Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving Japanese prime minister, who made it his political mission to vanquish his country’s wartime ghosts but fell short of his ultimate goal of restoring Japan as a normalized military power, was assassinated Friday in the city of Nara, Japan. He was 67.
His death, from injuries sustained in a shooting during a speech at a campaign event, was confirmed by Dr. Hidetada Fukushima, professor in charge of emergency medicine at Nara Medical University Hospital.
Shortly after the shooting at 11:30 Friday morning, police chased down and arrested Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, at the scene. He has been charged with murder. Police officials said he used a “homemade” gun and confessed that he had intended to kill Abe because he believed the former prime minister to have some association with a group against which Yamagami held “a grudge.”
Abe, the scion of a staunchly nationalist family of politicians that included a grandfather who was accused of war crimes before becoming prime minister, made history by leading Japan for nearly eight consecutive years, beginning in 2012.
It was a remarkable feat of longevity not only because of Japan’s record of rapid turnover in prime ministers but also because Abe had lasted just a year in an earlier, ill-fated stint as the country’s leader.
His long run in office, however, delivered only partial victories on his two primary ambitions: to unfetter Japan’s military after decades of postwar pacifism and to jump-start and overhaul its economy through a program known as Abenomics.
And in August 2020, just four days after he had set the record for the longest uninterrupted run as Japanese leader, Abe resigned as prime minister because of ill health, a year before his term was set to end.
One of his most significant moves as prime minister came in 2015, when he pushed through legislation that authorized overseas combat missions alongside allied troops in the name of “collective self-defense” after huge public protests and a contentious battle with opposition politicians.
But he failed in his long-held dream of revising the war-renouncing clause of Japan’s Constitution, which was put in place by American occupiers after World War II. Abe, in the end, proved unable to sway a Japanese public unwilling to risk a repeat of the horrors of that war.
Under his economic program, Abe imposed a form of shock therapy that involved cheap cash, government spending on stimulus projects that expanded the country’s debt and attempts at corporate deregulation. The combination delivered results in the early years of his term, lifting the economy out of an unrelenting malaise and raising Abe’s international profile
On the international stage, Abe was one of the few world leaders to maintain a consistently close relationship with President Donald Trump.
He hosted two visits by the American leader, including one in which Trump met the newly enthroned emperor, Naruhito.
Abe also hosted President Barack Obama when he became the first American president to visit Hiroshima, the site of one of the two atomic bombings by the United States at the end of World War II.
And after years of a chilly relationship with China, Abe tried to usher in a warmer era, making the first visit to Beijing by a Japanese prime minister in seven years when he met with President Xi Jinping in 2018.
After the Trump administration pulled out of a multinational trade agreement among the United States and 11 other countries around the Pacific Rim, Abe kept the remaining countries in a coalition that enacted the pact in 2018 without the United States.
He met dozens of times with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in the hopes of negotiating a settlement over four contested islands north of Japan that were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the war.
Abe’s father had long tried, and failed, to resolve the territorial dispute, and the son was unable to resolve it, too. As a result, the countries have yet to sign a peace treaty to officially end the war between them.
Shinzo Abe was born Sept. 21, 1954, in Tokyo to Shintaro and Yoko Abe. His mother was the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi, who had been accused of war crimes by the occupying Americans but who was ultimately released from prison without appearing before the Allied war crimes tribunal. He served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960 and ardently opposed the constitution that his grandson, a half-century later, would try to revise.
Abe’s father also went into politics, serving as foreign minister and as an influential leader in the Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for all but four years since the end of the war.
There was perhaps little question that Abe would eventually follow his father and grandfather into politics. He studied political science at Seikei University in Tokyo and spent a year at the University of Southern California, also studying political science.
After a brief stint at Kobe Steel, Abe began his political career in 1982, serving as executive assistant to his father, who was then foreign minister.
He married Akie Matsuzaki, a daughter of a former president of Morinaga, one of Japan’s largest confectionary companies, in 1987. The couple never had children.
After his father died in 1991, Abe was elected to his parliamentary seat from Yamaguchi prefecture in southwestern Japan in 1993.
His first big break came in 2000, when he was appointed to serve as deputy chief secretary of the Liberal Democratic Party.
In that role, Abe accompanied Junichiro Koizumi, a popular maverick prime minister, to Pyongyang in 2002 to meet with the North Korean leader at the time, Kim Jong Il, to negotiate the release of Japanese citizens said to have been abducted by North Korean agents. The North released five abductees, and the politicians brought them back to Japan.
Abe’s first rise to Japan’s top job came in 2006, when he was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats and became the first Japanese prime minister born after the end of the war.
From the start, he emphasized his desire to revise the pacifist constitution and nudge Japan toward some level of independence from the United States, which provided Japan with security in exchange for renouncing a full-fledged military and allowing American troops to be based around the country.
In seeking to revise the constitution, Abe angered China and South Korea, two victims of Japan’s 20th-century militarism. He also denied that the Japanese military had forced Asian women, primarily Koreans and Chinese, into sexual slavery during World War II, and he moved to alter school textbooks to present what critics called a whitewashed version of Japan’s wartime history.
But within a year, Abe stumbled, plagued by scandals in his Cabinet, and he was written off by the political establishment and news media. Citing ill health from ulcerative colitis, a bowel disease, he abruptly resigned in September 2007, throwing the party into disarray.
His resignation was the beginning of a steep slide for the Liberal Democrats, culminating in the party’s loss of Parliament in 2009 to the opposition Democratic Party. It was only the second time since the Liberal Democrats were formed in 1955 that they had been out of power.
Yet the opposition’s time in charge was marred by gaffes, and the administration ultimately collapsed as the public grew furious at its response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. By 2012, voters had returned the conservative Liberal Democrats to power, with Abe once more at the helm.
Abe led his party to two more commanding victories in national elections, but he lost the supermajority in 2019 and was never able to push through a revision of the constitution.
Abe is survived by his wife, Akie Abe; his mother, Yoko Abe; and his brothers: Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s defense minister, and Hironobu Abe, who retired in March as CEO of Mitsubishi Corp. Packaging.
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