Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an arch-conservative and one of the country’s most divisive figures, was shot and critically wounded Friday during a campaign speech in western Japan. He was flown to a hospital, but officials said he was not breathing and his heart had stopped.
Police arrested the suspected gunman at the scene of the shocking attack in a country that is one of the world’s safest and has some of the strictest gun control laws.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Abe was in “serious condition” and hoped Abe would survive. He called the attack “cowardly and barbaric” and added that the crime that took place during the election campaign, the foundation of democracy, was absolutely unforgivable.
Kishida and his ministers hurried back to Tokyo after the shooting from other campaign events across the country. “I pray from the bottom of my heart for the survival of former Prime Minister Abe,” Kishida said at the Prime Minister’s office after arriving by defense helicopter from Yamagata.
He said Abe received the best medical treatment. Abe, who is 67 and was Japan’s longest-serving leader before stepping down in 2020, went into cardiac and lung arrest while being transported to hospital, said Makoto Morimoto, the local fire chief.
Public broadcaster NHK broadcast dramatic footage of Abe giving a speech outside a central station in Nara. He is standing, dressed in a navy blue suit, raising his fist, when a shot is heard. Footage shows Abe collapsing in the street as several guards run toward him. He clutches his chest, his shirt smeared with blood.
The next moment, guards jump on top of a gray-shirted man, who is lying face down on the sidewalk. A double-barreled device that appeared to be a handmade pistol can be seen on the ground.
Nara Prefectural Police confirmed the arrest of a suspect for alleged attempted murder and identified him as Tetsuya Yamagami, 41. NHK reported that the suspect served three years with the Maritime Self-Defense Force in the 2000s.
Other footage of the scene showed campaign officials around Abe. The popular former leader is still influential in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and heads its largest faction, Seiwakai. Elections for Japan’s upper house, the less powerful chamber of parliament, are on Sunday.
“A barbaric act like this is absolutely unforgivable, whatever the reasons, and we strongly condemn it,” said Japanese chief of staff Hirokazu Matsuno.
The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper printed additional issues, which were soon grabbed by people on the street to read about the shooting.
Once the capital of Japan, Nara is located just east of Osaka on the country’s main Honshu Island.
Abe cited a chronic health problem when he stepped down as prime minister. Abe has had ulcerative colitis since he was a teenager and has said the condition was controlled with treatment.
He told reporters at the time that it was “exciting” to leave many of his goals unfinished. He spoke of his inability to resolve the issue of the Japanese abducted by North Korea years ago, a territorial dispute with Russia and a revision of Japan’s constitution that waives the war.
That last goal was a big reason he sowed such divisiveness.
His ultra-nationalism irritated the Koreas and China, and his urge to create what he saw as a more normal defensive posture angered many Japanese. Abe failed to achieve his cherished goal of formally rewriting the US-drafted pacifist constitution due to poor public support.
Loyalists said his legacy was a stronger US-Japan relationship designed to bolster Japan’s defense capabilities. But Abe made enemies by forcing his defense goals and other controversial issues through parliament, despite strong public opposition.
Abe is a politically blue-blooded man who was groomed to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. His political rhetoric often focused on making Japan a “normal” and “beautiful” country with a stronger military and greater role in international affairs.
Many foreign officials were shocked by the shooting.
Our thoughts, our prayers are with him, with his family, with the people of Japan,” Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said at a meeting of a group of 20 foreign ministers in Bali, Indonesia.
“Abe-san is an outstanding leader of Japan and an unwavering ally of the US. The US government and the American people pray for the well-being of Abe-san, his family and the people of Japan,” wrote Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel. on Twitter.
Former President Donald Trump said it was “absolutely devastating news” that Abe was shot and injured. He said on his social media app that Abe was “a true friend of mine and, more importantly, of America. This is a huge blow to wonderful people of Japan who loved and admired him so much. We all pray for Shinzo and his beautiful family!’
Abe said he was proud to have worked as a leader for a stronger Japan-US security alliance and to accompany a serving US president’s first visit to the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima. He also helped Tokyo gain the right to host the 2020 Olympics by promising that a disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was “under control” when it was not.
Abe became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006, aged 52, but his overly nationalistic first stint came to an abrupt end a year later, also due to his health.
The end of Abe’s scandal-laden first term as prime minister marked the beginning of six years of annual leadership changes, remembered as an era of “revolving door” politics without stability and long-term policies.
When he returned to office in 2012, Abe vowed to revitalize the nation and lift the economy out of deflation with his “Abenomics” formula, which combines fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reform.
He won six national elections and built an ironclad grip on power, bolstering Japan’s defense role and capabilities and its security alliance with the US.