Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis), a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The news that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated Friday, at the age of 67, during a campaign rally came like a thunderbolt. If it was shocking to people around the world, it was devastating in Japan, where gun violence is essentially non-existent. Abe’s killing would have been appalling at any time. Now, however, it adds to the sense of an unstable world in crisis – in which democracies, in particular, appear to be under siege.
It’s still early, and we don’t know the assassin’s motivation. But the violent death of Japan’s most prominent politician of the 21st century – and its longest serving prime minister – is occurring at a time when violence, including political violence, is surging in the United States; when Ukraine, a fledgling democracy, is fighting for its survival against invading forces from an increasingly anti-democratic, aggressive Russia. It comes just hours after the resignation of Britain’s prime minister, a key player in support for Ukraine, with no successor in place, and just over a week after China, an exporter of authoritarian technology, celebrated the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, having just crushed the territory’s democracy in what critics have said is a violation of its promises.
Now comes the killing of a towering political figure in Japan’s democracy.
Whatever moved the unemployed, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, to approach Abe in front of a railway station in the city of Nara, where the former prime minister was giving a campaign speech to a small crowd, and fire a homemade weapon, the killing has struck many Japanese as an assault on their democracy.
Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s younger brother, called the shooting, an “attack on democracy.” Across social media in Japan, the slogan, “We want democracy, not violence,” started trending almost immediately.
The possibility that this was a random killing, as might have occurred in the United States, barely crossed anyone’s mind. That’s because of the victim, the timing – just two days before parliamentary elections – and the fact that almost no one is ever shot to death in Japan.
The contrast with the US is jaw-dropping. In 2018, Japan reported a grand total of nine deaths from firearms. That year, the US suffered 39,740 firearm deaths, according to public health data from the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health.
In its lead editorial, The Japan Times noted the irony that it was planning an editorial decrying America’s gun violence today. Instead, it wrote about Abe’s assassination, noting how in a democracy, “the murder of a former prime minister is an attack on us all.”
Just as ironic, the editorial noted: the reason Japan has no gun violence is largely due to the country’s strict gun control laws, written by America’s occupation forces after World War II.
The murder of a politician is always shocking, but Abe’s death resonates because of the enormous impact he had in his country and on global politics. He did not shy away from taking controversial positions, which enjoyed strong support alongside bitter criticism both at home and abroad.
He had very tense relations with China and very close ones with the United States.
Only days after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Abe traveled to New York and became the first foreign leader to meet him in person at Trump Tower in New York.
Relations with the US continued to strengthen, with an eye to jointly confronting potential threats from China and North Korea. In a Friday statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised Abe as an “extraordinary partner” who took US-Japanese relations “to new heights.” French President Emmanuel Macron called him “a great prime minister… who worked to bring balance to the world.”
China, conversely, viewed him with great displeasure. In April, Abe published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that, after the invasion of Ukraine, “The time has come for the US to make clear that it will defend Taiwan against any attempted Chinese invasion.”
China responded angrily, with China’s Consul General in Los Angeles Zhang Ping writing to the Times that “the author of the op-ed article made irresponsible remarks,” and warning they could, “instigate confrontation between major countries.” It’s perhaps not surprising that on Chinese social media, many have celebrated and gloated over Abe’s death with nationalist enthusiasm. Nonetheless, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, expressed condolences and said, “We are shocked by the unexpected incident. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had contributed to the improvement and growth of China-Japan relations.”
At home, Abe’s famous “Abenomics” policies helped jump-start Japan’s economy after years of stagnation. But his signature policy centered on defense, where he held views popular in some circles and firmly rejected by others. Abe wanted Japan to have a normal military, not the highly limited “self-defense” force mandated by the US-drafted post-World War II constitution. But with the scars of that war still not erased, the plans faced stiff resistance, and Abe was unable to push through a change to the law even as he bolstered nationalism sentiments.
Japan now joins a number of democracies facing turbulence. Whatever we learn about Abe’s killing, it’s not occurring in a vacuum. We’re living in a time of political polarization, social restlessness and growing violence. Even pacifist, nearly-gunless Japan has experienced it. Abe’s killing is Japan’s loss, but the rest of this uneasy world feels it, as well.