TOKYO - Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a well-regarded statesman with enormous political clout, was assassinated by a lone gunman on Friday (July 8) in broad daylight.
The 67-year-old was shot twice at 11.30am local time (10.30am in Singapore) in the western city of Nara, just after he took the stage to deliver a rally speech. He was campaigning for a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate ahead of an Upper House election tomorrow.
Despite the valiant efforts of doctors at the Nara Medical University Hospital to save him, Mr Abe was pronounced dead at 5.03pm. He had transfusions of more than 100 units of blood during open-heart surgery, but haemorrhaged from damage to his heart.
Mr Abe had no vital signs when brought to the Nara Medical University Hospital, said medical officials at a press conference.
Doctors said he had been in cardiac arrest when emergency responders arrived at the scene of the crime near one of Nara's main train stations.
In response to reporters' questions, the doctors added that no bullets were found in Mr Abe's body during surgery, but one wound was "deep enough to reach the heart" which caused bleeding.
Two bullet entrance wounds 5cm apart were found on Mr Abe's body on the base of his neck, and open-heart surgery was conducted to determine where the haemorrhage was to stop the bleeding, they explained.
More than 20 doctors and nurses participated in the operation, which lasted around 4hr 30min, doctors said. The cause of death was attributed to blood loss.
Mr Abe’s wife Akie, 60, arrived at the hospital just minutes before he died, having rushed halfway across the country to be by his side. The couple have no children.
Current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, choking back tears in a eulogy, said: “Mr Abe held the heavy responsibility as Prime Minister of Japan, guiding the country in a difficult domestic and international environment with his outstanding leadership and ability to execute.”
Describing Mr Abe as a “personal friend” who he spent a lot of time with, Mr Kishida added: “He loved the country and always acted in the interests for its future.”
He added that Mr Abe has left behind an "invaluable legacy" and had led the country with strong leadership.
Members of the public laid flowers near the spot where he fell. TV Asahi reported that Mr Abe’s body would be transferred to his Tokyo home on Saturday.
Mr Abe’s assassination just two days before the Upper House election united politicians of all stripes, who suspended their campaigning on Friday in mourning and condemnation of the attack.
LDP bigwigs have been fanning out across the country to campaign for the party candidates in tomorrow’s election.
Mr Kishida, deploring the shooting as one of “cowardly barbarism”, said Japan will never cave to terrorism as he vowed to protect the sanctity of free and fair elections that form the basis of democracy.
The Upper House election, in which 545 candidates are vying for 125 seats, will take place as scheduled on Sunday under tighter security, Mr Kishida said.
He said that he will resume campaigning on Saturday as scheduled in Yamanashi and Niigata prefectures.
The gunman, identified as Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, was arrested at the crime scene for attempted murder ahead of Mr Abe’s death. He has confessed.
Yamagami, a former serviceman with the Maritime Self-Defence Force from 2002 to 2005, had fashioned a homemade weapon – a 40cm by 20cm handgun with the barrel wrapped in tape – from parts bought on the Internet.
In an evening press conference, police said the gun used in the shooting was 40cm long and 20cm wide, with investigators also finding "several" similar handmade guns at the suspect's home.
Explosives were also found and removed by the bomb disposal squad from his residence.
They said Yamagami denied harbouring any grudges against Mr Abe’s political beliefs, but had targeted the former leader for his “religious affiliations” to an unnamed group.
But they added that his moments of lucidity were interspersed with gibberish, and that investigations are ongoing into whether Yamagami is mentally competent to stand trial.
Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi – Mr Abe’s blood brother who was adopted into Mr Abe’s maternal family when he was born – described the assassination as a “blasphemy” to democracy.
He said: “My brother gave his life to politics, and it is remorseful that he was killed in this way.”
Political parties condemn attack
Both ruling party and opposition politicians were united in condemning the attack as barbaric and an act of terror.
Earlier in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters: “Former prime minister Abe was shot at around 11.30am in Nara. One man, believed to be the shooter, has been taken into custody."
Media reports said that Mr Abe collapsed in the middle of a rally speech in front of the Yamato-Saidaiji Station of the Kintetsu Line in Nara.
He had begun speaking at 11.29am (10.29am Singapore time) and was shot just one minute later, at around 11.30am outside the station.
Mr Abe was speaking on behalf of LDP candidate Kei Sato, 43, a current member of the Upper House running for re-election in Nara.
Mr Yoshio Ogita, 74, secretary-general of the Nara chapter of the LDP, was standing next to Mr Abe. He heard two loud sounds and saw a plume of white smoke rising to the sky, the New York Times (NYT) reported.
“I didn’t know what had happened,” he said in a phone interview. “I saw him collapse.”
Businessman Makoto Ichikawa, who was at the scene, told Reuters: “The first shot, no one knew what was going on, but after the second shot, what looked like special police tackled him (the suspect).”
The crowds screamed and cries of "ambulance, ambulance", "AED" (automated external defibrillator) and for medical staff were heard, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported.
Bystanders rushed to Mr Abe while three men in suits, believed to be part of the former prime minister’s security detail, pinned down a man in a grey T-shirt and khaki pants.
The man had tossed aside what appeared in video and photos to be a homemade gun.
A reporter for NHK who covered the speech said Mr Abe crumpled to the ground after the second shot, clutching his chest.
Ambulances and fire engines rushed to the scene, and as emergency workers rushed to administer CPR, Mr Abe was covered with a large blue tarp, NYT reported.
He was moved onto a stretcher and then loaded onto a medical evacuation helicopter that took him to Nara Medical University Hospital.
The terrifying attack against Mr Abe sent shockwaves throughout Japan, a country with some of the strictest gun laws among leading economies and shootings are rare.
According to the National Police Agency, there were 10 firearm-related incidents last year, one of them fatal.
Senior Japanese politicians are accompanied by armed security agents but they often get close to the public, especially during political campaigns when they make roadside speeches and shake hands with passers-by.
Mr Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, with two stints in office from 2006 to 2007 and 2012 to 2020.
Mr Abe’s first term was plagued by scandals and discord.
During both terms, he stepped down citing ill health, and acknowledged that he was suffering from an ailment which was diagnosed as ulcerative colitis.
But the former prime minister has remained a dominant presence in the LDP. He leads the party's largest faction and there is talk that he was contemplating a comeback if there is a chance.
Mr Abe’s record-setting run as prime minister before he resigned in 2020 brought stability to Japan after a revolving door of six administrations, including a previous stint by him.
He helped Japan escape from a cycle of deflation, endured a Trump administration that questioned the nation’s only military alliance, and worked to improve ties with its biggest trading partner China, which were at their most hostile in decades when he took office.
Mr Abe is, perhaps, best known for his plans to revive Japan’s flagging economy through unprecedented monetary easing and regulatory reform that was eventually labelled “Abenomics”.
He also cemented the nation’s role in diplomacy by, among other things, lobbying for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
He was seen as a steady hand who consolidated power during his record second run, and was able to overcome scandals. This included one that came to light in 2017 over questionable government land allocations for schools provided to associates of Mr Abe and his wife Akie.
Mr Abe played a major role in winning the 2020 Olympics for Tokyo, which was later postponed by a year to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite his reforms, the economy's bigger structural problems remained, and Japan was in recession even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
Mr Abe's popularity fell further during the pandemic, with critics saying that his approach to containing the virus was slow and confusing.
World leaders react
In a Facebook post, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: "I am deeply shocked to learn that former Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo was shot in Nara Prefecture this morning. This is a senseless act of violence."
US President Joe Biden on Friday said he was “stunned, outraged, and deeply saddened” by the assassination.
“This is a tragedy for Japan and for all who knew him,” Biden said in a statement. “Even at the moment he was attacked, he was engaged in the work of democracy. The United States stands with Japan in this moment of grief."
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China was appalled by the shooting. “China is shocked by the sudden incident. Abe once contributed to the improvement and development of China-Japan relations. We extend our condolences and sympathies to Abe’s family,” he said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “deeply distressed” and declared a national day of mourning today, while South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called the shooting an “unacceptable criminal act”.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry spokesman, on behalf of Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, said in a statement: “The minister has expressed her sympathies in the name of G-20 foreign ministers to the Japanese foreign minister.”
Calling the attack “monstrous” and an “act of terrorism”, Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement: “We are convinced that those who planned and committed this monstrous crime will bear responsibility for this act of terrorism, which cannot be justified."