Shooting of Abe raises questions about the state of Japanese society

“Check the news. Abe was assassinated.” The text message, which arrived from a friend in Japan while I was asleep, woke me up instantly. A quick Google search pulled up brief reports from English-language sources, which only gave me the outline of what happened. I switched to Japanese and found nearly a day’s worth of coverage. I scrolled through dozens of stories and pored over the detailed timeline of the incident, reactions from government officials and witnesses, and the preliminary analysis of the suspect and his motives. Finally, the magnitude of what had just happened began to sink in.

Not that attacks on public figures are unheard of in Japan. During the political upheaval before World War II, top-level elected officials were assassinated one after another; in more recent years, too, there have been sporadic incidents of violence against politicians. But this one seemed to have really touched a nerve, perhaps because Shinzo Abe remained a highly influential yet controversial figure in Japanese politics even after his two turbulent stints as prime minister. The general reaction may also have to do with the eerily calm demeanor of the perpetrator, who made no attempt to flee after Abe collapsed, juxtaposed against the violent force generated by the perpetrator’s crude homemade gun.

One way or another, the tragic incident, which seemed unthinkable in a country that prides itself on safe streets, sent a shock wave through Japan and the world. We are in a very early stage of the shooting’s investigation, but as we wait for more detailed information and analysis, two initial questions occupy my thoughts.

When I watched the video of the shooting, my gut reaction was, “Where’s the security?” At least from the vantage point from which the video was shot, no one seemed to take notice of the man approaching Abe from behind, until a loud bang sent everyone into a frenzy. In the United States, public appearances of prominent politicians are heavily guarded, and images of Secret Service agents aggressively tackling attackers and shielding their VIP with their own body are ubiquitous in news media and popular culture. According to recent media analysis, it took about nine seconds for the alleged perpetrator, Tetsuya Yamagami, to walk up to Abe and make the first shot, then another three seconds for the second fatal shot. In a comparable situation in the United States, Secret Service agents would have been looking for any suspicious movements and taken action as soon as anyone showed any sign of approaching Abe. It is more than likely that they would have neutralized the shooter before they were able to take the shots.

Comments critical of the lax security are all over the internet, and the chief of the National Police Agency acknowledged that issues in security protocol need to be addressed. These are important matters to confront if we are to prevent incidents like this in the future. In my own mind, however, another, more anthropological question lingers: Why is there such a stark contrast in security protocol in Japan and the United States, and what does this tell us about different attitudes and assumptions that are prevalent in the two societies? The U.S. Secret Service is always anticipating that the “unthinkable” may happen at any moment. The delayed response for Abe seems to suggest that, perhaps, their Japanese counterparts had a different mindset. A phrase in an online post caught my attention: heiwaboke (literally, “complacency about peace”). Are peace and safety so taken for granted in Japan that even the best trained security officers are not ready to respond when seconds divide life and death? If so, will this incident have a significant enough impact to change that?

Another question on my mind centers on the interpretation of the alleged motive. Available information on Yamagami’s personal background and his own statement portray a smart but introverted boy growing up in a single-parent household following his father’s suicide, and a young adult burdened by the emotional turmoil and economic hardship caused by his mother’s involvement in a religious organization. In the last several years he relied on temporary employment and lived an isolated life. Based on these facts, media reports point toward his motive being a personal grudge, directed toward a highly visible target.

Just a few weeks before Abe was gunned down, I wrote in this column about the necessity of considering social conditions in the analysis of mass shootings in the United States. I ask the same question here: What external socioeconomic forces were at work that contributed to such a violent outburst? Anthropologist Anne Allison has pointed out that a combination of economic insecurity and a breakdown of the family structure has resulted in an increased sense of ikizurasa, or “precarity of life,” in 21st century Japan.

I’m struck by the stark contrast between the suspect’s unstable and unrewarding life, marked by conspicuous signs of ikizurasa, and that of Abe, who hailed from a privileged and powerful family and became an influential political leader. These two lives, which came together in that fatal moment, seem to represent the social and economic divisions that have emerged in contemporary Japan. The shooter’s violent action is inexcusable and indefensible under any circumstances and no sociological insights will justify it. At the same time, I submit that to ignore the broader social context of this heinous act is to see the tree and miss the forest.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.