Japan has been brought to a standstill by the news that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe died being shot on the campaign trail for Sunday’s upper house elections.
A lone gunman attacked Abe, who was pronounced dead at a hospital in Nara from wounds in his chest and neck. This is a tragedy that will have repercussions far beyond this weekend’s voting.
It’s hard to think of a more unexpected place for this to happen: Japan prides itself on being a safe society. The impact of sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, nearly 30 years on, still reverberate precisely because such incidents are so rare — shootings in particular. The unsolved 2013 killing of Takayuki Ohigashi, the head of a famous restaurant chain shot outside his company headquarters, still linger in memory. Political assassinations are even more extraordinary: The yakuza-related fatal shooting of the mayor of Nagasaki in 2007 might be the only recent corollary.
Random attacks of violence do occur. Recent years have seen an uptick in such events, such as the mass murder of 26 in Osaka last December, where the suspect set a mental health clinic on fire, killing himself in the process; or the knife attacks on Tokyo’s subways last Halloween, which mercifully resulted in no fatalities.
While some guns are available in Japan for the likes of hunters, any purchase requires stringent checks. Photos apparently from the scene show an unusual, almost handmade-looking firearm. Last year, a man killed himself in Ibaraki with a gun believed to have been made with a 3D printer. But because of Japan’s safety record, security at political rallies is weak. It’s not at all unusual to see former prime ministers or other bigwigs campaigning at a street corner or in front of a train station, without a visible police or security detail.
The assassination of Abe will have a resounding effect on the country. While outsiders might think of him as a former politician, he maintained immense influence at home. He led the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party, and at just 67, was still in his prime. Many speculated he could have taken another run at the premiership. Even if he didn’t, Abe was certainly in place to help decide the next prime minister.
At the time of writing, we know little of the suspect and nothing of his motivations. Abe has attracted violent protest in the past, including a 2014 self-immolation against security legislation that he spearheaded. But this kind of attack on a national figure of his stature is utterly without precedent in the country’s modern history.
One thing seems certain: July 8 is a day that will scar Japan forever.
Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News senior editor covering Japan.