Security beefed up at political rallies across Japan a day after Abe assassination

Security officers standing guard as former Japan PM Yoshihide Suga (not pictured) attends an election campaign event in Yokohama on July 9, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
Mrs Akie Abe, widow of the late former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, returning to her residence in Tokyo in a hearse transporting her husband's body, on July 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Security was drastically beefed up at political rallies across Japan on Saturday (July 9), a day after former prime minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated while giving a public speech in Nara.

Election stump speeches are usually intimate affairs in Japan, with politicians often exchanging handshakes, high fives and fist bumps with the public.

But the crowds were kept some distance away by ropes and barricades at rallies on Saturday, with a far more sizeable police presence than before.

Metal detectors - not usually seen at political events - were installed for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's rally speeches at three locations in Yamanashi and Niigata.

These measures come as Japan grapples with the sudden loss of Mr Abe, 67, the nation's longest-serving prime minister, who wielded an outsized influence in politics even after stepping down in 2020.

Nara prefecture police chief Tomoaki Onizuka on Saturday declined to go into details on whether there were inadequate security measures, but said: "We cannot deny there were problems with Mr Abe's security detail."

The National Police Agency likewise did not provide more details, including the number of personnel deployed to protect Mr Abe, citing an internal probe into what went wrong.

But Mr Abe's death has raised questions over how prominent figures are protected in a country where political violence and gun crimes have been extremely rare.

Security personnel usually focus on physical altercations, and are less prepared to cope with attacks involving firearms, experts said.

"Security for VIPs seems to involve a lot of training for attacks with bladed or blunt weapons," Mr Hideto Osanai of the International Bodyguard Association told the Nikkei newspaper. "I don't think there are enough precautions for guns in Japan, given its strict gun laws."

Security officers tend to watch out for troublemakers who may attack the VIPs either physically or through verbal abuse or heckling.

In 2019, then PM Abe was giving a rally speech in Hokkaido for an Upper House candidate when he was heckled. Police forcibly removed two people - a 31-year-old man and a 24-year-old woman - by grabbing them and tugging at their clothes.

Mr Abe's appearance in Nara on Friday was confirmed only at the last minute following a sudden change in schedule. He was originally due to appear in Nagano.

He was shot twice at 11.30am local time (10.30am in Singapore) at an intersection in front of the Yamato-Saidaiji train station, while campaigning for a Liberal Democratic Party candidate ahead of Sunday's Upper House election.

Reports said that Mr Abe's security detail was leaner than when he was a sitting prime minister. News pictures show that officers froze in confusion at the first shot, and did not pounce on Mr Abe to get him to stay down.

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Nobody was also watching Mr Abe's back, even as he was speaking at an intersection with buses, cars and vans passing by behind him, from where the gunman would approach.

"From footage of the incident, it appears that the suspect was wandering around with a bag before he approached Mr Abe from behind," Mr Koichi Ito, a former police officer from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department's Special Assault Team, told public broadcaster NHK.

"In such a situation, it is an iron rule to keep the suspicious person away from the scene or ask to inspect what he is carrying," said Mr Ito.

He added: "(Security for) VIPs must be 100 per cent thorough and cover all directions. A 1 per cent lapse is unacceptable, and even the slightest danger must be eliminated."

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