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Assassination: Former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe Shot Dead. Will Killing Push Japan Further to the Right?

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Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has died at the age of 67 after being fatally shot while delivering a speech Friday in the western city of Nara. Abe, the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, was campaigning for a parliamentary election Friday and had a security detail. Police arrested a 41-year-old suspect at the crime scene. We speak with Koichi Nakano, professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, who says the attack has “struck at the heart of the democratic process” and could very likely swing the Sunday election toward right-wing forces. Nakano also speaks on the life and legacy of Abe, who he says was a controversial figure in Japan despite being hailed as a hero of liberal democracy abroad.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Japan, where Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been shot and killed by an assassin wielding what appeared to be a homemade gun. Abe was campaigning for a parliamentary election candidate Friday morning in the city of Nara in central Japan when two shots rang out. Images of the attack’s aftermath show security officials tackling a man in a gray T-shirt; they later named the 41-year-old suspect as Tetsuya Yamagami, a former member of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida condemned the killing as his voice cracked.

PRIME MINISTER FUMIO KISHIDA: [translated] We cannot accept that this violent act took place during an election, the foundation of democracy. In the strongest terms, I condemn this act.

AMY GOODMAN: Footage from the scene of the assassination shows the assassin wielded what appears to be an improvised double-barreled gun. Japan’s strict gun control laws prevent almost everyone from possessing guns. In 2021, there were 10 shooting incidents in Japan, just one gun death, while the U.S. typically records 45,000 gun deaths each year.

Shinzo Abe was airlifted to a nearby hospital with injuries to his neck and heart. He was pronounced dead earlier today. He was 67 years old. Abe was Japan’s longest-running prime minister when he stepped down in 2020, citing poor health. Over nearly eight years in office, Abe remained pro-nuclear, despite the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown following an earthquake and tsunami. Throughout his career, Abe tried unsuccessfully to do away with Article 9 of Japan’s Peace Constitution, which renounces war and bars Japan from using — or threatening to use — military force.

We go now to Japan, where we’re joined by Koichi Nakano. He is a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

We last spoke to you in 2014 when we broadcast Democracy Now! from Japan. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, under extremely difficult circumstances. First, can you respond to the assassination of the longest-running prime minister in Japan’s history, Shinzo Abe?

KOICHI NAKANO: Hi, Amy.

Well, of course, everybody was caught by utter surprise, and, of course, we are all appalled and in shock. Yeah, of course, gun violence is an extreme rarity in Japan in itself, but also the fact that this took place against a sitting member of the parliament and a former prime minister with a lot of influence over the government policy even today, and the fact that this happened during the campaign as he was making a speech in favor of a candidate of his own party exposed the vulnerability of the politicians and the candidates during the time of the election in particular.

Mr. Abe is not an ordinary candidate — well, he wasn’t running; he was just cheering for another candidate from his party. But, of course, he was escorted by a group of security police, which is not usually the case with the other candidates or politicians in the electoral campaigns. So, this is something that I think we are still sort of trying to figure out and understand how this happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, officials said he had the absolute highest security. But guns are such a rarity in Japan. I mean, the picture of this gun, it looks like two pipes that are gaffer-taped together. And it looks like the assassin, who they tackled, was a member of the maritime forces of Japan in the — you know, maybe 20 years ago. Can you explain what that is? And that goes to the issue of what — one of the reasons Prime Minister Abe was so controversial, as he tried to change the Peace Constitution of Japan.

KOICHI NAKANO: Right. So, yes, I mean, we still don’t know in great details, and maybe we’ll never fully understand, what was the motive behind the killing. But what we do know is that the man used to serve in the Maritime Self-Defense Force, which is Japan’s equivalent to the Navy — although, of course, Japan, by according to the Constitution, as Amy explained earlier on, Article 9 stipulates that Japan from banning war potential, and therefore it is strictly supposed to be for individual self-defense. Mr. Abe has controversially lifted the ban on collective self-defense in 2015.

But, of course, the man was serving in the Self-Defense Force way before that. And according to the reports, he seemed to have served for three years, and he has left the Self-Defense Force long since. So, we still don’t know whether there is any kind of meaningful connection between his experience and the crime that he committed today. So, I think at this point it’s very difficult to make the connection, though, of course, you know, maybe it is related, but we just don’t know yet.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of what Abe was trying to do, what he never succeeded in doing? Ultimately, he stepped down both times he was prime minister because of, what, health reasons, right? He has ulcerative colitis, some kind of — or something like that.

KOICHI NAKANO: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: But he attempted to do this. Now, this is the U.S.-written Japanese Constitution after World War II, but it was, I think, with some officials in the U.S. government’s attempt also, supporting Abe in removing that from the Constitution?

KOICHI NAKANO: Right. And, in fact, Mr. Abe tried to sort of overcome what he saw as the constraint, unreasonable constraint, in his view, of Article 9 on Japan’s self-defense capabilities by taking two different routes. One was, of course, to seek to formally revise the Constitution, which he never got around to do. And, in fact, it is somewhat ironic that he was at the heart of the LDP ruling party’s campaign to try to sort of secure a two-third majority in these upper house elections so that the parties in favor of revising Article 9 will have enough seats to instigate a national referendum to that effect. And a central sort of pillar of the proposal was to include the term “Self-Defense Force” into Article 9, as Mr. Abe claimed that in the absence of such stipulation, Self-Defense Force was suffering from the lack of legitimacy — an argument that many people in Japan were not quite convinced, because a lot of people in Japan accept the existence of a Self-Defense Force as long as it’s within the boundaries of Article 9, concentrating on narrow individual self-defense and spending most of the time in efforts to rebuild and rescue at the time of disasters.

But having failed to do that, Mr. Abe has — even more controversially, has taken a shortcut, and instead of formally revising Article 9, he has resorted to government offering a reinterpretation of the same text of the article. And so, this happened in July 2014, exactly around the time when Amy had a chance to visit Tokyo at the time — well, and Japan at the time — and subsequently also passing legislation that enabled the government to exercise collective self-defense. So, in that sense, I guess he left somewhat frustrated, but at the same time he has pushed through a fundamental change in Japanese national security posture of the postwar.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, we’re showing images of Prime Minister Abe with President Obama. He stood with President Obama at Hiroshima — President Obama, the first American president to go to Hiroshima, the U.S. dropping the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Nagasaki. And they stood together at Pearl Harbor.

KOICHI NAKANO: That’s right. That’s right. And, well, in terms of gun violence, even though it is a rarity, in fact, the mayor of the city of Nagasaki — well, two different mayors of the city of Nagasaki have been shot, and one died consequently out of actually a gun shooting. And so, in that sense, you know, it’s a rarity, but it’s not entirely unheard of. And it usually is committed — a crime that is committed by the right wing or by yakuza mobsters.

AMY GOODMAN: When we were in Tokyo broadcasting from there, I remember the major protests around nuclear power because of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Abe was well known at the time — he was prime minister — for supporting nuclear power. Horrifically ironic, the head doctor at Nara where he was brought, at the Medical University Hospital, his name is Dr. Fukushima. But the significance of Abe’s pro-nuclear stance?

KOICHI NAKANO: Right. So, I guess one of the missions that Abe embraced was to try to push back nuclear power generation on its track after he took power back from the Democratic Party of Japan government between 2009 and 2012, which happened at the time of the Fukushima disaster. And while the party that was in government at the time has since tried to steer away Japan from nuclear power generation, the ruling — today’s ruling LDP, from Abe’s time onward, have made significant efforts to restart nuclear power plants or try to sort of regain legitimacy to nuclear power, but, well, with only very limited degree of success so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nakano, you wrote a piece that was headlined “The Leader Who Was 'Trump Before Trump.'” I mean, this was a few years ago. It was an op-ed piece in The New York Times. Explain.

KOICHI NAKANO: Right. So, this was actually a kind of a intended praise by Steve Bannon that Mr. Abe was “Trump before Trump.” And, well, Bannon is not the only person to take that view, either. Mr. Abe returned to power in December 2012 campaigning on the slogan “Taking back Japan,” which finds, of course, later resonation with “Make America great again” slogan of Mr. Trump. And the two famously got along, or Mr. Abe went a long way to please Donald Trump. And I guess he really prioritized the cordial relationship between him and the president of the U.S., be it Obama or Trump, so that Japan can strengthen its alliance with the United States.

Under the name of the rule of law and the defense of liberal order worldwide, it is ironic that in an attempt to do so, as I mentioned before, he ignored the constitutional constraints and reinterpreted the Article 9 to fit his purposes. And so, even though he is regarded sometimes by the West and by the American opinion leaders quite often that he’s the champion of the liberal democratic world and a great statesman, domestically he’s been a much more controversial figure, as divisive as Mr. Trump, in many ways. And the liberal left has been looking at him as the person who really put the — endangered liberal democracy as we know it today, in terms of suppressing press freedom, in terms of suppressing academic freedom, and also ignoring the constitutional rules and also often stepping away from accountability in the National Diet, which is our parliament.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the implications of Abe’s assassination, are you concerned that this will push Japan to the right?

KOICHI NAKANO: Yes. In fact, that would be something that I think many of us on the liberal left of the political spectrum are worried about at this moment. Of course, you know, this has been an attack — this is an attack on democracy, not so much because Mr. Abe was a champion of democracy in Japan in itself, but rather because this struck at the heart of the democratic process when the election campaign was at its fullest operation. And the voting day is only — there are only one day left. It’s going to be on Sunday, so tomorrow, Saturday, would be the last day of campaigning.

But now the television is airing continuously rather sycophantic tributes to Mr. Abe, ignoring the fact that he was a rather controversial figure. And I guess it’s hard to sort of be critical of him openly at a time like this when he died a tragic death. But even though the television has been rather muted until today, because they have been sort of trying to keep the balance or trying to sort of not offend the government by too aggressively reporting on the past policy failures and scandals, now the media looks like it’s almost hijacked by LDP government’s record in a very analyzed — or, not so much analyzed in a positive way. So, this would quite possibly lead to a landslide victory by the ruling LDP and its allies on Sunday, which might in fact hand them a sort of a blank check that they will be able to utilize for the next years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Koichi Nakano, we thank you for being with us, professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, director of the Institute of Global Concern at the Sophia.

Next up, the jailed WNBA superstar Brittney Griner pleads guilty in a Russian court — she was carrying cannabis oil in her luggage in Russia — as pressure grows on the Biden administration to help secure her release. We’ll get an update. Stay with us.

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