As Japan’s authorities scramble to find out everything they could about the assassination of the country’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, one simple but critical question looms: How could someone just walk up to the influential ex-leader and shoot him from behind at close range?
Video and photos taken just before the attack last week show how the suspected assassin, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, evaded Abe’s security agents with seeming ease, drawing attention to the security of Japan’s political elite, or the lack thereof.
As Abe gave his campaign speech in the city of Nara on Friday afternoon, Yamagami took aim and fired twice standing just seven meters (23 feet) behind the politician. The first shot missed, but the second one fatally wounded Abe, who was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and who remained a key powerbroker in Japanese politics.
The answer to the question lies in part in the relatively modest security presence around senior Japanese officials at public events, especially when compared with their U.S. counterparts.
In Japan, where gun violence is exceedingly rare and almost no one owns a gun, it’s common for high-level officials to take selfies or fist bump their supporters in public events, with only a handful of officers close by. Members of the public regularly interact with leaders, including past and sitting prime ministers, without undergoing extensive vetting. An editor at the UK newspaper The Times lived next door to Abe, who lived in a flat owned by his mother in an ordinary neighborhood where the security was, in the journalist’s words, “startlingly, almost laughably, relaxed.”
When Abe gave a speech endorsing his party colleagues in Nara last week, he was loosely surrounded by about 10 security personnel, as was often the case for the former prime minister in previous public events. At least one member of Japan’s equivalent to the U.S.’ secret service was also present.
But regardless of the relatively lacking protection around Abe, what happened in the lead-up to Abe’s assassination was a security failure, experts said.
Koichi Ito, a former officer of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police’s Special Assault Team that’s responsible for protecting notable state guests, said Abe’s security personnel should have blocked off the road behind where Abe was standing during the campaign event.
The 67-year-old politician was speaking to a crowd at an intersection outside a train station in Nara. Buses and cars freely passed behind his exposed back, leaving a gaping spot where the suspect took aim. “But if you closed off at least one lane and just parked the campaign truck behind him, then that’s already some protection to cover at least part of the blind spot,” Ito, who visited the intersection after the shooting, told VICE World News.
Those who defended Japanese police’s response to the shooting on Friday said officers failed to protect Abe in part because they were shocked by the unfamiliar sound of gunshots.
But Ito, who’s been involved in protecting the former U.S. President Ronald Reagan when he visited Japan in 1983 and 1986, said officers should be trained to anticipate even unusual threats. “If there are any unusual loud noises, such as the sound of fireworks or cars, officers are trained to get the person down and protect them,” he said.
Further confirming that Japanese security officers were ill-prepared for threats, the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun has reported that an officer dispatched to guard the area behind Abe failed to notice the attacker because he was “distracted” by passing bicycles.
And few would dispute that the officers were too slow to respond. Crucially, there was a precious window of three seconds before the attacker fired the fatal second shot. It was more than enough time for Abe’s security officers to pull him to the ground or jump in front of him to protect the former leader, Ito said.
The attack was particularly consequential given Abe’s significant political influence both domestically and overseas even after he stepped down as prime minister in 2020. Some Japanese security experts have lamented that many more officers should’ve been dispatched to protect him.
“If you have officers in uniform, that discourages some from acting violently because they know the politician is well protected,” Takanori Kato, who has over 25 years experience working as a bodyguard for a private security company, told VICE World News.
Kato pointed out that it wasn’t uncommon for people to target politicians. But most attacks fail because police officers or security guards are able to collect information on suspicious activity or people before the crime is committed. In this case, the absence of warning signs could explain why the security team appeared to have been caught off guard completely, he said.
Yamagami, the suspect, has confessed to trying to kill Abe because of his alleged connection to the Unification Church, which he has blamed for causing strife in his family.
Yamagami reportedly had planned to kill the church’s leader, Hak Ja Han, but he targeted Abe instead because he believed the politician’s grandfather was responsible for bringing the church to Japan and he couldn’t travel to South Korea to kill Hak Ja Han during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tomoaki Onizuka, the head of the Nara prefectural police, said it was “undeniable” that there were problems with guarding measures.
“In all the years since I became a police officer in 1995, in my career that stretches more than 27 years, there is no greater remorse, no bigger regret than this,” he said to reporters in a trembling voice a day after the killing.
That same day, the National Police Agency said it had dispatched a team to the Nara Prefectural Police to examine problems with the agency’s protection and security measures.
On Saturday, a day after Abe’s assassination, security around the current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, was evidently beefed up when he returned to his campaign trail for parliamentary elections on Sunday. Attendees’ bags were checked and officers hovered over Kishida, with one official standing directly behind the politician.
That could be what future interactions between Japanese citizens and senior leaders look like, but Kishida vowed to continue Japan’s long-standing campaigning traditions, saying that stopping them would be to surrender to violence.