The reaction to the attack on the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was marked by shock and disbelief. A frenzy of analysis followed in an attempt to make sense of the events, while the information was still unconfirmed. Until Shinzo Abe’s death was announced a few hours later.
At first glance, Abe’s assassination takes us back to the 1920s and 1930s, when assassinations of prime ministers and former prime ministers (Hara Kei, Hamaguchi Osachi, Inukai Tsuyoshi, Takahashi Korekiyo, Saitō Makoto) were a feature of Japanese politics. This was less the case after the war with the advent of a democratic and pacifist Japan.
Therefore, it is not surprising that many commentators were astonished by political violence described as “almost unthinkable” in Japan. However, as in many other countries, political and extreme acts of violence are not unprecedented.
Individual acts of violence
During Abe’s second term in office (2012-2020), one of the prime minister’s most controversial initiatives was the reaffirmation of Japan’s right tocollective self-defense, which has been interpreted as a shift towards a more militarized Japan. This caused the immolation by fire of two people in June and november 2014 in protest. In the last case, the person is deceased.
During Abe’s first term (2006-2007), the Mayor of Nagasaki Itō Icchō was also shot by a member of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime syndicate. He was unhappy because the city had not wanted to reimburse him after damage to his car on a municipal construction site.
In 1990, Itō’s predecessor, Motoshima Hitoshiwas also the subject of a failed assassination attempt by a right-wing extremist for public comments he made about Emperor Hirohito’s wartime accountability.
In 2006, the home of Liberal Democratic Party politician Katō Kōichi was the target of a criminal fire lit by another right-wing extremist angry at criticism Katō made after Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirō’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine has long been a controversial symbol of Japan’s wartime legacy.
As for world-renowned writer Yukio Mishima’s failed coup in 1970, which shocked Japan, it was rooted in his ultra-nationalist political views.
Two years before the coup, Mishima had founded the paramilitary Shield Society, recruiting its members from far-right members who wanted to restore the Emperor’s political powers. Mishima then committed ritual suicide when the failed coup attempt.
1960 was a tumultuous year in post-war Japanese history following the revision of the security treaty between the United States and Japan.
Abe’s own grandfather, Kishi Nobusukewas the victim of a failed assassination attempt in July of the same year.
Also in 1960, the leader of the Japanese Socialist Party Asanuma Inejiro was stabbed to death by a radical ultra-nationalist student. The latter was a vocal critic of Japan’s ties with the United States and had sought closer relations with the communist states of Asia. A photography of the attack won the Pulitzer Prize.
Organized political violence
All of these examples represent acts of individual violence. But Japan is no stranger to organized political violence. Perhaps the most devastating post-war incident was the sarin gas attack in Tokyo in March 1995. In the name of a religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, several metro stations were attacked with the stated objective of initiating the end of the world. The nerve agent killed 14 people and injured more than 1,000 people. The cult’s leader, Asahara Shōkō, and several of its leaders were executed in 2018.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Japan also witnessed domestic terrorism by a number of leftist revolutionary groups. The most famous of these was the Japanese Red Army, which hijacked planes, attacked embassies and businesses, and of the civilians. Posters featuring the faces of prominent Red Army militants continue to appear in Japanese train stations, and Tokyo police recently carried out videos reminding people that their members are still on the run.
The figures show that the gun crime is rare in Japan, which makes political violence shocking. This does not mean, however, as we have just demonstrated, that it is something new.
The attack on Shinzo Abe is just the latest in a long line of politically motivated attacks. Unfortunately, the fact that Japanese criminal proceedings are largely public provides opportunities for perpetrators of violent acts to promote and propagate their ideas. Other recent similar events in Europe and the United States, including the case Breivik in Norway, show that the judicial process can be hijacked to better push extremist agendas. This is a risk that also exists in Japan.
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Assassination of Shinzo Abe: A History of Political Violence in Japan