Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, an arch-conservative and one of the country’s most divisive figures, was shot and critically wounded during a campaign speech Friday in western Japan. He was airlifted to a hospital but officials said he was not breathing and his heart had stopped.
Police arrested the suspected gunman at the scene of the shocking attack in a country that’s one of the world’s safest and has some of the strictest gun control laws anywhere.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Abe was in “severe condition” and he hoped Abe will survive. He called the attack “dastardly and barbaric” and added that the crime occurring during the election campaign, which is the foundation of democracy, was absolutely unforgivable.
Kishida and his cabinet ministers hastily returned to Tokyo from other campaign events around the country after the shooting. “I’m praying for former prime minister Abe’s survival from the bottom of my heart,” Kishida said at the prime minister’s office after he arrived on a defence helicopter from Yamagata.
He said Abe was receiving the utmost medical treatment. Abe, who is 67 and was Japan’s longest-serving leader before stepping down in 2020, was in cardio and pulmonary arrest as he was being airlifted to the hospital, local fire department official Makoto Morimoto said.
NHK public broadcaster aired dramatic footage of Abe giving a speech outside of a main train station in Nara. He is standing, dressed in a navy blue suit, raising his fist, when a gunshot is heard. Footage then shows Abe collapsed on the street, with several security guards running toward him. He is holding his chest, his shirt smeared with blood.
In the next moment, security guards leap on top of a man in grey shirt, who lies face down on the pavement. A double-barrelled device which appeared to be a handmade gun, can be seen on the ground.
Nara prefectural police confirmed the arrest of a suspect for alleged attempted murder and identified him as Tetsuya Yamagami, 41. NHK reported that the suspect served in the Maritime Self-Defence Force for three years in the 2000s.
Other footage from the scene showed campaign officials surrounding Abe. The popular former leader is still influential in the governing Liberal Democratic Party and heads its largest faction, Seiwakai. Elections for Japan’s upper house, the less powerful chamber of its parliament, are Sunday.
“A barbaric act like this is absolutely unforgivable, no matter what the reasons are, and we condemn it strongly,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.
The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper printed extra editions, which were quickly grabbed by people on the street to read about the shooting.
Nara, once the capital of Japan, is just to the east of Osaka on the country’s main Honshu island.
Abe cited a chronic health problem when he resigned as prime minister. Abe has had ulcerative colitis since he was a teenager and has said the condition was controlled with treatment.
Sought to rewrite constitution
He told reporters at the time that it was “gut wrenching” to leave many of his goals unfinished. He spoke of his failure to resolve the issue of Japanese abducted years ago by North Korea, a territorial dispute with Russia and a revision of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution.
That last goal was a big reason he was such a divisive figure.
His ultra-nationalism riled the Koreas and China, and his push to create what he saw as a more normal defence posture angered many Japanese. Abe failed to achieve his cherished goal of formally rewriting the U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution because of poor public support.
Loyalists said that his legacy was a stronger U.S.-Japan relationship that was meant to bolster Japan’s defence capability. But Abe made enemies by forcing his defence goals and other contentious issues through parliament, despite strong public opposition.
Abe is a political blue blood who was groomed to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi. His political rhetoric often focused on making Japan a “normal” and “beautiful” nation with a stronger military and bigger role in international affairs.
Many foreign officials expressed shock over the shooting.
Our thoughts, our prayers are with him, with his family, with the people of Japan,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said while attending a Group of 20 foreign ministers meeting in Bali, Indonesia.
Abe said he was proud of working while leader for a stronger Japan-U.S. security alliance and shepherding the first visit by a serving U.S. president to the atom-bombed city of Hiroshima. He also helped Tokyo gain the right to host the 2020 Olympics by pledging that a disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant was “under control” when it was not.
Won 6 national elections
Abe became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006, at age 52, but his overly nationalistic first stint abruptly ended a year later, also because of his health.
The end of Abe’s scandal-laden first stint as prime minister was the beginning of six years of annual leadership change, remembered as an era of “revolving door” politics that lacked stability and long-term policies.
When he returned to office in 2012, Abe vowed to revitalize the nation and get its economy out of its deflationary doldrums with his “Abenomics” formula, which combines fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms.
He won six national elections and built a rock-solid grip on power, bolstering Japan’s defence role and capability and its security alliance with the U.S. He also stepped up patriotic education at schools and raised Japan’s international profile.