Japan heads to the polls for key election overshadowed by Shinzo Abe's assassination

Japan heads to the polls for key election overshadowed by Shinzo Abe's assassination
Japan's former prime minister and longest serving premier Shinzo Abe was killed during a campaign rally in the city of Nara on Friday in a shooting that shocked the nation, where strict gun laws are applied.
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Polls opened on Sunday in Japan for voting in the country's upper house elections, despite the shock assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday [Getty]

Japan went to the polls on Sunday in the shadow of the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, gunned down while making a campaign speech for the governing party that cruises to a likely major victory.

Amid voting Sunday, police in western Japan sent the alleged assassin to a local prosecutors' office for further investigation toward pressing murder charges, the day after a top regional police official acknowledged possible security lapses that allowed the attacker to get so close and fire a bullet into the still-influential former Japanese leader.

In a country still recovering from the shock, sadness and fear of Abe's shooting - the first of a former or serving leader to be assassinated in postwar Japan - polling started for half of the upper house, the less powerful of Japan's two-chamber parliament.

Abe was shot in Nara on Friday and airlifted to a hospital but died of blood loss. Police arrested a former member of Japan’s navy at the scene. Police confiscated his homemade gun and several others were later found at his apartment.

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The alleged attacker, Tetsuya Yamagami, told investigators he acted because of Abe's rumored connection to an organisation that he resented, police said, but had no problem with the former leader's political view. The man had developed hatred toward a religious group that his mother was obsessed about and that bankrupted a family business, according to media reports, including some that identified the group as the Unification Church.

Abe's body, in a black hearse accompanied by his wife, Akie, returned to his home in Tokyo's upscale residential area of Shibuya, where many mourners, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, their predecessors and top party officials, paid tribute. His wake and funeral are expected in coming days.

Nara prefectural police chief Tomoaki Onizuka on Saturday said that Abe’s assassination was his "greatest regret" in his 27-year career. He said problems with security were undeniable, that he took the shooting seriously and will review the guarding procedures.

Abe’s assassination ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary election shocked the nation and raised questions over whether adequate security was provided for the former prime minister.

Some observers who watched videos of the attack noted a lack of attention in the open space behind Abe as he spoke.

Experts also said Abe was more vulnerable standing on the ground level instead of atop a campaign vehicle, a standard for premier-class politicians, but that option was reportedly unavailable due to his hastily arranged visit to Nara.

Mitsuru Fukuda, a crisis management professor at Nihon University, said police were seen focusing frontward and paying little attention to what was behind Abe, noting that the suspect was approaching the former leader unnoticed until he fired the first shot.

"Clearly there were problems," Fukuda said.

The first shot narrowly missed Abe and hit an election vehicle. The second entered from his upper left arm damaged his neck artery, causing massive bleeding and death.

Fukuda said that election campaigns provide a chance for voters and politicians to interact because "political terrorism" was extremely rare in postwar Japan. It's a key democratic process, but Abe’s assassination could prompt stricter security at crowded events like campaigns, sports games and others.

On Saturday, when party leaders went out for their final appeals under heightened security, there were no more fist-touches - a COVID-19 era alternative to handshakes - or other close-proximity friendly gestures they used to enjoy.

After Abe’s assassination, Sunday's election had a new meaning, with all political leaders emphasising the importance of free speech and their pledge not to back down to violence against democracy.

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"We absolutely refuse to let violence shut out free speech," Kishida said in his final rally in northern city of Niigata on Saturday amid tightened security. “We must demonstrate that our democracy and election will not back down to violence.”

According to the Asahi newspaper, Yamagami was a contract worker at a warehouse in Kyoto, operating a forklift. He was described as a quiet person in the beginning but started ignoring rules that led to quarrels with his colleagues, then he started missing work and quit in April citing health problems. A next-door neighbor at his apartment told Asahi he never met Yamagami, though he recalled hearing noises like a saw being used several times late at night over the past month.

Japan is known for its strict gun laws. With a population of 125 million, it had only 21 gun-related criminal cases in 2020, 12 of them gang-related, according to the latest government crime paper. Experts say, however, some recent attacks involved use of consumer items such as gasoline, suggesting increased risks for ordinary people to be embroiled in mass attacks.

While media surveys have predicted a major victory for the governing Liberal Democratic Party amid fractured and weak opposition, a wave of sympathy votes from Abe's assassination could bring a bigger victory than Kishida's modest goal of winning the house majority.

Even after stepping down as prime minister in 2020, Abe was highly influential in the LDP and headed its largest faction. His absence could change power balance in the governing party that almost uninterruptedly ruled postwar Japan since its 1955 foundation, experts say.

"This could be a turning point" for the LDP over its divisive policies on gender equality, same-sex marriages and other issues that Abe-backed ultra-conservatives with paternalistic family values had resisted, said Fukuda.

Japan's current diplomatic and security stance is unlikely to change because fundamental changes had been already been made by Abe. His ultra-nationalist views and realistic policy measures made him a divisive figure to many, including in the Koreas and China.

Abe stepped down two years ago blaming a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis he’d had since he was a teenager. He said he regretted leave many of his goals unfinished, including the issue of Japanese abducted years ago by North Korea, a territorial dispute with Russia, and a revision to Japan's war-renouncing constitution that many conservatives consider a humiliation because of poor public support.

Abe 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" nation with a stronger military through security alliance with the United States and bigger role in international affairs.

He became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006, at age 52. But his overly nationalistic first stint abruptly ended a year later, also because of his health, prompting six years of annual leadership change.

He returned to office in 2012, vowing to revitalise the nation and get its economy out of its deflationary doldrums with his "Abenomics" formula, which combines fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms. He won six national elections and built a rock-solid grip on power.