Many Japanese voters will go to the polls on Sunday with a heavy heart, but also with a sense of quiet defiance, as they cast their ballots just two days after Shinzo Abe, the country’s most influential politician of modern times, was shot dead while making a campaign speech.
As the country struggled to come to terms with the first assassination of a current or former leader for almost 90 years, officials in the Liberal Democratic party (LDP), which Abe dominated for a decade, insisted his death would not derail the democratic process.
“We absolutely must not tolerate violence during an election to suppress free speech,” the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, told hundreds of supporters in central Japan on the eve of the upper house elections, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
This, though, will be an election like no other in recent times, taking place in the immediate aftermath of a crime that will reverberate in the public consciousness well beyond Sunday.
While media pundits constructed largely benign versions of Abe’s divisive political legacy, questions swirled around the circumstances leading to his death, at 67, minutes into a campaign address in front of a railway station in the western city of Nara.
On Saturday, as on the previous day, Japan was playing a waiting game, craving answers but starved of information by investigators who had their suspect in custody while Abe, Japan’s longest-serving leader until he resigned in 2020, was drawing his last breaths.
The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told police that he initially planned to attack the leader of a religious group that he blamed for bankrupting his mother and ruining his family, the Kyodo news agency said, quoting investigative sources. His mother, he said, had made several donations to the group, whose name police have not revealed, adding that he had visited several locations where Abe had given campaign speeches.
Yamagami, a 41-year-old resident of Nara, said he was also “dissatisfied” with Abe, whom he accused of promoting the group.
On Saturday a black hearse carrying Abe’s body accompanied by his wife, Akie, arrived at their home in Tokyo from the hospital where staff had battled for five hours to save his life after he was shot in the back and neck at close range. Neighbors and senior party colleagues lowered their heads as the vehicle passed by.
A wake will be held on Monday, with Abe’s funeral to take place at a central Tokyo temple on Tuesday, attended by close family and friends, Japanese media said. There was no immediate word on any public memorial service.
His death has prompted criticism of security arrangements and will almost certainly mean an end to the proximity voters enjoy to candidates at the kind of pre-election rally Abe attended on Friday.
A debate about gun laws is unlikely, however. Japan already has an almost zero-tolerance approach to gun ownership, and the weapon that killed Abe is thought to have been homemade.
That he was slain at the hands of a gunman has only added to the sense of disbelief. Japan – a country of 125 million – recorded just 10 gun-related criminal cases last year, according to police, resulting in one death and four injuries. Eight of those cases were related to yakuza crime syndicates. In Tokyo last year, police seized 61 guns, but there was not a single incident, injury or death connected with firearms.
The assassination will not dramatically influence the outcome of Sunday’s election, in which 125 of the 248 seats in the less powerful upper chamber are being contested. The LDP was expected to win more than half the seats before Abe’s death, but a wave of sympathy could lift its share of the vote, according to some analysts.
Less certain is how brightly Abe’s torch will shine in the LDP, whose conservative wing is now emotionally, and ideologically, bereft. His death leaves a political legacy unrivalled in modern Japan, but also a vacuum at the heart of a party that has ruled almost uninterrupted since Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, helped found it in 1955.
In the weeks before his death, Abe – then the party’s biggest faction leader – called on the government to double defense spending, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a warning that Japan’s security could not be guaranteed in the event of a Chinese invasion. Taiwan.
He also repeated the need for Kishida’s government to revive its lifelong political ambition to revise the “pacifist” lines in the postwar constitution to recognize the legitimacy of the self-defense forces, as Japan refers to its military. Largely uncritical media reporting of his numerous public appearances had pundits wondering if he was considering a bid for a third term as prime minister.
“Although the rightwing of the party is the largest, it lacks an obvious successor with comparable skill, charisma and determination to carry forward its agenda,” said James Brady, Japan analyst at the US advisory firm Teneo.
Kishida, who has vowed to smooth the rough edges of Abe’s economic policies and create a “new capitalism”, could end up adopting his hawkish foreign policy mantle, Brady added. A strong election performance for the LDP, he said, “could catalyze Kishida to push for Abe’s unfulfilled goal of amending Japan’s constitution to allow for a stronger role for the military.”
On Saturday, a stream of people paid their respects at the spot where Abe fell. “I’m just shocked that this kind of thing happened in Nara,” said Natsumi Niwa, after she and her son, age 10, had left flowers.
The Japan Times, a newspaper well disposed to the Abe project, said the most appropriate response to Friday’s tragedy was simply to vote. “This was an act of terrorism and there is no place for such behavior in Japan,” it said in an editorial. “We live in a democracy where disputes and differences are resolved by voting… not with violence.”