By Julian Ryall
Tokyo- The killing of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hung heavy over Japan on Saturday, with voters preparing to go to the polls still stunned at how a former member of the military was able to manufacture a makeshift gun and evade Abe’s security detail before killing him with two shots.
The election for the Upper House of the Diet is going ahead as planned on Sunday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has confirmed, although he has ordered police to be on heightened alert at polling stations and other locations that might be a tempting target for anyone considering a copycat attack.
“I can’t believe what has happened,” said Mitsue Nagasaku, a housewife from Yokohama, south of Tokyo. “We have seen the war in Ukraine on television for the last few months and mass shootings seem to take place quite often in the US, but this sort of thing just does not happen in Japan.
“There are sometimes reports about members of ‘yakuza’ underworld groups shooting at each other, but it’s so rare outside criminal groups,” she told the Pacific Island Times.
Yet the incident – which is being dissected in the media just hours before polling stations open on Sunday morning – will not put her off voting, she said.
“If anything, this has made me more determined to vote,” she said. “People are saying that it was an attack on our democracy and that cannot be allowed to happen. So I will be voting tomorrow.”
Newspaper editorials and television chat shows are discussing the implications of Abe’s killing for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Sunday’s election and the future direction of the nation, but much of the debate was focused on how the alleged assailant managed to build a lethal weapon and then get close enough to the former prime minister to kill him.
“I am still finding it difficult to understand what happened, but also how it happened,” said Noriko Hama, a 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 from the fears and needs of ordinary people,” she said.
“But an attack like this is unthinkable,” she added.
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 yakuza groups linked to all but two of those incidents. In total, four people were injured and one person died of a gunshot wound in 2021.
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 requirements to own a weapon for sport shooting or hunting are strict.
Conservatives say they are stunned at the events of Friday, but they now anticipate an even bigger margin of victory for the LDP in Sunday’s election. And that might well be Abe’s political legacy.
“I believe the LDP will now do better than expected and I hope that what has happened today will also galvanize those who win because of Abe’s death to follow through on his most important policies,” said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.
If the party can parley a likely sympathy vote for Abe into votes and seats, it is likely to give the LDP the super-majority in the Upper House of the Diet that would then permit the government to hold a debate and a vote on revising the constitution. Conservatives have long railed against the constitution on the grounds that it was imposed on a defeated Japan by the vengeful allies in 1945.
When he was prime minister, Abe hoped to be able to revise parts of the constitution to permit the legal recognition of the nation’s Self-Defense Forces as a military and permit them to play a larger role in global interventions. Abe never had enough political support to achieve that aim, although his death now means that his successor may well be able to do so.