The assassination of Shinzo Abe: History of political violence in Japan

Our reaction to the news of the shooting of the former prime minister Shinzo Abe it was one of shock and disbelief in equal measure. What followed was a frenzy of trying to piece together news and gossip to make sense of events, until his eventual death was announced a few hours later.

At first glance, Abe’s assassination dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, when the assassination of sitting and former prime ministers (Hara Kei, Hamaguchi Osachi, Inukai Tsuyoshi, Takahashi Korekiyo, Saitō Makoto) was a feature of the Japanese politics. We do not easily associate political assassination and violence with post-war democratic and pacifist Japan. In this regard, it is not surprising that many reports focused on political violence in Japan as “almost unheard of.” However, as in any other country, sudden and extreme acts of political violence are not without precedent in Japan.

During Abe’s second term in power (2012-20), one of his most controversial initiatives was the reinterpretation of Japan’s exercise of its right to collective self-defense. This was seen as part of a steady shift towards a more militarized Japan and resulted in two very public cases of people setting themselves on fire in June and November 2014 in protest. In the latter case, the person dies.

In Abe’s first term in office (2006-7), Nagasaki Mayor Itō Icchō was shot dead by a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime syndicate, over a seemingly trivial matter of compensation for damage to his car. In 1990, Itō’s predecessor, Motoshima Hitoshi, was also the target of a failed assassination attempt by a right-wing extremist for public comments he made about Emperor Hirohito’s war responsibility.

In 2006, the house of Liberal Democratic Party politician Katō Kōichi was set on fire by a right-winger angered by comments that Katō had criticized Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirō’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine has long been a controversial symbol of Japan’s war legacy.

World-famous writer Mishima Yukio’s failed coup in 1970 shocked Japan and had deep roots in his own ultra-nationalist political views. Mishima had founded the Shield Society, a paramilitary organization, two years before the coup, recruiting members with far-right leanings who wanted to restore the Emperor’s political powers. Famously, Mishima ritually committed suicide when the coup attempt failed.

1960 was a tumultuous year in postwar Japanese history as a result of the revision of the security treaty between the United States and Japan. Abe’s grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, was the victim of a failed assassination attempt in July of that year. Later that year, Japan Socialist Party leader Asanuma Inejirō was stabbed to death by a radical ultra-nationalist student.

Asanuma was an outspoken critic of Japan’s ties with the US and also sought closer relations with communist states in Asia. A photograph of the attack won the Pulitzer Prize.

These examples are all actions of individuals. Japan is also no stranger to organized political violence by groups of people. The most devastating incident of post-war political violence was undoubtedly the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo in March 1995. At the hands of a religious cult, Aum Shinrikyō, key subway stations serving political centers in Tokyo were attacked with the aim of starting the order. of the world. The nerve agent claimed 14 lives and injured more than 1,000 people. The sect’s leader, Asahara Shōkō, along with key members of the sect, were executed in 2018.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Japan saw domestic terror at the hands of a number of leftist revolutionary groups. The most famous of these was the Japanese Red Army (JRA), which hijacked planes, attacked embassies and businesses, as well as civilians. Wanted posters for people involved with the JRA still appear in Japanese train stations, and recently the Tokyo police have made videos reminding the population that members are still on the loose.

As the numbers show, gun crime is rare in Japan, so political violence is shocking and extreme. However, as is the case in other countries (just think of the assassinations of MPs Jo Cox and David Amess in the UK), it is sadly far from unheard of.

Sadly, Shinzo Abe is just the latest in a long line of politically motivated attacks. Unfortunately, the highly visible nature of criminal prosecution in Japan gives perpetrators a great platform to announce their views. This doesn’t just happen in Japan. The judicial process has been used for political praise in recent cases in Europe and the US, with the Breivik case in Norway being a particularly harrowing example. The same may happen in Japan in due time.

Many words will be written about this event in the hours, days and years to come, but at this time our condolences go out to Abe’s family.

The conversation

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