Assassination of Japan’s Abe: Regional Underpinnings and Implications

Despite, or perhaps in part due to his controversial defense policies and embroilment in various scandals related to corruption, Abe has had an indelible impact on East Asia relations, particularly those of Japan and South Korea.

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Former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe.

On 8 July 2022, the world was shocked by the assassination of Shinzo Abe. He was well-known as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, the architect of economic reform policies – coined “Abenomics” – and a key facilitator in bringing the Olympic Games to Japan for a second time. Despite, or perhaps in part due to his controversial defense policies and embroilment in various scandals related to corruption, Abe has had an indelible impact on East Asia relations, particularly those of Japan and South Korea.

A Political Life and A Political Family

Born on 21 September 1954, in Tokyo, Shinzo Abe was a member of a family that left its mark on the modern political history of Japan. His mother’s father was Nobusuke Kishi, a prominent bureaucrat and politician nicknamed the “Beast of Showa”. His father’s father was Kan Abe, a landowner and politician from Yamaguchi Prefecture who held opposing views to those of Kishi regarding Japan’s involvement in war. Nobusuke Kishi was the ruler of Manchukuo, the puppet state of Manchuria established by the Empire of Japan in northern China before World War II; and he was infamous for his harsh colonial policies implemented there. He served as the Deputy Minister of Munitions during World War II and was declared a “Class A” war criminal by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal afterward. After the US administration softened its stance towards the threat of post-war communism in Japan, Kishi was released from prison and went on to unite  various conservative parties under the banner of the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP).

Shintaro Abe, who was Kishi’s son-in-law and Shinzo Abe’s father, was a prominent member of the LDP and held many important governmental posts including minister of foreign affairs. Although Hironobu, Shintaro’s eldest son and Shinzo’s older brother, built a career outside of politics, the youngest son of the family, Nobuo, also became a politician. He is currently serving as the minister of defense in Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government. On a side note, Nobuo was adopted into the Kishi family following an agreement between the Abe and Kishi families, and thus, his name came to be Nobuo Kishi. Seeing that Shinzo Abe passed away without any heirs, Nobuo Kishi is expected to carry on the family’s political legacy.

Rearmament of Japan

Navies of Japan and the US are in military exercise.

One of Nobusuke Kishi’s greatest political ambitions during his term as prime minister was to amend Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which was created under US occupation. Seen as unfair and humiliating by Kishi, Article 9 is the main reason why Japan does not have an official army, only a Self-Defense Force. Nonetheless, Kishi was unable to achieve this goal, and thus it fell to his grandson, Shinzo Abe. While Shinzo Abe was also unable to take any meaningful steps towards changing the Article during his first, short-lived premiership, in his second, longer premiership he achieved a certain degree of success in laying the groundwork for potential change, most significantly by elevating the Department of Defense to ministerial status.

Nonetheless, Abe faced a roadblock in his pursuit of amending the constitution when the Moritomo Gakuen scandal erupted, implicating him and his wife in the improper sale of state land. The scandal stalled discussions around Article 9 and the outbreak of COVID-19 completely shelved any further debate on the matter. In the summer of 2020, the pandemic spread across Japan and transformed into a full-blown crisis. This coincided with Abe’s resignation due to ulcerative colitis, an affliction from which he had suffered since adolescence and the reason why he left the premiership in 2007 after only one year in office. In November 2021, however, Abe’s health rebounded, and prior to his assassination less than one year later, he was giving signals that he was nowhere near done with politics as the head of the largest faction within the LDP.

Abe’s Foreign Policy and East Asian Relations

Known as an ultra-conservative and ultra-nationalist politician, Abe sometimes stirred tensions in Japan’s relations with its neighbors. In his book titled “Towards a Beautiful Country”, he openly elaborated his political stance and his views on his grandfather. In 2002, during the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi, Abe led the project that arranged for five Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea to visit Japan on the condition that they would later be returned to North Korea. Abe, however, did not allow for their return, an action that stalled dialogue between the two countries. Later, during his time as prime minister, Abe strained Japan’s relations with both South Korea and China by regularly visiting Yasukuni Shrine, an act that many regarded as paying homage to Japanese soldiers who could be considered war criminals from World War II. Moreover, Abe’s long-time membership in the far-right Nippon Kaigi non-governmental organization constituted a backdrop for tensions with neighbors victimized by the Empire of Japan.

Abe’s foreign policy focused on establishing new partnerships – including with Taiwan and India – to counter the escalating Chinese threat. To formalize these partnerships, he pioneered the establishment of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising the US, Japan, India, and Australia. In 2015, he led efforts for military reform that would allow Japan to deploy Self-Defense Forces overseas based on the collective security concept. Attaching just as much importance to economics as foreign affairs, Abe presented a three-pronged economic reform package later termed “Abenomics”. The goals of these reforms were: 1) to increased real inflation, which had remained negative for decades following the end of Japan’s bubble economy in the 1990s; 2) to reduce corporate taxes; and 3) to introduce structural reform such as the promotion of women’s participation in the economy.

Driving Forces Behind Abe’s Assassination

China’s President Xi Jinping is greeted by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.

Japan is a democratic, parliamentary, centrally governed constitutional monarchy. The duty of the emperor of Japan is symbolic as it falls to the prime minister and his/her cabinet to administer the state. The Japanese legislature, called the National Diet, is divided into two chambers, the lower house called the House of Representatives, and the upper house called the House of Councillors. The most recent elections prior to the assassination were to determine the composition of the House of Councillors on 10 July 2022.

The city of Nara, where Shinzo Abe was assassinated, is famous for its sacred deer and its position as an ancient capital. Making a last-minute change to his planned route, Abe arrived in Nara on 8 July to deliver a speech in support of his party member running there. In election campaigns in Japan, politicians are expected to be close to the public, and when the speeches are over, individuals often speak directly with the politicians. Abe was shot from behind with a homemade shotgun shortly after he started speaking around 11:30 am. The bullets hit his throat and chest and he was pronounced dead at Nara University Hospital around 5 pm.

The assassin was 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami. Aside from having irregular employment, he had served as a soldier in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces from 2002 to 2005. According to his acquaintances, Yamagami was quiet yet sociable. He expressed his motive as stemming from his hatred of the Unification Church, which some critics describe as a cult. Also known as “Moonies”, adherents of the Unification Church are part of an evangelical Christian movement which was founded by Sun Myung Moon in South Korea. Pointedly anti-communist and traditionalist, the Church has close ties with US Republican politicians such as Donald Trump, and Sun Myung Moon also founded the far-right Washington Times newspaper. There is evidence of LDP politicians being linked to the Church as well, including Nobusuke Kishi. Based on Yamagami’s confession, in conjunction with documents found by investigators, Yamagami’s mother was a member of the Church and had donated approximately 100 million Japanese yen (USD 724,285) to its cause, leading to the bankruptcy and financial duress of her family.

Yamagami argues that the Church destroyed his family and personal happiness. Therefore, his original target was apparently the current head of the South Korean branch of the Church, yet, due to the COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions, he was unable to reach her. After watching Abe’s 2021 keynote speech at a Church event, Yamagami shifted his focus to Abe. By coincidence, Yamagami learned of Abe’s planned appearance in Nara the day before the assassination took place. Taking advantage of his close proximity and the lack of police presence, he successfully carried out his plan. After firing the two shots, Yamagami was quickly taken into custody by the police.

Impact on Japan-South Korea Relations

When Shinzo Abe was prime minister for the second time, the relations between Japan and South Korea worsened in 2018. This was largely due to the fact that South Korean courts had found Mitsubishi Heavy Industries guilty of using forced labor during imperial Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula. The courts ordered Mitsubishi to pay compensation to the laborers, but the Japanese company refused to do so. This refusal was based on Japan’s understanding that all settlements were finalized by the 1965 bilateral agreement. Although the court orders are yet to be carried out, there is still a chance that the matter will be resolved amicably. This is largely due to the new South Korean government’s hawkish stance under Yoon Suk-yeol vis-à-vis North Korea. Thus, South Korea is more open to cooperating with other US allies in the region – including Japan – than the previous Moon Jae-in government. However, the issue of so-called “comfort women”, who were abused by Japanese soldiers during World War II, and overall animosity revolving around Japan’s behavior during the conflict still lingers.

The complicated relationship between Japan and South Korea is likely to continue due to the factors underpinning Shinzo Abe’s assassination. The backroom dealings between Japanese politicians and the South Korean Unification Church may never fully come to light; however, the public has now become more aware of the nature of this relationship. For a conservative party such as LDP whose members are often members of the revisionist Nippon Kaigi, having publicly known links to a South Korean cult may lead to the loss of votes, perhaps falling from power altogether. To avoid this, it is possible for LDP to pursue a lukewarm tone toward South Korea that centers solely around common security threats, or worse, it could pursue an aggressive approach based on the Mitsubishi issue. In either case, Abe’s legacy will continue to complicate things.

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