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Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is assassinated at a campaign rally

People in Tokyo watch TV news reporting Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot on Friday.
Christopher Jue
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Getty Images
People in Tokyo watch TV news reporting Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot on Friday.

Updated July 8, 2022 at 10:11 AM ET

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a nationalist who served in the post longer than anyone else before stepping down in 2020, was shot and killed on Friday at a campaign rally.

Security tackled the suspected gunman at the scene of an attack, and he was arrested by police. The shooting shocked many in Japan, which is one of the world's safest nations and has some of the strictest gun control laws anywhere.

"It is barbaric and malicious and it cannot be tolerated," current Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told the media.

Police say Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, fired two shots at Abe as he was making a political speech in the city of Nara. The first shot missed, but the second hit Abe's chest and neck, and despite attempts to revive him he died several hours later.

Yamagami was unemployed and a former member of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force for three years, police say, and attacked Abe because he believed he was associated with a group Yamagami hated. Multiple handmade guns were later found at Yamagami's home.

Abe, 67, served as prime minister in 2006 and 2007, and again from 2012 to 2020, when he suddenly resigned citing health issues. Despite leaving office, he remained influential within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and continued to be a force on Japan's political landscape.

Tributes poured in from around the world

In a statement, President Biden said he was "stunned, outraged, and deeply saddened" by the assassination, calling Abe his friend. "His vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific will endure."

President Biden later said he plans to stop at the Japanese embassy in Washington on Friday afternoon to sign a book of condolences.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in Asia for a meeting of Group of 20 foreign ministers, called the assassination "profoundly disturbing" and described Abe as a leader of great vision.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Abe as "a towering global statesman, an outstanding leader, and a remarkable administrator." He said on Twitter that July 9 would be a day of national mourning in India.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described Abe as an "outstanding statesman," and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott described him simply as Japan's "most significant post-war leader."

Abe made broad economic strides but failed at goal of revising Japan's constitution

As prime minister, Abe worked to build up Japan's military, counter China's growing clout and sought to boost and reform the economy though a program that came to be known as "Abenomics."

During his tenure, Abe reformed immigration policy, female labor-force participation climbed, and the Japanese economy unexpectedly returned to healthy growth.

Michael Green, a former national security council staff member in the George W. Bush administration who worked with Abe extensively, said Abe was the most consequential leader modern Japan has seen. His vision for putting Japan back on the map geopolitically inspired loyalty across the country's bureaucracy and elected officials.

"I think his legacy is profound," Green told Morning Edition. "There is no major political figure in Japan arguing for a different direction, other than tactical changes, from what Abe put in place when he was prime minister."

At times in recent years when the U.S. seemed unsure of its footing in the region, Green said Abe held things together.

"When president Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this major trade pact in Asia, Abe stepped in and kept it going and urged the U.S. to return," he said. "When the Trump administration was fighting with Europe at the G7 summits, Abe was the peacemaker. ... He really stepped up to reinforce the international order, the liberal order that America helped to build, as China and Russia asserted themselves."

He ultimately failed to achieve his most cherished political goal, and that of his party: to revise Japan's pacifist, post-World War II constitution. Abe proposed revisions would strengthen the government's emergency powers, while downplaying the role of human rights. Abe felt the political values imposed by the U.S.-backed constitution were alien to some of Japan's traditions, such as reverence for the emperor.

Abe was, however, successful in passing legislation in 2015 that allows Japan's military to expand its operations overseas in support of allies, including the United States.

Abe grew increasingly critical of China

When he left office, most Japanese were dissatisfied with his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, feeling he moved too slowly to impose a state of emergency mostly out of concerns about the economy.

In recent months, Abe had been a more outspoken critic of China. Earlier this year, he called on the United States to drop its long-standing practice of "strategic ambiguity" and give Taiwan assurances that it could count on American help in the event of an attack by China.

He also angered China by saying "a Taiwan contingency is a Japan contingency," and noting that it would be impossible for Japan not to be sucked into a conflict over the self-governed island that Beijing considers a part of China.

NPR's Jackie Northam and Christopher Dean Hopkins contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.