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Shinzo Abe: the Legacy of a Political Titan, and the Crisis of his Assassination

Jonathon Katzenelson

On July 8, Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister of Japan was shot from behind at close range while delivering a campaign speech for a fellow Liberal Democratic Party (LPD) candidate. Due to the crude nature of the improvised firearm, the shooter’s first round did not hit, but the second round proved to be fatal, with doctors reporting that Abe had no vital signs by the time he was transferred for medical treatment. The brazen and public killing shocked and saddened the Japanese public and people around the world who mourned the loss of a titan in Japanese politics, one who had served as prime minister for nearly a decade, over two different terms. 

Abe was very much atypical among Japanese policy makers as he wasn’t necessarily liked or well received, but was highly and widely respected. Many saw Abe as the lesser of two evils; as reported by NPR, “A majority of respondents in public opinion polls [in 2017] said they don't want Abe to continue as prime minister, but he will — because of no plausible alternatives — and voter apathy.” Japan’s culture is based on a hierarchy of mutual respect, and politeness. So being respected by the public is a particularly crucial ingredient for political success in Japan, and Abe was always more respected than his political opposition.

Despite the fact that violence was commononplace in Japanese politics during the 1930’s, the last politically charged assassination of a Japanese politician occurred 62 years ago, in 1960, when the head of Japan's Socialist Party, Asanuma Inejiro, was killed by a rightwing extremist during a televised debate. The killing was reminscent of a dark era in Japenese politics, when political assassinations were used as a mechanism to eliminate and indimatdate the political oppponents of the millatary’s growing political influence. However, modern-day Japan has one of the lowest rates of gun violence per-capita in the world, which makes the recent shooting of Shinzo Abe ever more surprising. In simple terms, obtaining a legal or otherwise illegal firearm in Japan is an incredibly cumbersome bureaucratic procedure, and that’s not including the separate permit for ammunition which is also heavily regulated. Shinzo Abe's assassination illustrates how even with maximalist government restrictions, those with malicious intent can acquire deadly weapons. However, the fact remains that when there are fewer guns in a country, it experiences fewer gun murders (including political killings). Guns may not kill people on their own, but they are certainly helpful tools for those who intend to kill people. 

Abe was killed by a former Japanese marine named Tetsuya Yamagami. He confessed to murdering the former prime minister and told police he was motivated to kill Abe because he believed the politician had close ties with the Unification Church. The Korean based Unification Church (colloquially known as Moonies), has approximately two million members in Japan, and has faced its fair share of controversies, with some accusing it of being a financially motivated cult. Yamagami developed resentment for the Church after massive donations from his grandmother (who was a member) allegedly resulted in the bankruptcy of the Yamagami family. How Tetsuya Yamagami acquired the weapon is still unknown, but it has been theorized that he built it himself

During his administration, Abe strengthened US and Japanese ties, particularly with former U.S. President Donald Trump, and formed a practical partnership with China. In his first term, Abe unleashed sanctions against North Korea, while promoting revision of Japan’s postwar constitution. Although well respected, Abe was no stranger to controversy: he was an unabashed nationalist, and conservative traditionalist, who was always armed with a nice way of saying no. In 2014, when Japan was being scrutinized globally for its inhuman treatment of dolphins in Taiji, Abe responded to the criticism, saying, “In every country and region, there are practices and ways of living and culture that have been handed down from ancestors. Naturally, I feel that these should be respected.” 

Abe had also been criticized for whitewashing Japan’s history of atrocities during WWII. Abe wanted to change Article 9 of Japan’s postwar constitution, which forbade the nation from developing the military capacity for, or engagement in, offensive purposes. His hawkish agenda eventually resulted in the 2014 reinterpretation of Article 9, which now allows Japanese security forces to engage in overseas operations for the collective defense of allies. 

In September 2007, one year after being elected, Abe prematurely stepped down as the prime minister for personal health reasons. His resignation did not last long as he was reelected in 2012 and never fully backed away from politics, although he ultimately resigned in 2020 for similar reasons. Abe’s second term seemed more promising, as his economic policies, dubbed "Abenomics", were touted as rejuvenating measures for the Japanese economy, which had been anemic since the 1990's The policies of Abenomics included measures to induce short term spending, increase government spending, and ease regulations to allow more migrant workers to join the workforce. Abe’s policies were later credited for decreasing unemployment throughout Japan. 

However Japan’s initial economic boom in the first few years of Abe’s second term (from 2012 to 2017 Japan’s GDP grew by an average - Japan") of 1.4% annually), didn't last and by 2018 it had ended and its economy entered a recession soon after. In 2020, support for Abe’s leadership regressed in part because of an economic strategy implemented during COVID-19, which promoted a campaign of subsidized domestic tourism that resulted in an uptick of infections throughout Japan. 

The long-term consequences of Shinzo Abe's assassination for Japanese politics are still unknown, but so far, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) increased its majority in the upper house of parliament winning eight new seats (63 seats up from 55 seats). Will Abe’s murder be a spark for future instances of political violence, or will the new prime minster, Fumio Kishida, maintain the political status-qou of the last 60 years? How will Kishida balance this domestic crisis against economic interests after COVID-19, and rising tensions with neighboring China? As titans become fossils, what crystallizes is their legacy, and Abe’s leadership will not be forgotten anytime soon. His legacy was far from perfect but his political longevity holds an important lesson for current Japanese premier Fumio Kishida: earning the respect of the Japanese people is an essential ingredient for being an effective leader in Japan.

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