Assassination of Shinzo Abe Shatters Image of Gun-Free Japan

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The assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a campaign rally in western Japan was especially hard to fathom because it involved a gun — a type of crime that is extremely rare in a country with some of the most stringent laws on buying and owning firearms.

Any form of violence is unusual in Japan, but gun violence is almost unheard-of. There was only one firearm-related death in all of 2021. Since 2017, there have been 14 gun-related deaths, a remarkably low figure for a country of 125 million people.

Expressing a common reaction, Erika Inoue, a 25-year-old designer in Tokyo, said the gun violence was hard to process.

“The shooting part is confusing,” she said. “There are guns? In Japan?”

Japan’s firearms law states that, in principle, guns are not permitted in the country. There are exceptions for guns used in hunting, but the process of getting a license is time-consuming and expensive, so very few people go through the hassle.

A person must pass 12 steps before purchasing a firearm, starting with a gun-safety class and then passing a written exam administered three times a year. A doctor must sign off on the gun buyer’s physical and mental health. Other steps include an extensive background check and a police inspection of the gun safe and ammunition locker required for storing firearms and bullets.

The shooting was all the more shocking because before Friday, even the idea of a political murder seemed like a relic of a long-gone era.

Tempers rarely run high in Japan’s famously sedate politics. Parliamentary debates usually don’t move beyond cat calls and faux outrage and even the ultra-right-wing groups that regularly prowl city streets in black vans, blaring political propaganda, are viewed as more of a nuisance than a threat to public safety.

Police protection at political events is light, and during campaign season, voters have plenty of opportunities to interact with the country’s top leaders. Videos showed Friday’s suspected shooter walking unobstructed in proximity of the former prime minister and firing a handmade gun.

Local Japanese police said the handmade gun used in the shooting was more than a foot long and eight inches in height. They also said they seized several handmade guns in a search of the suspect’s home.

Unlike the United States, where gun rights are a constant topic of debate, firearms are rarely discussed in Japanese political circles. Mass killings — in the rare instances when they occur — usually do not involve guns. Instead, perpetrators resort to arson or stabbings.

In recent weeks, Japanese media watched the spate of mass shootings in the United States with a mix of disbelief and confusion. After the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-largest newspaper by circulation, published an editorial calling the United States “a gun society” and said that another tragedy had turned a classroom into a “gun massacre zone.”

Toyo Keizai, a prominent weekly business magazine and website, published an article last year after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol asking: “Why is ‘Gun Ownership’ a Non-Negotiable Right in the U.S.?”

“It is difficult for Japanese to understand why gun ownership continues in the U.S. even with such a high number of victims,” journalist Keiko Tsuyama said in the article.

Most Japanese people almost never encounter guns in day-to-day life even though police officers carry firearms. And until Mr. Abe’s shooting, Japan had almost no experience with the emotional and political aftermath of gun violence — something that has become a familiar ritual in the United States.

In 2021, there were 10 shootings in Japan that contributed to death, injury or property damage, according to the National Police Agency. Of those gun-related episodes, one person was killed and four others were injured. The figures do not include accidents or suicides.

Most of the roughly 192,000 licensed firearms in the country are shotguns and hunting rifles. By comparison, in the United States, where most firearms are not registered, the number of guns in civilian hands is by some estimates close to 400 million.

Political assassinations were a regular feature of Japan’s turbulent politics in the years leading up to World War II. But since then, only a handful of politicians have been murdered — and most without the use of guns.

The last killing of a national-level political figure was in 1960, when a 17-year-old extreme nationalist stabbed to death the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party, Inejiro Asanuma.

That same year, another ultranationalist attacked Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, stabbing him repeatedly in the leg and sending him to the hospital.

In recent decades, what little political violence Japan has seen has often been linked to organized crime or to right-wing groups. In 2007, Kazunaga Ito, the mayor of Nagasaki, was shot to death by a gang member.

Journalists have also occasionally been targets. In 1987, a reporter for the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun was murdered, in an incident linked to right-wing anti-Korean groups.

Protesters have sometimes expressed their grievances by taking their own lives, hoping to draw public sympathy to their causes. Most famously, the novelist Yukio Mishima killed himself by disembowelment in 1970, after leading a small group of right-wing militants in a failed coup.

Gerald L. Curtis, a professor emeritus of political science and expert in Japanese politics at Columbia University, said that the deadly attack on Mr. Abe would reverberate through Japan’s politics.

“It no doubt will shake up the Japanese terribly and will reinforce the view that Japan is no longer the safe, peaceful country it has been since the end of World War II and has to change to deal with the new frightening realities it faces,” he said in an email.

“The question is how Japan’s political leaders respond.”

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