Abe, 67, was pronounced dead early in the evening, prompting a flood of tributes from current and former world leaders, and anger that a politician could be gunned down in broad daylight in one of the world’s safest societies two days before an election.
Abe, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, who resigned in 2020, was flown to hospital by helicopter after the attack outside Yamato Saidaiji railway station in Nara, an ancient capital in the country’s west known for its Buddhist temples and free-roaming deer.
As the light faded on Friday, supporters and local residents visited the scene of the attack – a pedestrian crossing next to a white guardrail – where Abe had been calling on voters to re-elect his Liberal Democratic party (LDP) colleague Kei Sato in this Sunday’s upper house elections when he was shot.
Alone and in pairs, they stepped forward to lay flowers, bottles of sports drink, slices of watermelon wrapped in cellophane, and bags of sweets. They bowed and clasped their hands in prayer; some shed tears and lowered their heads again as they turned towards banks of TV cameras.
“I was having a cigarette break near the station when I heard a huge bang,” a local traffic control employee who declined to give his name told the Guardian. “There was white smoke everywhere. I wouldn’t say people were panicking … like me, they initially had no idea what was going on.”
Abe was only minutes into his speech and had just raised his fist to make a point when he stumbled and fell after two shots were fired from behind him at close range. Seconds later, men thought to be members of Japan’s secret service tackled a suspect to the ground in a dramatic intervention caught on video.
The suspect was named as Tetsuya Yamagami, a 41-year-old resident of Nara who spent three years in the maritime self-defence forces until 2005. Police believe he had crafted a homemade gun. The weapon appeared from TV footage to comprise two cylindrical metallic parts heavily bound in black tape.
Police said they were investigating whether he had acted alone. He reportedly said he had wanted to kill Abe because he was “dissatisfied” with him over issues unrelated to politics. The suspect said he bore a grudge against a “specific organisation” and believed Abe was part of it, police said, adding that it was not clear if the unnamed organisation actually existed.
Several similar homemade weapons to the one used in the attack were confiscated during a search of the suspect’s house.
Makoto Ichikawa, a local businessman who had been near the train station waiting for his wife, said Yamagami “came out of nowhere on to the middle of the road holding a gun”. He said he was struck by the assailant’s “normal” expression.
Ken Namikawa, the mayor of a nearby town, used a microphone to call for people with medical experience to help Abe. A photograph taken at about the same time showed Abe lying face up, blood on his white shirt and surrounded by several people, at least one of whom was administering heart massage.
Abe was airlifted to a hospital for emergency treatment but was not breathing and his heart had stopped. He was pronounced dead after emergency treatment that included massive blood transfusions, hospital officials said.
Hidetada Fukushima, the head of the emergency department at Nara Medical University, said the attack inflicted major damage to Abe’s heart, in addition to two neck wounds that damaged an artery, causing extensive bleeding. Abe was in a state of cardiopulmonary arrest when he arrived at the hospital and never regained his vital signs, Fukushima said.
The psychological fallout from an assassination by a gunman in a country where gun crime is almost unheard of is hard to gauge at this early stage. But Abe’s death, coming at the end of an election campaign, will almost certainly prompt a rethink of the tradition of bringing politicians into close contact with voters.
Some parties announced that their senior members would halt campaigning for Sunday’s election, but the ruling LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito said canvassing would resume on Saturday.
An official of the Nara prefectural police department said the department would look into whether security at the event was sufficient and take appropriate action. Several commentators said security around Abe should have been stronger.
Several Japanese prime ministers were assassinated in the prewar era, but Abe is the first sitting or former premier to have been killed since the days of militarism.
There have been other politically motivated killings in more recent times, however. In 1960 the leader of the Japan Socialist party, Inejiro Asanuma, was assassinated during a speech in by a rightwing youth armed with a samurai short sword. In 2007 the mayor of Nagasaki, Iccho Ito, was shot dead by a member of a yakuza crime syndicate.
Japan’s current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, said Abe had demonstrated “great leadership” during his time in office, adding that he was “lost for words”.
“I have great respect for the legacy Shinzo Abe left behind and I offer my deepest condolences,” a visibly upset Kishida said after abandoning a campaign stop and returning to Tokyo. “This attack is an act of brutality that happened during the elections – the very foundation of our democracy – and is absolutely unforgivable.”
Joe Biden, who is dealing with a summer of mass shootings in the US, said: “Gun violence always leaves a deep scar on the communities that are affected by it.” He added in a Twitter post that he was “stunned, outraged, and deeply saddened by the news that my friend Abe Shinzo, former prime minister of Japan, was shot and killed. He was a champion of the friendship between our people. The United States stands with Japan in this moment of grief”.
Abe was a divisive leader, adored by conservatives who had tired of decades of official soul-searching over Japan’s wartime conduct, but loathed by progressives who watched on with horror as he used his party’s comfortable majority in parliament to loosen some of the legal shackles on the country’s military, known as the self-defence forces.
Among his admirers were Rami Miyamoto, a 23-year-old company employee who had stopped to watch Abe’s speech on the way to a work meeting. “I’m in a state of shock,” she said. “I followed Abe’s career as prime minister and admired what he was trying to do for Japan. I’ll remember him as someone who faced huge challenges but always came back and carried on. I will never forgive the person who did this.”
Yuji Izawa was working from home when he heard helicopters overhead. Moments later he received a news alert saying Abe had been shot. “My home isn’t that far away, so I came to find out what was happening,” said Izawa, who works in telecoms. “I was praying that he was going to be OK, but …” he trailed off. “How could something this terrible have happened in Japan?
Story first published on The Guardian