An attack on democracy and freedom of expression. A memory of the political assassinations of pre-war Japan. Terrorism.
Public outrage, handshakes and votes of defiance from politicians and social media are widespread following the broad daylight assassination with a homemade weapon of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a major political force even after he resigned. in 2020 as the longest serving political leader in the country.
“The bullet pierced the foundations of democracy,” the liberal Asahi newspaper, a regular foil for the conservative, sometimes revisionist history-maker Abe, said in a front-page editorial after the assassination. “We tremble with rage.”
Part of the collective fury is that crime is so rare in Japan, where it’s not uncommon to see cellphones and bags unattended in cafes. Gun attacks are extremely rare, especially in recent years and especially in political settings, although they have occurred.
But the shock can also be attributed to the setting: Abe was assassinated near a crowded train station, in the middle of a campaign speech for parliamentary elections, something that Japan, despite a long history of one-party political dominance. and growing voter apathy, take seriously
Mikito Chinen, a writer and doctor, declared on Twitter that he voted on Sunday because “it is important to show that democracy will not be defeated by violence.”
This attack is unique, marking the first killing of a former or active leader in postwar Japan, said Mitsuru Fukuda, a professor of crisis management at Nihon University, and its consequences could be serious.
“Our society may have become one where politicians and dignitaries can be attacked at any time, and that makes people feel uncomfortable about being attacked for freely expressing their views,” Fukuda said.
Many here recall the political and social turmoil of prewar Japan, when authorities demanded unquestioning obedience on the home front as imperial troops marched through Asia; it was the antithesis of democracy, a time when assassinations abounded, government intimidation of dissidents, and restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
In modern liberal democracies, political assassination is almost unheard of, though there are still examples of political violence, such as the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington.
The motive of Abe’s alleged gunman, who was arrested after being accosted by security, remains unclear, although police and media reports indicate it was not political.
But the resurgence of assassination just days before national elections in one of the world’s most stable and prosperous countries, and which acts, along with its American ally, as a political and security bulwark against resolutely undemocratic neighboring nations like China and North Korea. – has raised fears that something fundamental has changed.
“Japan is a democracy, so the assassination of a former prime minister is an attack on all of us,” The Japan Times said in an editorial. “This was an act of terrorism.”
Political leaders continued their campaigns after Abe’s death, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which Abe once led, scoring an even bigger-than-expected victory on Sunday.
“In the midst of our election, which is the foundation of democracy, we must never allow violence to block freedom of expression,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said before the election, amid heightened security.
Despite Japan’s high standard of living and enviable security, occasional acts of extreme violence occur, including attacks by people expressing a sense of failure and isolation.
One of the most recent was in October, when a man dressed in a Joker costume stabbed an elderly man, then spread oil before setting a Tokyo subway on fire and attempting to attack more people with a knife.
In politics, perhaps the most conspicuous post-war assassination came in 1960, when a right-winger attacked socialist leader Inejiro Asanuma with a sword before an audience of thousands.
Weapon 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 the US occupation forces. According to the latest annual crime report from the Ministry of Justice, the police made 21 arrests for firearms in 2020; 12 were gang related.
In 1994, Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa was shot but missed by a gunman during a speech. Nagasaki Mayor Iccho Ito was shot dead in 2007.
Stephen Nagy, a professor of politics and international relations at Tokyo International Christian University, said many of the people he has spoken with consider Abe’s attack “a lone wolf incident,” not an attack on democracy.
“The main concern was about the leadership vacuum that will arise when the largest political faction (Abe’s) has just lost its leader and this 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 strict, except at special high-profile international events.
That was due in part to a perceived lack of threat.
But the nature of the very public attack on Abe could lead to an emergency review of the way Japan protects its officials and a tightening of security at election campaigns or large-scale events.
Japan used to be safe enough for politicians to approach ordinary people, chat and shake hands, Fukuda said. “It was a happy environment, but we may be losing it.”
“In a society where the risk of assassination is realistic, security levels need to be raised,” he said. “It is an unfortunate development, but we cannot protect our security in any other way.”