The body of Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe has returned to Tokyo on Saturday after he was fatally shot during a campaign speech the day before.
Mr Abe (67), Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, was shot in the back on Friday while giving an election campaign speech in front of a train station in Nara City, 370km west of Tokyo, on Friday morning.
His wife Akie could be seen lowering her head inside the hearse carrying his body as it left the hospital for the couple’s home in Tokyo.
The country is still coming to terms with the killing of the former prime minister in what is the nation’s highest-profile political assassination since the dark days of the 1930s.
The killing of such a high-profile figure in a country where gun crime is extremely rare caused global shock. US president Joe Biden said he had ordered US flags to be flown at half-mast this weekend in honour of Mr Abe.
Immediately after the attack, police subdued and arrested a 41-year-old suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, a former member of the Maritime Self-Defence Forces, Japan’s navy.
Eyewitnesses said the gunman had approached Mr Abe from behind and shot him a few minutes after he began speaking. The man took a few steps back after the shooting but made no attempt to flee.
Mobile phone footage taken at the scene showed Mr Abe collapsing after receiving two bullet wounds to the neck. He was airlifted to Nara Medical University Hospital, where doctors treating him said he had also suffered damage to his heart. His death was announced just after 5pm local time (9am Irish time).
Police said the attacker used a gun that was obviously home-made — about 40cm long — and they confiscated similar weapons and his personal computer when they raided his nearby one-room apartment.
The force said Yamagami was responding calmly to questions and had admitted to attacking Mr Abe, telling investigators he had plotted to kill him because he believed rumours about the former leader’s connection to a certain organisation that police did not identify.
Fighting back tears, Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, called the shooting, which came during campaigning in advance of a parliamentary election this Sunday, “unforgivable” and said Mr Abe was a personal friend. “I condemn this attack in the strongest terms,” he said.
Mr Abe’s schedule was widely known after being released on social media as he toured Japan’s prefectures, stumping for candidates in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
He had remained a big conservative force in Japanese politics despite resigning due to ill-health in late 2020. He still led the most powerful faction in the LDP, which has been in power for all but a handful of years since 1955.
The shooting has shocked the country. Political violence in Japan, once common, is now rare and gun-control laws are strict. A single gun fatality was recorded for 2015.
The police said on Friday night that the weapon used in the attack — one of several recovered in a raid on the suspect’s home — was home-made.
Media reports said Yamagami lives in Nara and served in the defence forces for less than three years before leaving in 2005. He had been working at a local manufacturer since 2020 but reportedly quit this year because he was “tired”.
Scrutiny is now falling on his motives and on Mr Abe’s security detail. Politicians in Japan are often lightly guarded. Mr Abe could regularly be seen walking around his home in Shibuya, near the centre of Tokyo, with a single security official.
Mr Kishida on Friday night ordered security to be beefed up in advance of Sunday’s upper house election, but party officials insisted it would go ahead, despite Mr Abe’s murder. Toshimitsu Motegi, LDP secretary general, said it was important “to show that we will not succumb to violence”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he was deeply shocked at the assassination, describing it as “an attack on democracy itself”.
Mr Biden said Mr Abe “was a proud servant of the Japanese people and a faithful friend to the United States”, adding: “Even in the moment he was attacked and killed, he was engaged in the work of democracy, to which he dedicated his life.”
Mr Abe was prime minister twice, once from 2006-2007. When he returned to office in December 2012 he staked out a conservative position that won him popularity with nationalists but made him a controversial figure, particularly on the left.
He overcame multiple scandals to become Japan’s longest-serving leader in history, overtaking his uncle, Eisaku Sato. His resilience convinced many in the world of business and politics that his policies were to be taken seriously.
Mr Abe’s grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, survived an assassination attempt in 1960.