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Abe killing raises questions about politicians' safety

July 9, 2022

Japan has among the strictest laws on guns anywhere in the world, yet a former member of the military was still able to make a rudimentary weapon and get close enough to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to kill him.

Japan | Ex-Regierungschef Shinzō Abe nach Attentat gestorben
Mourners leave flowers for Shinzo Abe in Nara, JapanImage: Issei Kato/REUTERS

Japan woke up on Saturday still in a deep state of shock over the killing of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with questions far outweighing the available information. 

Newspaper editorials and television chat shows on Saturday morning were awash with the implications of Abe's killing for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Sunday's election for the Upper House of the Diet and the future direction of the nation, but much of the debate was focused on how the assailant managed to obtain — or apparently build — a lethal weapon and then get close enough to a high-profile politician to kill him.  

"I am still finding it difficult to understand what happened, but also how it happened," said Noriko Hama, an analyst and professor of economics at Kyoto's Doshisha University.  

"Clearly there is a great deal of unhappiness among Japanese people about the state of our society and that anger is being aimed at politicians, in part I suspect because they do appear to be very distant to the fears and needs of ordinary people," she said. "But an attack like this is unthinkable."

'Unhappiness in society' 

In a nation with some of the strictest gun control laws in the world, the shooting of a politician in public and with police nearby should indeed have been unthinkable.  

Incidents involving guns are extremely rare throughout Japanese society. According to the National Police Agency, there were just 10 incidents involving the discharge of a firearm in the whole of 2021, with Japan's notorious yakuza crime syndicates linked to all but two of those incidents. In total, four people were injured and one person died of a gunshot wound in 2021.  

The number of shootings have been relatively consistent over the last five years, the NPA statistics show, with 70 incidents in that time, of which 49 were blamed on feuding yakuza groups. There were 14 gun deaths and 23 injuries in the same period. 

Police seized 295 weapons in 2021, down from the average of around 350 a year for the previous five years.  

Firearms are rare in Japan because the average citizen has no interest in owning a gun, crime rates are low so there is no need to own a weapon for self-defense and the laws are strict. The law that regulates weapon ownership was passed in 1958 and states very clearly: "No-one shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords." Additional legislation passed earlier this year has made it illegal to own a crossbow in Japan.

Shinzō Abe
Japan was still in shock on Saturday morning following the killing of Shinzo AbeImage: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

Tight rules on weapons 

There are a very limited number of sports shooters in Japan, while commercial hunters are granted licenses for shotguns in rural areas where wildlife – primarily boars, monkeys, and deer – pose a threat to farmers' crops.  

Obtaining a license is a trial in itself. The 13 steps required to get a gun include joining a registered club, and sitting through a day-long firearms and safety class before passing a written exam with a score of at least 95%. Applicants must also undergo a psychological assessment, a police interview, and an investigation into their background, which includes quizzing family and friends as to why they want to have a gun. 

The arrest of Tetsuya Yamagami, who has been charged with killing Abe, demonstrates that there are still ways to get around the laws. Yamagami is alleged to have built a rudimentary weapon and home-made projectiles that he used in the attack, while a police search of his home in Nara has uncovered a number of other crude firearms and explosive devices.  

A retired Japanese politician – who said he had felt "threatened" a number of times while in office, and who did not want his name to appear in print "as a precaution" – called the attack on Abe "absolutely shocking." But said he does not expect Japanese politicians to change the way they interact with their constituents and the general public.  

"They will not change because that would mean that democracy here in Japan had lost," he told DW.

He also senses there has been a change in society, both in Japan and on the global stage.  

"We see so much violence in Ukraine and in the US and there appears to be a growing number of people in Japan who are interested in obtaining a weapon," he said.  "The internet has made that easier, even here, and if they cannot get a real gun then there is technology out there – such as 3D printers – that can be used to make a weapon or a bomb."

Another critical question revolves around why Abe's armed security detail failed to prevent the attack on him, with the NPA and the Nara prefectural force both opening investigations into how an armed assailant was able to get within a few meters of the former prime minister.  

Security lapses questioned 

Police have not made an official comment on how the attack could be carried out, although Tsunehiko Maeda, a former chief prosecutor of Tokyo's Special Investigation Department said in an opinion article for the Friday news magazine that he feared the evident security lapses around such a senior politician "may even create copycats."

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, echoed that warning, both in Japan and wider global society. 

"There is danger of copycat political violence," he said. "In many countries, the pandemic has limited personal interaction between citizens and their government representatives. Security concerns could reduce accessibility further, posing yet another challenge to the functioning of democratic processes.  

"War, an energy shock, inflation and social polarization already conjure up memories of prior decades," he added. "Such a high-profile assassination is bound to deepen global perceptions that politics in many parts of the world is moving backward."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea