Shinzo Abe, Japan’s right-wing militarist former prime minister, assassinated
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated Friday while making a campaign speech. He is remembered for a legacy of pro-corporate economics and right-wing militarism. | Marco Garcia / AP

Shinzo Abe, who ruled Japan as prime minister for a year in 2006 and then again from 2012 to 2020, was shot and killed Friday during a campaign rally in the town of Nara. Japan is holding elections for the upper house of its legislature on Sunday, and Abe was addressing a meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) outside a train station.

Public broadcaster NHK reports that the assailant, Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, is a former member of the naval branch of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. The motive is not yet known. The perpetrator shot Abe twice from behind, using what the media referred to as a “homemade gun.”

Japan has strict gun control laws, and gun violence is almost non-existent in the country. In 2021, it saw only one recorded gun violence death. The murder was immediately condemned by leaders of all of Japan’s major political parties and many world leaders.

Chinese American and Korean American protesters hold up a photo of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a rally outside of the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco in 2015. The protest called on Abe to apologize for his country’s atrocities toward other Asian countries during World War II. Abe regularly tried to whitewash his country’s atrocities and glorified war criminals like his grandfather. | Jeff Chiu / AP

Shii Kazuo, chair of the opposition Japanese Communist Party (JCP), called the assassination an “absolutely unforgivable” act of “barbarism” and “terrorism.” Shii said, “The violent killing of speech is the most hateful act of destroying democracy.”

Shii expressed his condolences to Abe’s family but nonetheless emphasized that the JCP “had a very different political position from Shinzo Abe.”

As a politician, Abe’s reputation included a preference for neoliberal economics favoring big business. And when it came to foreign policy, he was known as a right-wing militarist who sought to revive the country’s armed might and whitewash the brutality of Japanese imperialism’s past.

Abe came to office pledging to make Japan “the most business-friendly country in the world” by repealing corporate regulations and worker protections, while reducing corporate taxes and raising taxes on everyone else. Following the neoliberal free trade handbook, Abe sought to make it easier for companies to fire workers, to take Japan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and revive nuclear technology as an export product after the Fukushima reactor disaster.

Dismissed by the JCP, unions, and the left but celebrated by the business class, “Abenomics” was supposedly aimed at boosting “productivity” and “flexibility”—code words in capitalist ideology for squeezing more out of workers and making it easier to get rid of them whenever an employer wants.

Abe’s heavy-handed push for the TPP trade deal was met with resistance from workers and labor groups. The proposed agreement prioritized the interests of multinational corporations in Japan and the U.S. over those of the people and would have eliminated protections for Japan’s health care, employment, insurance, and public procurement systems.

Even more than his economic policies, though, it was Abe’s nationalistic military and foreign policies which shape the legacy he leaves behind. He was a revisionist when it came to Japan’s history of imperialist aggression and atrocities and an advocate for making Japan a strong military power once again.

Abe’s attitude on Japan’s role during World War II—including denial of the sex slavery that the Japanese army forced on tens of thousands of women, minimizing or ignoring mass murders committed across China and Korea, the promotion of school textbooks covering up Japan’s crimes, and his frequent visits to a shrine honoring Japanese war criminals—put him at odds with much of the Japanese population.

One of Abe’s main goals, which thanks to public pressure remains unfulfilled, was to repeal Article 9, the so-called “peace clause” of Japan’s constitution. Part of the charter imposed by occupying U.S. forces after the end of the war, Article 9 sought to outlaw war and forbid Japan from ever again becoming an aggressor.

It states “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” Further provisions limit Japan to only maintaining a limited “Self-Defense Force” (SDF) and ban the development of a large military with offensive capabilities. Over time, it became a key part of Japanese national identity, much to the dismay of militarists. It has been credited with keeping Japan out of the Iraq War.

Abe’s push to throw out Article 9 was a family tradition. His grandfather, former Prime Minister Nousuke Kishi, also sought to undermine the document when he was in power from 1957 to 1960. During the 1930s, Kishi was known for his inhuman rule of the Japanese Empire’s puppet state of Manchukuo in northeastern China.

Expressing admiration for the techniques of Japan’s Nazi allies in Germany, Kishi oversaw Japan’s colonial exploitation in Manchuria, which saw tens of thousands die as slave laborers in mines and factories. More were killed in chemical warfare experiments. He earned the nickname “Monster of Manchukuo.”

Lee Yong-soo, a South Korean sexual slavery survivor taken prisoner by Japanese imperialist forces during World War II, has been demanding since the early 1990s that the Japanese government fully accept culpability and offer an unequivocal apology. Here, she participates in a protest in Cambridge, Mass., where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was speaking in 2015. | Michael Dwyer / AP

Wang Qingxiang, a researcher at the Jilin Academy of Social Sciences and one of China’s top researchers of Japanese atrocities in Manchuria, said that Kishi’s “crimes pile up to the heavens.”

After the war, Kishi spent three years in prison before being freed during the Cold War when the U.S. determined that technocrats like him were needed to rebuild Japan so it could join the anti-Soviet effort in Asia.

Abe saw his efforts to grow Japan’s military as a continuation of his grandfather’s work and regularly arranged his policy announcements and actions around important anniversaries related to Kishi’s rule and life. Abe praised his grandfather in a 2007 essay for “pressing forward no matter how many people were opposed because his was the only path.”

Hemmed in by public opposition to his anti-Article 9 efforts, Abe nevertheless rammed through defense budget increases and worked to make the SDF into an army in fact if not in name. Following the lead of U.S. President Donald Trump, he urged a greater weapons build-up to target China and brought Japan into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad), a military alliance with the U.S., Australia, and India.

Citing health reasons, Abe resigned from office in 2020, having become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. He remained a powerful figure in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, however, controlling its leading faction. Current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was Abe’s anointed successor and is seen as a pliable tool of the party establishment that was run by Abe.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.