Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving leader, died on Friday hours after he was shot while campaigning for a parliamentary election, shocking a country in which political violence is rare and guns are tightly controlled.
The shooter opened fire on Abe, 67, from behind as the former premier addressed members of the public on a drab traffic island in the western city of Nara. Japanese media reported that the weapon appeared to be a homemade gun.
“This attack is an act of brutality that happened during the elections – the very foundation of our democracy – and is absolutely unforgivable,” said Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Abe’s protege, struggling to keep his emotions in check.
It was the first killing of a sitting or former Japanese leader since a 1936 coup attempt, when several figures including two ex-premiers were assassinated.
Doctors were unable to revive Abe, who was taken to hospital in cardiopulmonary arrest and showing no vital signs. He was declared dead at 5:03 p.m. (0803 GMT), about five and a half hours after being shot.
He bled to death from deep wounds to the heart and the right side of his neck, despite receiving more than 100 units of blood in transfusions over four hours, Hidetada Fukushima, the professor in charge of emergency medicine at Nara Medical University Hospital, told a televised news conference.
Police said a 41-year-old man suspected of carrying out the shooting had been arrested. NHK quoted the suspect, identified as Tetsuya Yamagami, as telling police he was dissatisfied with Abe and wanted to kill him. The suspect told police he had made multiple handmade explosives and guns in the past, NHK said.
Abe was making a campaign speech outside a train station when two shots rang out. Security officials were then seen tackling a man in a grey T-shirt and beige trousers.
“There was a loud bang and then smoke,” businessman Makoto Ichikawa, who was at the scene, said.
“The first shot, no one knew what was going on, but after the second shot, what looked like special police tackled him.”
Kyodo news service published a photograph of Abe lying face-up on the street by a guardrail, blood on his white shirt. People were crowded around him, one administering heart massage.
Later in the day, members of the public laid flowers near the spot where Abe fell.
Senior Japanese politicians are accompanied by armed security agents but often get close to the public, especially during political campaigns when they make roadside speeches and shake hands with passersby.
Political violence is rare in post-war Japan. In 2007, the mayor of Nagasaki was shot and killed by a yakuza gangster. The head of the Japan Socialist Party was assassinated during a speech in 1960 by a right-wing youth with a samurai short sword. A few other prominent politicians have been attacked but not injured.
Police said the suspected shooter was a resident of Nara. Media said he had served in Japan’s military for three years until 2005.
Abe served two terms as prime minister, stepping down in 2020 citing ill health. But he remained a dominant presence over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), controlling one of its major factions.
Kishida, who came to power last year, had been hoping to use the election to emerge from Abe’s shadow and define his premiership, analysts have said. Kishida suspended his election campaign after the shooting. All main political parties condemned the attack.
Speaking on the sidelines of a G20 meeting in Indonesia, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the assassination of Abe “shocking” and “profoundly disturbing” and described him as a leader of great vision.
The United States is Japan’s most important ally.
Similar messages of sympathy and shock poured in from around the world following news of Abe’s death, including from neighbouring Taiwan, China and Russia, as well as from across Asia, Europe and the United States.
The yen rose and Japan’s Nikkei index fell on news of the shooting, partially driven by a knee-jerk flight to safety.
Abe is best known for his “Abenomics” policy of aggressive monetary easing and fiscal spending.
He also bolstered defence spending after years of declines and expanded the military’s ability to project power abroad.
In a historic shift in 2014, his government reinterpreted the postwar, pacifist constitution to allow troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two.
The following year, legislation ended a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence, or defending a friendly country under attack.
Abe, however, never achieved his goal of revising the U.S.-drafted constitution by writing the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan’s military is known, into the pacifist Article 9.
Abe first took office in 2006 as Japan’s youngest prime minister since World War Two. After a year plagued by political scandals, voter outrage at lost pension records, and an election drubbing for his ruling party, Abe quit citing ill health.
He became prime minister again in 2012.
Abe hailed from a wealthy political family that included a foreign minister father and a grandfather who served as premier.