Japan is quite literally the last country where I would anticipate a campaign-trail assassination would take place. And yet that's what we face here on Friday, with the shocking news that former prime minister Shinzo Abe has died at the hand of a gunman.
I liked Abe immensely. He was a highly capable and intelligent leader. He pushed many sensible policies, and is largely responsible for the solid condition of the Japanese economy as it now stands, recovering nicely from the pandemic and reopening to the world.
Abe was Japan's longest-serving prime minister, first across two stints, and then in his own right from his second time in office. He came firmly from the right, politically, supporting a revision of Japan's pacifist constitution in a way that would allow Japan to maintain a standing army.
And of course he is best known for "Abenomics," his policies designed to help Japan's economy recover from two decades in the wilderness. They were a success, albeit a qualified one. Best of all, Abe made Japan believe in itself again.
Abe was shot twice from behind by a man with a gun that appears to be home-made, according to TV footage. He was giving a campaign speech on a drab traffic island outside a railway station in the city of Nara, just to the east of Osaka, Japan's second-largest metro area after the Tokyo-Yokohama megalopolis.
The son of a former foreign minister of Japan had been speaking for several minutes when his assailant opened fire. The sound of the shots, echoing in the streets, was like that of a bomb. A large amount of white smoke filled the air. The alleged shooter, wearing glasses, a surgical mask, gray T-shirt and cargo pants, appears to have hit Abe in the neck with the second shot. The attacker put the gun down and was overpowered by security, as Abe collapsed.
Some people in the crowd fainted in shock. The gun, captured on camera, is the size of a sawn-off shotgun and appears to have two long, thick metal pipes held together with black duct tape. Abe was at first conscious but went into cardiac arrest. He died at 5:03 p.m. of likely blood loss, a doctor at Nara Medical University Hospital told the Kyodo news agency.
"Shootings happen in the United States, but I cannot believe something like this could occur in Japan," one eyewitness said to The Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
Abe's speech was only announced last night, so his attacker had limited time to prepare. The police arrested Nara resident Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, on suspicion of attempted murder, according to the newspaper, before Abe's death was confirmed. Yamagami spent three years in the Maritime Self-Defense Force, according to Kyodo, the equivalent of Japan's navy. Yamagami said he "had grievances" with Abe and has confessed to the killing, according to The Japan Times.
Japan has national elections on Sunday for the Upper House, the equivalent of the Senate. Abe, still in government himself, was speaking in support of a Nara candidate up for election. Candidates have suspended their campaigns.
The shooting came after the close of trading in Tokyo. The Topix index rose 0.3% on Friday, and was down only 7.0% so far this year. Japanese stocks have proved resilient during this summer's selloff, thanks to the continued stimulus support of the central Bank of Japan. Inflation stands at 2.5% as of May, having finally risen above the government and central bank target of 2.0%, meaning the BOJ can keep interest rates close to zero.
It's unlikely that Abe's death will have long-term or even significant short-term impact on financial markets. Abe was still a powerful man, controlling the largest faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and continued to serve as a member of the House of Representatives until his death. But his role as head of that faction came largely as a result of having led the LDP. There will be replacements in the wings, although they'll have tears in their eyes.
Abe was born on September 21, 1954, to a prominent political dynasty. His grandfather had been prime minister of Japan, and Abe studied political science at Seikei University and then public policy at the University of Southern California before working at Kobe Steel, Japan's largest steelmaker. His first political post was in the office of his father, Shintaro Abe, when the elder Abe was minister of foreign affairs.
Abe was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1993, then rose through the ranks before becoming prime minister in September 2006, as Japan's youngest post-war leader and the first born after World War II. He resigned exactly one year later, blaming ulcerative colitis in stepping down. It was the same condition that he cited when resigning from his second spell as prime minister, from December 2012 to September 2020.
Equity markets soared on his election in 2012, with Abe in January 2013 saying Japan should pursue monetary easing, and chase a target of 2% inflation. Abe forced out the existing governor of the Bank of Japan and replaced him with Haruhiko Kuroda, who shares the same philosophy, and remains BOJ governor a decade later.
Abenomics had three arrows. The first, easy monetary policy, was easy to enforce after Kuroda's appointment. The second, easy fiscal policy, came through government budgets with increased spending on business-and-investment incentives, defense spending and investment in public works.
The third arrow never quite landed. Intending to push structural reform, Abe managed to overcome the powerful farm lobby to get Japan to agree to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But having expended considerable political capital, Abe was abandoned by new U.S. president Donald Trump, who pulled out of the TPP on his first day in office in January 2017.
Abe failed to enforce change in the way Japanese companies are run, with boards still stacked with insiders and supposedly independent directors who are in fact loyal to management. He failed to untangle the complex series of cross-holdings Japanese companies have in each other, although there has been gradual progress on that front. He also failed to encourage female participation in the work force and the boardroom. Lastly, he failed to free up the rules on foreign participation in the Japanese work force, getting only modest concessions to allow more foreign workers in construction and a handful of other industries, at a time the Japanese work force is shrinking and ageing, and needs new blood.
Abe championed the hosting of the 2020 Olympics by Tokyo. Although that came to pass, the Games were delayed by a year due to the pandemic. The Japanese public did not want the Olympics to go ahead with Covid-19 still doing the rounds, and a muddled early response to the pandemic coupled with a series of domestic scandals involving his cabinet members saw Abe step down in August 2020, before the Games started in July 2021. With spectators banned, he didn't get to open the Games, as he would surely have loved.
I think Abe's biggest achievement was restoring some pride and confidence in Japan. Japanese corporate confidence rose and has sustained at a relatively high level despite the pandemic. Japan has started sending troops on deployments overseas, and current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is continuing the expansion in the way Japan's Self-Defense Forces can be used. The Japanese constitution says Japan cannot use war as a solution, and can only react with troops in self-defense, but after a change in law Japan could come to the aid of an ally overseas even if Japan itself was not attacked.
Abe championed Japan's participation in the "Quad." The grouping of Asia Pacific democracies also includes the United States, Australia and India, and is taking on an important role both in defensive positioning and in offering an alternative to China's rising economic influence in Asia.
Kishida, the successor to Abe's successor, Yoshihide Suga, is still pushing many of the policies that Abe set in motion. Neither Suga nor Kishida have anything like Abe's charisma, and it appears that Japan is falling back into a pattern of revolving doors that brings a new leader to power every year or so.
Abe, as a foreign-educated English speaker, was very popular with world leaders. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself a conservative now being forced from power after a string of scandals, said he was "utterly appalled and saddened" to hear about the "despicable attack" on Abe.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who recently visited Japan, met Abe to discuss issues of concern to both. "He was witty and insightful as always," Modi said, sending his condolences to the people of Japan.
Although Abe was a China hawk, he maintained cordial relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China's foreign ministry expressed "shock" at the assassination, with a spokesperson saying the incident "should not be linked to Sino-Japanese relations." China recognized Abe's contributions to bilateral ties.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the shooting was "profoundly disturbing," describing Abe as "a leader with great vision," an "extraordinary partner" to the United States, with his death "a loss for Japan, a loss for the world."