TOKYO – Japan was reeling from the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday, a stunning act of political violence in a country where gun laws are strict and shootings are rare.
Abe was shot in the back while giving a speech at a campaign rally in the western city of Nara and was pronounced dead hours later, sparking a national outpouring of shock and grief.
It was the first murder of a former or incumbent prime minister in Japan in 90 years.
“I believed we were in a country where murders would never happen. I feel so sorry for Mr Abe. I’m in shock,” Emiko Shiono, a 76-year-old Tokyo resident, told NBC News. “He was someone who contributed to the nation.”
The same sentiments were shared by those who did not necessarily agree with the conservative politician’s legacy.
“There are many pros and cons [about Abe]but what happened should never have happened,” Tomoko Tanaka, 50, said Friday as she was walking with her grandchild in downtown Tokyo.
Video of Abe’s speech showed a cloud of white smoke behind him along with two loud cannon-like explosions. Video and photos show what appears to be an improvised weapon lying on the ground in the aftermath.
Police said Friday they believe the attack was carried out with a homemade gun and later found several other weapons that appeared to be homemade in the suspect’s home. It is unclear whether the suspect has the correct permits for the weapons.
Japan’s gun laws are among the strictest in the world, making it one of the safest countries in the world. Handguns are banned and people must undergo extensive testing, training, background and mental health checks to obtain and keep shotguns or air rifles.
In 2018, just nine people died from firearms in the country, eight of whom were considered suicides or accidents, according to the World Health Organization. In 2021 there were only 10 shooting incidents, according to police records that excludes suicides or accidents. It said one person was killed and four people injured.
“This is an incredibly low number,” says Iain Overton, author of “Gun Baby Gun” and Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence, a UK-based advocacy group against gun violence.
“Japan has some of the strictest gun laws in the world and has a long history of doing so — it was the first country in the world to introduce some form of gun law through a reward system for information leading to the capture of illegal weapons in the 17th century,” said Overton.
The restrictions mean that the kind of shootings so common in the United States are rare in a country like Japan, where the public murder of a modern politician was unimaginable before Friday.
“Whether you liked what he did or not, the idea that a former leader could be shot in cold blood, I think, is just unimaginable to most Japanese,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. in Tokyo.
“This is something that happens in other countries, not here.”
There are occasional shootings involving “yakuza” mobsters and mass murders have been committed in Japan, but mostly no weapons were involved.
In 2016, 19 residents of an institution for the mentally handicapped were killed in their beds by a knife-wielding attacker, while in 2019 36 people died in an arson attack at an animation studio.
Politically motivated violence is also rare in the country.
In 1932, Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was killed by a group of soldiers in his hometown during Japan’s antebellum militarist build-up, one of a series of similar assassinations. And in 1960, the leader of the Socialist Party, Inejiro Asanuma, was murdered by a teenager with a dagger during a political rally.
The rarity of such attacks has led Japan to develop a culture of relative closeness between public and politician.
Abe, who remained an influential figure in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, spoke at a campaign rally near a train station in the city of Nara in support of a candidate for the upper house of Parliament in elections scheduled for Sunday.
There is usually little distance between voters and candidates during campaign events, said Tobias Harris, author of “The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan,” calling it “one of the great things about Japanese politics.”
“Campaigns aren’t on TV — they’re really in person, interacting with voters at train stations every day,” he said. “Abe did what Japanese politicians do.”
Olivier Fabre reported from Tokyo and Rhoda Kwan reported from Taipei, Taiwan.
Jennifer Jett and Reuters contributed†