As Yamagami Case Heads to Court, Focus Turns to Motive, Defense

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Suspect Tetsuya Yamagami is transferred to the Nara Nishi Police Station in Nara on Jan. 10 following the end of his psychiatric evaluation.

The case involving suspect Tetsuya Yamagami, charged with murder and related charges in the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now heads to court in the search for the truth.

The timing of the first hearing in the trial and the length of the hearing period have yet to be set.

After Yamagami, 42, was indicted Friday, the deputy prosecutor of the Nara District Public Prosecutors Office talked to reporters for 30 minutes, but refrained from answering questions on Yamagami’s motive and other inquiries into the shooting.

“I will refrain from answering that,” he repeatedly said, citing the impact on the trial and the ongoing investigation.

He briefly answered questions about the suspect’s criminal liability and competence to stand trial after prosecutors had detained Yamagami for psychiatric evaluation for nearly six months.

“We have determined that the suspect is” mentally competent to be held responsible for the criminal acts charged, he said.

During detention, only defense attorneys and Yamagami’s younger sister were allowed to have access to him, according to the suspect’s relatives.

His sister visited him twice. When Yamagami learned that she had taken time off work to visit him, he reportedly told her: “You don’t need to visit. It’s just too much of a burden for you.”

They have been exchanging letters since last November. In the letters, he listed items that he wished to get delivered, such as clothes and books.

Yamagami had written on a social media account about the pain of his unfortunate life, expressing his growing resentment toward the Unification Church, to which his mother had made a number of large donations.

His mother has not been allowed access to him, though it is unclear if this was what Yamagami requested.

Motive of the shooting

The trial is expected to be heard under the lay judge system in which selected citizens participate in proceedings along with judges. The main focus of attention will be on what Yamagami will say about his motive.

When Yamagami was 4, his father committed suicide. His mother made a series of donations amounting to ¥100 million to the Unification Church, formally called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. The family became destitute and around 2015, his older brother, whom he looked up to, also committed suicide.

He told the Nara Prefectural Police that his family life had become a mess and that he resented the religious group, feeling he had to destroy it. Prior to the shooting, he had posted on Twitter a series of text messages expressing his grudge against the church.

Although Yamagami stated that he thought Abe had ties to the church, there was no indication that he had harbored a grudge against him personally to the extent of killing him. In a letter he sent to a journalist just before the incident, he wrote that Abe was “not my primary enemy.”

“Through killing Abe,” former prosecutor Masaki Kamei said, “the suspect’s intention was probably to foment criticism in society of the Unification Church and thus deal a blow to the group.”

Extenuating circumstances

Yamagami’s defense team currently consists of three lawyers from the Nara Bar Association.

The defense team released a written comment Friday that did not reveal their strategy for defending Yamagami, stating only, “Sufficient preparation and time are needed to reveal the truth in the trial and to receive a proper judgment.”

According to sources, Yamagami has told those around him to the effect that he committed the shooting based on sound judgement. At the trial, therefore, the defense team is expected to focus on extenuating circumstances, not on whether the suspect is competent to be held responsible for the criminal acts.

“The facts of the case are generally considered uncontested, and the point of contention will be the amount of punishment,” said Osamu Watanabe, a special visiting professor of criminal procedure law at Konan University. “The circumstances of the suspect will be a major factor in the decision.

“In a murder case in which there is only one victim, generally the death penalty is unlikely,” he added. “However, given the seriousness of this case in which a former prime minister was murdered during a stump speech for an election, the foundation of democracy, prosecutors may consider the possibility of seeking capital punishment.”