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What killed Shinzo Abe?

2022-07-12 | Japan
What killed Shinzo Abe?

Coinciding with Shinzo Abe's funeral the police and the Japanese Ministry of Interior have begun to release information about the killer, Tetsuya Yamagami. According to official sources, this would be a deranged ex-soldier carrying out what in his mind, disturbed by fake news and social media, would have seemed like righteous revenge. Yamagami blamed Abe for his family's bankruptcy following his grandmother's donation of a hefty sum to the Unification Church, also known as the Moon cult.

But things are actually more complicated and as soon as we dig deeper, the elements of a denser, darker and deeper game appear: an assassination shifting the correlation of forces in power at a historical political moment, a Cold War Church linked to the CIA, a security breach and an implausible assassin.

An unlikely succession of unfortunate events

Tetsuya Yamagami at the moment of being arrested, as his weapon falls to the ground

Tetsuya Yamagami at the moment of being arrested, when his gun falls to the ground

What was to become Abe's last speech was not on his official schedule. It was a last-minute decision. It was not slated until the day before. Yamagami did not know of the announcement until he read it on the LDP candidate's website for Nara that same morning. It is unclear why Yamagami would have followed the website of a minor candidate 200km away from his home, but as he told the police himself, the information made up his mind and he immediately boarded the train.

He carried with him a homemade weapon that he claimed to have previously tested, although police doubt it, at a Moon sect facility. The weapon in question, he would have made it by following YouTube videos. It is a 40x20 cm monster, capable of firing six shots with small pellet cartridges.

For an hour and a half he "wandered", according to his own words, in the vicinity, but was not detected by bodyguards and police because of "problems with security coordination", which, according to the chief secretary of the government, prevented the forces of law and order from acting before the first shot despite the fact that the police "detected suspicious movements".

Some people' mistake and others' luck ended up in the images of the assassination that spread around the world. As if triggered by a spring, waves of online rumors blaming "the South Koreans" immediately erupted.

A weak motive

The press's insistence on Yamagami's brief stint, over a decade ago, in the Japanese navy is to explain how he could have manufactured such a sophisticated homemade weapon and circumvented the security of a former prime minister like Abe.

In reality, Yamagami, 41, worked in a factory operating a bull in the warehouse. He is "a serious guy" and "perfectly normal" according to his co-workers. Until the day of the attack, an ordinary worker with a modest and routine life only altered in recent months, when he had begun to complain of health problems and to miss work unduly. By all accounts, the most unlikely candidate for assassination.

And in fact, he himself insisted from the very beginning to the investigators that his crime was not politically motivated. His motive would have been family revenge. Affected by stories read on social networks, he would have blamed Abe's grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, for having invited the Unification Church, the moonies, to settle in Japan during the 1980s.

Tomihiro Tanaka, president of the Japanese branch of the religious organization, told a news conference in Tokyo on Monday that Yamagami's mother became a follower of his group around 1998 and that the family suffered financial problems, going bankrupt sometime around 2002. Yamagami blames this ruin on a donation his grandmother reportedly made to the cult.

But the relationship between Abe and this was non-existent. Nor did he develop further ties with the cult. In a separate interview with the Mainichi Shimbun on July 10, a leader of the religious group claimed that "although we did not have a close relationship [with Abe], he was a politician we liked." Twenty years after Yamagami's grandmother's bankruptcy, the connection between Abe and the moonies, seems too weak even for the crime of a deranged person.

Who was Abe?

Abe and his grandfather, Prime Minister Kishi

Abe and his grandfather when the latter was a prime minister

Abe did not only have ties to political power through Nobusuke Kishi. His great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, also served as head of government. And his father was none other than the famous former foreign minister Shintaro Abe.

In 2006, at the age of 52, he became the youngest prime minister of post-war Japan. At that time he held the post for only one year. But in 2012 he returned to the head of government after leading the LDP to a landslide victory. After nearly eight years, he resigned due to a bout of chronic bowel disease and was succeeded by his chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga. No one so far has held the post for so long.

Already in his second term in power, Abe stood out as the head of the LDP hawks. Not only did he stage successive snubs to Koreans by honoring WWII Japanese war criminals as heroes, but he also flagged constitutional reform.

His aim was to include in it the "Self-Defense Forces" and to establish the principle that such forces would be able to take action against third countries in the event of Japanese allies being attacked, and not only if Japanese soil was attacked. A necessary legal condition to be able to join or lead the QUAD in order to turn it into the "Asian NATO" for which both he himself and the successive US presidents he dealt with were betting on.

Abe, however, was not simply pro-American. Japan is not a semi-colonial country. His strategic vision was not only to contain China, but to separate it from Russia and to discipline and subdue Korean capital, which led to successive frictions with the US, aggravated by Trump's obsession with balancing the balance of trade and attempts at economic warfare and military tensions with South Korea.

Hawks, Kishida, Komeito and the political effects of Abe's assassination

Last week's election boosted turnout... but not dramatically either. It exceeded 52%, clearly up from 48.8% in the previous 2019 midterm but after all, it was the second lowest figure ever recorded.

All in all, the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, increased their majority, although Japanese analysts point rather than to sympathy caused by Abe's death, to unease caused by the Ukraine war and its immediate consequences for Japanese security after imposing sanctions on Russia.

But paradoxically, although the foreign press takes for granted that the new scenario after the assassination will result in an early constitutional change, Japanese analysts are of the opposite opinion.

What remains "lost in translation" for European journalists is that much of Japan's industrial power is much more active - and influential - than its German counterparts in avoiding an energy rift with Russia. And that, without Abe, the warmongering faction of the Japanese bourgeoisie is seriously weakened.

Everyone expects the Abe faction to now engage in an internecine struggle for leadership that will overshadow it politically. Kishida, leader of a rival faction, will be much less bound by the internal balances in his party... and although he may come to support reform more or less subtly, it does not appear that he will go beyond the declarative.

All signs point rather to his sacrificing the project of his long-dead rival in exchange for a stronger alliance with his government partner, Komeito, including a substantial increase in defense spending.

Komeito is the political arm of Soka Gakkai, the antithesis of the moonies, a Japanese Buddhist organization with global reach that uses pacifism as its main recruiting pitch and Article 9 of the Japanese constitution-which Abe wanted to reform-as its fetish for peace in Asia.

For Komeito's legislators accepting the reform of Article 9 would mean renouncing the raison d'être of their party and a historic defeat of Japanese pacifist Buddhism. That is why, until now, even at the height of militarist pressure following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, it had committed itself only to "carefully handling" the LDP's constitutional reform proposals.

Abe's death and the weakness of the more militaristic LDP faction are allowing them to regain positions. They are, in fact, its direct beneficiaries.

Echoes of another era

Tetsuya Yamagami

In Japan, the assassination and its context cannot help but raise specters of the past. The rise of the militarist faction of the 1930s, linked to the young sectors of the colonial land army and ideologically nourished by mystical Buddhism, was consolidated between 1931 and 1936 by terrorist attacks and the assassination of the leaders of other factions within the state and the armed forces.

Today the meaning of Abe's death is the opposite. Or so it seems. But the background, which can be guessed without much effort, is not very different: struggles within the state between factions of the ruling class, religious cults, and alliances with foreign imperialist powers. The Japanese bourgeoisie, pioneer of state capitalism, has never abandoned the division into those old circles of membership.

So the question is not who but what killed Shinzo Abe: the improbable good luck of a deranged man carrying out an implausible revenge, or the increasingly dramatic fractures of an increasingly divided ruling class at the prospect of war in the Pacific.