf incident”, not a attack on democracy.
“The main concern was the leadership vacuum that will emerge as the largest political faction (Abe’s) has just lost its leader and that 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 stringent, except during special and large-scale international events.
This was partly due to the perception of a lack of threat.
But the nature of the very public attack on Abe could lead to an urgent review of how Japan protects its officials and increased security during election campaigns or large-scale events.
Japan was once safe enough for politicians to hang out with ordinary people, chat and shake hands, Fukuda said. “It was a happy environment, but maybe we are losing it.”
“In a society where the risk of assassination is realistic, security levels must be raised,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate development, but we can’t protect our security any other way.”

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