Even senseless assassins can get lucky once in a while
However, understanding this background can prove just as useful as knowing about actress Jodie Foster in understanding the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. famously attempted to assassinate the President to impress Foster, with whom he was obsessed. A few months earlier, John Lennon had been gunned down in an equally senseless attack by Mark David Chapman, who is said to have been inspired by JD Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye.
Abe’s murder seems closer to these episodes than initial suspicions that it might be politically motivated. That might prove to be some kind of relief, if that’s possible; Japan does not need the ingrained bitter partisan divisions that increasingly characterize other democracies that sharp political assassination might incite.
This is not to say that we should ignore the Unification Church. One thing that is long overdue to emerge from this sordid affair may be a spotlight on the moonies and other religious fringe groups, an area of Japanese society that often flies under the radar.
Religion in Japan is not the ideological battlefield it can be in other countries, leading many to view the country as non-religious. Religion often has a more ornamental place in society, most prominently in ceremonies through the different stages of life – a country where people are often said to have been born Shinto, married Christians and died Buddhists. But it’s there nonetheless, and not just in quasi-Christian groups like the Moonies. Many will know of an elderly relative who was fleeced by one Buddhist sect or another for items said to have healing powers. The Happy Science group made international headlines in 2020 with their claim that they could cure Covid-19, but are hardly discussed even in Japan, despite extravagant facilities in many inner cities.
Since Abe’s assassination, some media outlets (mainly tabloids) have declared the season open in an area of society that mainstream news organizations often seem reluctant to touch. However, other sources were reluctant to name the organization of which Yamagami’s mother was a part, even though the Unification Church held a press conference acknowledging the connection.
However, the Moonies’ connections to Abe are much less clear. The former prime minister was not a member of the church, although he has spoken at related online events alongside other prominent figures such as Donald Trump. Perhaps the connections were historic: Abe’s grandfather, post-war Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, is said to have helped the group and its Korean founder, Reverend Sun-Myung Moon, who is considered an ally in the fight against communism, to gain a foothold in Japan.
The killing has also thrown a spotlight on a fringe political group, the NHK party – so called because it opposes the national broadcaster. In a bizarre scene ahead of last Sunday’s House of Lords elections, the party’s general secretary, Akihiko Kurokawa, said that Abe was responsible for funding religious groups, and burst – live on NHK no less – into a chant of a refrain: “It’s everything Abe’s fault.” Kurokawa has also pointed to Soka Gakkai, the Buddhist organization that supports Komeito, the junior coalition partner of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.
All of this makes for compelling viewing. But what it tells us about Abe’s death — or the potential to stop such attacks in the future — seems limited. We don’t know if Yamagami believes what he’s telling the police or if he’s in his right mind.
To prevent a future attack, perhaps the focus should also be on the socio-economic conditions that contributed to Yamagami’s emergence. His profile corresponds to a pattern. Contrary to the typical image that such crimes are the work of angry young men, several shocking murders have been committed in Japan in recent years by elderly men with broken families, poor economic prospects and little livelihood.
The man suspected of killing 36 people in the 2019 arson attack on Kyoto Animation was 41 years old at the time, the same age as Yamagami is now; Like Yamagami, his father died at a relatively young age. The 61-year-old arsonist, who claimed 26 lives in an attack in Osaka last December, was divorced and estranged from his family and had no account in his bank account at the time.
In each of these cases, the target seems almost arbitrary – whether it’s the Osaka psychiatric hospital where a murderer was treated, the animation studio another thought stole their ideas, or the longest-serving prime minister of the world country. What the alleged perpetrators have in common is a history of mental health problems, unstable employment, and a disconnect from society. How the Moonies might be involved in Yamagami’s particular economic situation certainly deserves close scrutiny. Tomihiro Tanaka, the head of the church in Japan, acknowledged that it receives donations from members but declined to discuss details about Yamagami’s mother, citing the ongoing investigation.
There is a natural urge to want to make sense of these events – to explain the “why”. The unforgivable lapses in security around Abe’s guard, which Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called “problematic” on Thursday, is certainly another point to look into as police responsible for the scene are reportedly distracted by bicycles and missing the suspect . What seemed like an eternity between Yamagami’s first and second shots, a moment when Abe could have been protected. The soul-searching surrounding the safety precautions will certainly continue.
But sometimes there’s just no why. The most chilling conclusion to be drawn from his murder might be this: in a free society, even one with as few guns as Japan, a determined and mad attacker with luck on his side cannot always be stopped.
More from the Bloomberg Opinion:
• What the world went wrong with Shinzo Abe: Gearoid Reidy
• After killing, Japan’s Kishida must go his own way: editorial
• Abe’s great political legacy is beginning to look neglected: Daniel Moss
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Gearoid Reidy is a senior editor at Bloomberg News for Japan. Previously, he led the breaking news team in North Asia and was deputy bureau chief in Tokyo.
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