The gunman approached Abe Shinzo from behind. As the former Japanese prime minister delivered a campaign speech for a local parliamentary candidate in the western city of Nara on 8 July, the man raised what appeared to be a home-made gun and fired twice. Abe collapsed to the ground, blood seeping through his white shirt. He was airlifted to hospital, but doctors were unable to save his life.
The suspect is 41-year-old Yamagami Tetsuya, an unemployed Nara resident who briefly served in Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force, the country’s de facto navy. Yamagami reportedly told police that he shot Abe because he believed he was linked to the Unification Church, the religious movement whose members are colloquially known as Moonies. (The head of the organisation’s Japanese branch denied that Abe had formal links to the church.)
It’s hard to overstate how shocking Abe’s death is. That he was shot was even more jarring in a country where gun violence, and violent crime in general, is extremely rare, with just one gun-related death in 2021. Japan’s prime minister, Kishida Fumio, an Abe protégé, was visibly shaken as he condemned the killing as an “act of cowardly barbarism”. And while the motivation for his murder doesn’t appear to stem from opposition to his policies, Abe’s death will have a profound effect on Japan’s political and social sphere.
Abe, who was 67, was Japan’s longest-serving modern leader. He was the grandson of Kishi Nobusuke, an avowed nationalist who, after the Second World War, was accused but never convicted of war crimes, and served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960. Abe’s first job in politics was as an executive assistant to his father, Abe Shintaro, then Japan’s foreign minister, in 1982. In 1993 he won his father’s parliamentary seat, following his death, and became the country’s youngest postwar prime minister in 2006 at the age of 52. But he was forced to resign the following year after a series of missteps and a flare-up of ulcerative colitis, an incurable intestinal disease. When he returned to power in 2012, Abe focused his efforts on strengthening the country’s economy and reasserting its place in the world. He declared in a speech in February 2013: “Japan is back.”
His signature economic policy, known as “Abenomics”, aimed to revitalise the stagnating economy after the “lost decades” of the 1990s and 2000s. Comprising what he called the “three arrows” of government stimulus, easing of monetary policy and structural reforms, Abe’s approach achieved some success, but many underlying difficulties endured. When he resigned in September 2020, citing ill health again, Japan was still struggling with rising economic inequality, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, and the challenge of its ageing society.
Like his grandfather before him, Abe’s longest-held ambition was to reform the 1947 constitution, which renounced the nation’s right to wage war and to maintain land, sea, and air forces, or “another war potential”. Abe maintained that reform was necessary to return Japan to the status of a “normal” country, but he never marshalled the support necessary to amend the constitution. Instead, he passed legislation in 2015 that allowed Japanese forces to take part in foreign military operations with allies, and kept up pressure for change from behind the scenes.
During his period as prime minister Abe was accused of rewriting history and whitewashing Japanese atrocities during the Second World War, drawing strong criticism from China and South Korea. In 2013, he visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours war criminals among the war dead, and sent ritual offerings during his time in office. Days after he resigned in 2020, he visited the shrine again. (While Chinese officials offered their condolences after Abe’s killing, many netizens on the country’s social media platforms toasted the work of his assassin.)
Despite his troubling approach to Japan’s wartime past, Abe cultivated strong relations with US presidents. He is credited with restoring Japan’s status as a major global player and increasing its visibility (including a notable appearance in a Super Mario costume at the 2016 Olympics). He also pushed for a closer alignment of the maritime democracies to counter China’s increasingly assertive regional behaviour.
“No Japanese leader in history has done as much to reinforce the international system at a time of flux and uncertainty,” Michael Green, a former senior official on the US National Security Council and the author of Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo, told me. Abe’s vision for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) grouping of Japan, India, Australia and the US, and his formula for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, which became key to US strategy, will endure; the absence of a comparably consequential Japanese leader will be felt in the years to come.
On 10 July, two days after Abe’s death, his Liberal Democratic Party swept to victory in elections for the upper house of parliament, securing the two-thirds majority in both houses needed to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution and realise his decades-long dream. Kishida announced that he would pursue this mission urgently. But such reforms need to be approved by the wider public and polls consistently show the issue is divisive. The irony is that while Abe’s death has focused attention on the constitution again, there is no longer a figure of his stature in Japanese politics to lead the charge.
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant