Shinzo Abe’s assassination calls into question the safety of VIPs in Japan

The fatal close-range shooting of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a political rally on Friday raised questions about the protection of high-profile officials in a country where political violence and gun crime are extremely rare.

Dignitaries in Japan often travel with modest security measures focused primarily on direct physical threats rather than protecting well-armed personnel ready for firearms attacks seen in places like the United States.

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Abe, 67, was campaigning in the western city of Nara for Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidates ahead of Sunday’s election when he was shot dead. Nippon TV reported that the attacker was about 3 meters away from him.
A 41-year-old man was arrested at the scene and police said the suspect used a homemade handgun. Police said other weapons and explosives were found at the suspect’s home and that he confessed to the attack.
Officials from the Nara Prefectural Police Department told reporters that the request for security at the event was “sudden” and that the department would check if security was sufficient and take appropriate action.
Nippon Television, citing Nara police, reported that Abe was protected by one armed policeman and several other local officers at Friday’s rally. The Nara police declined to say how many police officers provided Abe’s security.

When he was shot, Abe was standing at a crossroads near the train station, talking to a crowd of hundreds as buses and vans passed behind him naked on the road where the assailant had appeared.

A cortege with the body of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived at his home in Tokyo.

A cortege with the body of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived at his home in Tokyo. Source: A MONKEY / AP

Several commentators said that security measures around the former prime minister should have been tightened.

“Anyone could hit him from that distance,” Masazumi Nakajima, a former Japanese police detective, told Japanese television TBS. “I think the security was too weak.”
“A person needs to be covered from all sides,” said Koichi Ito, security specialist for VIP, national broadcaster NHK.
“If this kind of thing isn’t done 100 percent, it’s no good.”

Japanese officials, including former prime ministers, are guarded by a special Tokyo police department. Armed plainclothes officers, known as the SP, or Security Police, are rigorously vetted, including experience in hand-to-hand combat.

Investigation into the deadly attack on Shinzo Abe in Japan image

They usually stay close to the politician they are protecting to protect themselves from direct physical threats.
According to the National Police Agency, there were only 10 incidents involving firearms in Japan last year, and only one of them ended in death.
Abe’s assassination was the first assassination of a sitting or former Japanese prime minister since the 1930s, during Japan’s pre-war militarism.

Former prime ministers Saito Makoto and Takahashi Korekiyo were assassinated on the same day in 1936, and then prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai was assassinated in 1932.

“Intimate Events”

Paul Nadeau, who has campaigned with Abe in the past, said dead-end speeches like Friday’s are “almost intimate events.”
“The public is around, they usually fill the town square in front of the train station,” said Nadeau, who previously worked for an LDP official and is now an adjunct professor at Japan’s Temple University in Tokyo.
“You never felt insecure or in danger or anything like that.”

Iwao Horii, an LDP member who stood next to Abe when he was shot, said the preparations for the event were not unusual, with about 15 party officials tasked with crowd control and security being under the control of local police.

All major parties announced a suspension of campaigning following the shooting.
Several recent campaign events attended by Mr. Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and one of the country’s most influential political figures, drew large crowds.
A ruling party source told Reuters on condition of anonymity that despite Abe’s high status, the level of security he has been afforded has likely declined since he left office in 2020.

The Nara police declined to comment on whether the former prime minister would be less protected than the current politician, citing security concerns.

Tight weapon control

Japan has very strict gun control laws.
The suspect fired at Abe with a pistol-grip device with two tubes wrapped in black duct tape, according to photographs and video footage of the incident.

A man in a black suit knocked the suspect to the ground after the shooting, while several others, one of whom was carrying a briefcase, rushed to help, as seen in the photographs.

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Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former Japan Strategic Studies Forum diplomat, said he expects more bail and somewhat tougher protection for senior politicians in Japan after the assassination.
“There will be questions about security. Clearly, security would be much tighter for, say,[Prime Minister Fumio]Kishida,” added Robert Ward, senior fellow at the London-based Japan Security Studies Unit at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“But proximity to voters is a feature of the Japanese campaign. I was at campaign rallies and the audience was there. Perhaps this will change. If so, it would be a disgrace.”