JAPANESE POLICE ARRESTED A MAN WHO FATALLY SHOT FORMER JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE. PHOTO: THE ASAHI SHIMBUN VIA GETTY IMAGES
JAPANESE POLICE ARRESTED A MAN WHO FATALLY SHOT FORMER JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE. PHOTO: THE ASAHI SHIMBUN VIA GETTY IMAGES

Assassination of Former Japanese Leader Shinzo Abe Took the World By Shock

“It cannot be denied that he had been one of the most important politicians in Japanese history.”

Words of sympathy and condemnation poured in from around the world after former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was fatally shot while giving a campaign speech in the western prefecture of Nara on Friday morning. He was 67.

The assassination of Abe has taken the world by shock. 

“It cannot be denied that he had been one of the most important politicians in Japanese history,” Tom Phuong Le, an associate professor of politics at Pomona College, told VICE World News. “Much of the media will describe him as a former prime minister but it is important to recognize that he was still an active politician. He still had significant influence on the party and Japanese politics.” 

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The longest-serving Japanese prime minister in history, Abe spent nearly eight years at the helm of the Japanese government before resigning in 2020 over health concerns. He remained a key power broker in Japanese politics by wielding his influence in the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

It was also his second stint, having been elected in 2006 at the age of 52 as the country’s youngest prime minister since World War Two. He held the post for a year, before stepping down following a series of financial scandals within his cabinet.

He introduced major reforms during his last two terms, including modernizing Japan’s security forces, stepping up alliance with the U.S., and reviving the economy after two decades of stagnation. He was also known for pushing back against an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region in part by initiating the Quad—a security partnership with the U.S., Australia, and India seen by China as the “Asian NATO.”

Leaders around the world have issued statements of concerns following the attack. But his death elicited very different responses among the public in China and South Korea, underscoring Abe’s controversial legacy and lingering historical disputes between the neighbors. Chinese nationalists erupted in cheers on social media, while few South Koreans offered their sympathy for Abe. 

LATE JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE SHOOK HANDS WITH THEN US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP IN 2019. PHOTO: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

LATE JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE SHOOK HANDS WITH THEN US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP IN 2019. PHOTO: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

Many in the two countries were united in their shared disdain for Abe’s refusal to apologize for the Japanese Imperial Army’s use of “comfort women”—a euphemism for tens of thousands of women, mostly from South Korea and China but also Southeast Asia, forced into sexual slavery before and during World War II. A landmark agreement between Japan and South Korea to set the record straight and compensate the women eventually fell apart in 2015, during Abe’s reign.

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Abe’s hawkish foreign policy and nationalist agenda have also alarmed authorities in China and South Korea, after he pushed for the revision of high-school textbooks critical of Japan’s imperialist history while seeking to revise Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution in order to remilitarize the country.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he was shocked and wished Abe a speedy recovery before his death was announced. But the mood is very different on the Chinese internet.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV’s report of Abe's shooting received a million likes on Chinese social media Weibo within hours and many comments celebrating the attack.

“May I ask which anti-Japanese hero did that?” wrote a comment with more than 46,000 likes. “Let’s open a bottle of champagne,” said another top comment.

Under Abe’s leadership, Japan and China have also butted heads over territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Even after he stepped down as prime minister in 2020, his vocal support for Taiwan—including its inclusion in international organizations—also riled China, which regards the self-ruled democracy as part of its territory. 

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol sent his condolences on Friday evening. “The shooting was an unforgivable act of crime,” he said in a statement. 

FORMER JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE WAS AIRLIFTED TO THE HOSPITAL AFTER BEING SHOT. PHOTO: THE ASAHI SHIMBUN VIA GETTY IMAGES

FORMER JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE WAS AIRLIFTED TO THE HOSPITAL AFTER BEING SHOT. PHOTO: THE ASAHI SHIMBUN VIA GETTY IMAGES

Abe was seen lying on the ground with blood on his shirt after being shot twice from the back on Friday morning. According to a doctor at Nara Medical University Hospital, where Abe was treated, the former prime minister had no vital signs when he was brought to the hospital, with a bullet reaching his heart. Doctors failed to resuscitate him.

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Indian prime minister Narendra Modi was one of the first world leaders to express his condolences in the wake of Abe’s passing. He was “shocked and saddened beyond words,” he wrote in a tweet. Modi also announced that July 9 would be a day of national mourning for Abe.

Fresh off his resignation as the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson also expressed his sadness over Abe’s death. “His global leadership through unchartered times will be remembered by many,” Johnson wrote on Twitter

Earlier on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was deeply saddened by the attempt on Abe’s life. “Our thoughts, our prayers are with him, with his family, with the people of Japan. This is a very, very sad moment,” Blinken told the press at the sidelines of a G20 meeting in Indonesia. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, who had close ties with Abe, said it is “a tremendous blow to the wonderful people of Japan.” Abe was the first foreign leader Trump met after his election in 2016.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, describing Abe as a good friend and a staunch supporter of Taiwan, said: “Taiwan and Japan are both democratic and rule-based countries. On behalf of Taiwan’s government, I strongly condemn violent and illegal acts.” 

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Gun violence is extremely rare in Japan, which has strict gun control laws and one of the lowest gun ownership rates in the world. But the weapon used by Abe’s perpetrator appeared to be homemade, local media reported.

The attack came at an especially sensitive time as Japan will hold elections on Sunday for its Upper House, the less powerful of the parliament’s two chambers. Japanese politicians, including former prime ministers, have long participated in such campaigns and often mingle with potential voters without thick layers of security. 

Born to a prominent political family, Abe was groomed to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi and great-uncle, Sato Eisaku, both of whom served as prime minister. Abe’s younger brother and Japan’s defense minister, Nobuo Kishi described the attack as an “affront to democracy.” 

Yusuke Suzumura, an associate professor of political history at Meijo University, said the attack left him in disbelief. In 1992, a gunman fired shots at the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s vice president, Shin Kanemaru, during a speech. Such violence was unthinkable during the 21st century, Suzumura said.

“It’s unforgivable for people to lash out at politicians in anger because they might disagree with their beliefs,” he told VICE World News.

Police have arrested the suspect, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, for attempted murder. He was apprehended on site following the shooting. 

The gunman is a former member of the Japanese marine self-defense force and was “dissatisfied with former Prime Minister Abe and wanted to kill him,” NHK reported, citing anonymous defense ministry officials.

Hiroshi Ogawa, a 73-year-old longtime supporter of Shinzo Abe, said he was devastated. “I don’t recognize Japan anymore. How could someone just shoot Abe like that because they disapproved of him?” he told VICE World News.

Additional reporting by Junhyup Kwon.