The Ballot and The Bullet
By Matis Glenn
A puff of smoke and sounds unheard-of, almost unrecognizable in a pacifist nation.
A country where organized crime syndicates fear owning guns, where a shot into the air can land an offender in jail for life.
An echo of a dark past where “Government by Assassination” was the arbiter of leadership.
What does the murder of Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mean for the future of Japan and its relationship with the world?
A Warring Past
Japan was once ruled by shoguns, violent military leaders who won their positions in wars and insurrections. Land was owned in various domains by feudal vassals called daimyos who were loyal to the shogun, giving him as much as 40% of their earnings. The shoguns maintained a strict caste system and held absolute power, even more than the Japanese Emperors.
After the peaceful era of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867), Emperor Meiji rose to power, bringing efforts to Westernize and modernize Japan. Taking elements of democracy and free enterprise, he took back all of the land in Japan from the daimyos and created a central parliamentary government modeled after European nations.
During this period, which lasted until the end of World War II, the Japanese Empire became a formidable force in Asia, conquering and colonizing Korea, parts of China, and Manchuria in the early 20th century. Japan built a sizable empire, which at its peak encompassed 3.2 million square miles, counting sea territory.
Ethan Segal, associate professor of Japanese Studies at Michigan State University, says that assassinations of Prime Ministers during this time were not unusual. “In the pre-World War II era, sadly, it was not uncommon, particularly in the late 1920s and 1930s. In fact, The New York Times called the 1930s in Japan ‘Government by Assassination,’ and there were a number of very high-profile cases where a Prime Minister and a Finance Minister and others were shot or were attempted to be killed by predominantly right-wing figures,” Segal told Hamodia.
During World War II, Japan committed many atrocities against Chinese and Korean citizens under its control, considering them to be second-class citizens. Emperor Hirohito joined Hitler in his mission, with the understanding that Germany would grant him control of East Asia after the latter conquered Europe. In what many historians describe as hubris and arrogance, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor — in United States territory — on December 7, 1941, which caused the U.S. to officially enter the war. Despite Germany and Italy already having been defeated, with Hitler surrendering on May 7, 1945, Japan marched on in its mad dash to dominate Asia.
In the only instance in history of the use of an atomic bomb in combat, the United States obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on August 6 and 9 of 1945, respectively. Hirohito issued an unconditional surrender to the U.S., and the deadliest war in the history of mankind had finally come to a close.
Pacifism and Diplomacy
After the dust had settled and Japan was ready to emerge as a new country, it abandoned its imperialistic aspirations and went to the other extreme — becoming the first country in recorded history to have a constitution which forbids it from engaging in wars to settle international disputes, or for any other reason besides direct self-defense. The United States guaranteed the defense of Japan in the latter’s newly formed constitution should it ever be attacked.
This clause has been one of the most hotly debated topics in modern Japanese politics, and is a sharp point of contention between the Left and the Right in the country.
“Perhaps the sharpest dividing point would be a particular part of the Japanese post-war constitution, which was actually ghostwritten by the American occupiers,” says Segal. “That provision is called Article Nine, whereby Japan renounces the right to use war as a means of settling international disputes.”
As Japan became a pacifist country, assassinations and overthrows largely became a relic of the past.
“Since the end of World War II, that really has not been a common occurrence in Japan, fortunately. That doesn’t mean there has never been any cases of violence. In 1960, a very prominent left-wing politician was attacked while speaking on live tv, by a young adult who was a right-wing person.
“Another famous example would be the Mayor of Nagasaki, who was quite critical of the Emperor and his role in World War II; he was attacked by right-wing figures. But on the whole, this kind of political violence is very rare in postwar Japan.”
Not Everyone’s on Board
Those on the political right have for many decades now sought to change Article Nine, whereas those on the left are very eager to keep it. And so, this postwar constitution, which was put in place in 1947, and has never been changed since, is often referred to as the “Peace Constitution.”
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was very against maintaining Article Nine.
“People like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were very open [in] expressing their desire to see Article Nine eliminated, and Japan becoming what they feel is a ‘normal nation’ again, with a real military, prepared to engage in international affairs. Those on the political left opposed him on that issue,” Segal explains.
Tough Laws = Gun Crime?
Almost at the bottom of the index of world gun ownership, according to United Nations data, sits Japan, with three guns for every 1,000 citizens. To put that in context, the United States has 120 guns for every 100 people.
Japan’s constitution all but forbids gun ownership; there are very limited circumstances that permit a Japanese citizen to own a firearm. Handguns are totally banned; shotguns are the only type of gun that there are provisions for, and the list of requirements is long. Applicants for gun licenses must attend classes, pass a written test, score a 95% accuracy rating on a shooting test, and pass a mental health screening and a background check. Family members and friends are interviewed as references, as well. Gun owners must keep an exact accounting of the ammunition they use, which is inspected regularly; to buy new ammunition, they must show that they have properly used up their previous order. No more than three gun shops can operate in any prefecture of the country (each one containing millions of citizens on average). When a gun owner passes away, his heirs must surrender the firearm to the government.
Crime is exceptionally low in Japan, which makes Abe’s assassination all the more jarring. In 2020, there were 21 cases of gun violence. In America, by contrast, there were over 45,000. There were 950 murders in Japan in 2019, and 16,425 in America. (It should be noted, though, that America has a population that is 2.6 times that of Japan.)
Some argue that it’s not the gun laws themselves that prevent crime, but rather Japan’s strict and conformist culture, which discourages violence. Nobuo Komiya makes these points and others in her paper “Cultural Study of the Low Crime Rate in Japan,” published in 1999 in the British Journal of Criminology. Others point to Japan’s lower indicators of crime tendency, such as low poverty rates, low substance abuse and low unemployment.
Japan also engages in policing strategies that would seem draconian to Westerners. There are reports of police depriving suspects of sleep, not letting them speak to counsel, and other harsh measures in hopes of getting them to confess to a crime. In October 2007, the BBC published examples of forced confessions in Japan. In one case, 13 people were arrested and interrogated, but were found innocent in court after a judge ruled that the confessions were made “in despair while going through marathon questioning.”
Even Japan’s gangs appear afraid to acquire firearms. According to Nagoya News, a crime boss from the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi gang was sentenced to three years in prison for brandishing a toy gun at another gang member last November. “All of the smart guys got rid of their guns a long-time ago,” a member of the gang told Asia Times. “The penalties are way too high. You get life in prison if you just fire a gun. That’s not fun.”
Japan’s Longest Running Prime Minister
“Shinzo Abe was Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister,” says Segal. “He served twice, the first time from 2006 to 2007. He stepped down officially because of ulcerative colitis, but also his party had suffered a defeat in an election, so it was a very short-lived term. He returned to power in December of 2012 and served until the fall of 2020. Altogether, that made him Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister.”
Abe, at age 52, was the youngest Japanese Prime Minister in over 60 years.
Besides his unusual length of tenure, Abe was a very powerful force in Japanese politics.
Says Segal, “He was very, very influential in setting Japan’s agenda. One of the many ways he was very active was trying to bolster and strengthen ties with the United States. Another was in raising alarms about the rising power of China, and about the threat posed by North Korea. He was very eager to try to restore Japan’s economy, as you may recall, in the 1980s, for example. Japan was the No. 2 economy in the world; it still was in the ’90s and early 2000s. But post-1990, the economy, although still retaining that No. 2 status, sputtered along. His economic policies were famously called ‘Abenomics,’ a three-part policy to try to revive the economy, which was partially successful but not completely so.”
Abe was also a social conservative, opposing left-wing cultural movements. He enacted “Marriage Support Programs” in 2014 to help singles find spouses, to address Japan’s declining birth rate. As part of his stance on defense and the military, he founded the Japanese National Security Council in 2013, modeled after the U.S. National Security Council.
After Abe resigned in 2020, he remained in the government, both in an official position and as a must-have endorsement for anyone running on his party line.
“Even though he was no longer Prime Minister, he still had a seat in the Parliament, and he was very much considered a kingmaker,” says Segal. “He controlled his own faction within the Liberal Democratic Party [LDP]; those who sought office certainly needed to pay their respects to him. When he was shot late last week, he actually was on the campaign trail campaigning for candidates — not for himself, but for those who held similar views to him. So he was still very much involved in politics at the time of his death.”
Abe had a positive relationship with former U.S. President Donald Trump, and went out of his way to maintain it, forgiving him for remarks that could have been offensive.
“Abe was actually the first foreign Prime Minister to visit Trump in the White House after his election,” Segal observes. “He went to great lengths to try to make sure that relationship remained strong. I think Trump had an outdated view of Japan, from the ’80s and ’90s, and made some statements, which certainly Abe could have chosen to react quite negatively to, but I think he swallowed that and was eager to maintain that strong relationship, in part because he saw Japan’s future with the United States in response to a rising China and North Korea.”
China and both Koreas have a complicated history with Japan. Under Japanese occupation, Chinese and Korean citizens were treated badly, and some aren’t satisfied with Japan’s efforts to right its wrongs.
“There are differing opinions on the degree to which Japan has properly tried to make amends for that. Chinese leaders have at times tried to play up anti-Japan sentiment when it bolsters their own interests. And there are certain people in Japan who say, ‘You know what? We’ve apologized for these things; we offered financial support … it’s time to move on.’ Abe was in the latter category.”
The tensions aren’t limited to the past; there are areas that both Japan and China lay claim to.
“There is a small set of uninhabited islands; the Japanese call them the Senkaku Islands, and the Chinese call them the Diaoyu Islands. Both nations claim them, and it’s a continual source of tension. … The real fact is that there are fossil fuel interests offshore. So, whichever country could claim the islands could then claim the fossil fuel rights that are nearby. But there are also matters of national pride involved. These kinds of things remain thorny issues, but the biggest issue is China’s rising power. Japan is probably the only nation poised to offer a real resistance in the region. … I don’t see South Korea or Vietnam doing it.”
While party lines are drawn on issues like Article Nine, Segal says that average Japanese voters — even those who prefer Japan to be outside of international politics — aren’t polarized by the issue and will vote for the LDP for other reasons.
“They think the LDP can actually get things done, whereas they believe some of the opposition parties are not as efficient or effective. They also think the LDP will be better at helping the economy pick up, but I do think there are not as many people who are radical right or radical left as there are in the United States today.”
Shinzo Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, was Prime Minister as well, from 1982 to 1986, and his maternal grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, served as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1960. Nobusuke often spoke of making Japan a “normal” and “beautiful” nation with a robust military.
Abe was delivering a stump speech in support of LDP candidate Kei Sato in Nara, a prefecture located in southern Japan. A man walked up behind him and, while within nine feet of Abe, removed a makeshift gun from a bag and fired twice, releasing billows of smoke. The first shot missed the target, but the second hit Abe, who at first was conscious and communicative but succumbed to his injuries before EMTs could arrive.
Guards tackled the assailant, later identified as 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, who did not resist arrest. Yamagami, a former Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force sailor, told police that he was targeting Abe not for political reasons but rather because the former Prime Minister was linked to a religious group that Yamagami believed forced his mother into bankruptcy after she gave them a series of large donations.
“This is a tragedy for Japan and for all who knew him,” United States President Joe Biden said in a statement. “His vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific will endure. Above all, he cared deeply about the Japanese people and dedicated his life to their service.”
Biden said he was “stunned, outraged, and deeply saddened” by the attack, and wrote in a condolence book that Abe was “a man of peace and judgment.”
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the assassination an “unforgivable act,” an “act of cowardly barbarism,” and a “attack on Japan’s democracy,” as elections were to be held two days later. He promised to have a “free and fair election at all costs.”
Copycat threats came very quickly.
Thirty minutes following the assassination, there was a threatening call to the office of Sanshiro Matsuyama, an LDP member running for office in nearby Nagano, where Abe was scheduled to deliver a speech.
In Singapore, a 45-year-old man was arrested after a report regarding comments he made online saying that he would kill Lee Hsien Loong, the country’s Prime Minister. In Taiwan, a threat came from a 22-year-old man in Tainan, who was also arrested after saying he would kill President Tsai Ing-wen.
Police discovered numerous similar homemade weapons in Yamagami’s home, including explosive devices and ammunition. They also seized his computer and found in his search history that he was researching how to craft weapons.
How did a shooter come within nine feet of a man who, by all accounts, required a security detail?
“Japanese are so used to leading peaceful lives, the security guards were caught asleep,” Yasuhiro Sasaki, president of Safety-Pro, a Tokyo-based security company, told The Washington Post.
Hideto Ted Osanai, chief executive at the International Bodyguard Association in Japan, told the Associated Press that the Japanese guards may have learned only formalities like escort formation rather than critical crisis-response training.
Sasaki says it’s shocking that nobody moved Abe to safety between the first and final shot, even though they were a number of seconds apart, as can be heard on footage of the incident.
“Guards should have acted by physically pulling Abe away from danger,” Sasaki said. He also wondered why trained guards weren’t able to spot a man approaching Abe while removing a suspicious item from a bag.
Isao Itabashi, chief of the research division at the Council for Public Policy, which oversees such risks, said that at political events, “the presumption here is that people are not armed,” and that politicians can come into close contact with prospective voters.
The LDP handily won elections that were held mere days after the shocking incident. Segal says that it’s possible that the circumstances surrounding Abe’s death might have voters rethinking popular left-wing gun laws, which are designed to prevent events such as these, but not entirely.
“Because the fact that Abe was killed in this way gives him some appeal and credibility, I think, to the general public. So, in that sense, it may bolster the kind of Abe policies that he set in place. On the other hand, if this had been a radical left-wing figure, I could see it doing more to bolster the right, but given that this appears so far to be kind of a one-off action by someone who I’m tempted to say was a somewhat deranged individual, I’m not sure how much long-term impact there will be on his [Abe’s] policies.”
He also says many may have voted for the LDP out of respect for a fallen national hero, whether or not they agreed with him politically.
Not only did the LDP remain in power in the Diet (Japan’s parliament), it is projected that the conservative coalition government will increase its majority significantly, from 69 to 83 out of the 125 total seats. “It’s significant we were able to pull this election together at a time violence was shaking the foundations of the election,” Kishida said after the exit poll. With that large of a margin, it might be possible for Abe’s like-minded heirs to realize his dream of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Jewish Voices in Japan
“While Japanese politics is more centered on parties and not individual politicians, Mr. Abe was an exception,” Rabbi Hertsel Simantov, a Rabbi in Tokyo, Japan’s capital, told Hamodia. “He was very popular, and was a beacon of hope for the Japanese people who were struggling to deal with a slowly falling economy after the peak of the ’80s.
“There are a few thousand Yidden here, but many left because of the downturn of the economy and COVID. We have a shul with more than a minyan, but when people become shomer Shabbos, they don’t tend to stay in Japan — they go to more established Jewish communities, like in the States or Israel. Most Jews in Japan live in Tokyo or in Kobe.
“I’ve been here for almost 30 years, and my work takes me to all corners of Japan. This isn’t the norm anywhere in the country. Kids walk home or take the train alone at night; my children go to 24-hour stores even very late. … The sense of security here is quite comforting. For such a thing to happen is shocking and unexpected.”
“The Japanese do not view Abe’s murder as a watershed event that will usher in an age of violence,” Rabbi Mordechai Kuber, kashrus mashgiach and author of Crossing the Dateline, told Hamodia. “Instead, they view it as an isolated incident that does not portend any change in their general sense of public security.”
Japanese culture stresses respect for other people’s property.
“Picture a commuter train station, one of hundreds across the country, with a thousand or more bicycles parked there, without being chained to anything. And at the end of the day, day after day, when the commuters return from work, the bicycles are all still there. I have had my laptop returned to me twice after I forgot it at airport bus terminals. Japan is one of the few places in the world where one can leave his bags unattended without worry that someone might take them. People do not touch that which is not theirs.”
Was Abe a Friend to The Jewish Community?
“We lost our friend,” Rabbi Simantov said. “Mr. Abe opened up investments and economic partnerships with Israel for the first time in Japanese history. Until the early ’90s, the Arab world had enforced what was effectively an embargo on many countries doing business with Israel, including Japan. Israel was unable to buy Japanese cars like Toyota and Honda, as well as popular appliances made by major Japanese companies. Even as these restrictions slowly lifted, Japan did not have many business ties with Israel until Abe. He commissioned many companies to invest, especially in the information technology field, with many opening offices in Israel.
Some Say It’s Not So Simple.
“He regularly expressed his condolences to Gazan families who lost their loved ones at the hand of the Israelis in their various self-defense operations,” Rabbi Kuber said. “He snubbed Israel by first visiting Mr. Abbas in Ramallah before meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu. He laid flowers at Arafat’s grave, and he generously donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinians.
“On the other hand, with Hashem’s boundless mercy, it has been a long time since there have been indiscriminate attacks on Jewish restaurants and buses. We can be certain that our reprieve is not because the Palestinians have become more sympathetic. Rather, it is prudent for them to refrain from such incidents, which will only turn away megadonors such as Abe. Abbas has publicly said as much.
“The Japanese view the Palestinians, albeit incorrectly, as the downtrodden in need of their support, but they do not hate the Jews, and they never have. They would not tolerate the indiscriminate slaughter that the Palestinian terrorists used to inflict. His behavior as their friend probably saved hundreds of Jewish lives and spared our nation untold sadness. So, Abe seems to have been our friend, after all.”
Kennedy and Raegan Vs. Shinzo Abe
Many Americans still remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and scores more remember the shooting of Ronald Reagan, which shook the nation to its core, but the glaring difference is that Abe was not a sitting leader at the time of his death.
“It’s not really fair to compare it to Kennedy, as he was a sitting President. On the other hand, Abe was Prime Minister as recently as the fall of 2020, and still stood out in many people’s mind as kind of a towering figure in politics, whether you liked him or not,” Segal said.
A More Subtle Change
“A consequence of this incident, I think, is that, prior to four days ago, Japanese politicians when campaigning often got close to the people they were speaking to, in a physical sense. I’ve experienced this myself; I was walking down the street last week in districts in Tokyo, and I could have been within 10 feet of a candidate making a stump speech, and no one stopped me or checked me for firearms or anything. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if, as a result of this incident, in the future, politicians keep their distance or speak behind glass, which in a sense is very sad. It was a nice thing of Japanese democracy that the candidates often were physically very close to and interacted with the voting public.”
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