NARA, Japan- Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, was shot on Friday while campaigning for a parliamentary election, with public broadcaster NHK saying a man armed with an apparently homemade gun opened fired at him from behind.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Abe, 67, was in grave condition. He condemned the shooting in the western city of Nara during the campaign for Sunday’s upper house election as an unacceptable attack on the foundation of Japan’s democracy.
Earlier, a hospital official said Abe appeared to be in a state of cardiac arrest when airlifted to hospital, after having initially been conscious and responsive.
Police said a 41-year-old man suspected of carrying out the shooting had been arrested. NHK quoted the suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, as telling police he was dissatisfied with Abe and wanted to kill him.
“Such an act of barbarity cannot be tolerated,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters, adding that Abe had been shot at about 11:30 a.m. (0230 GMT).
NHK showed video of Abe making a campaign speech outside a train station when two shots rang out, after which the view was briefly obscured and then security officials were seen tackling a man in a grey T-shirt and beige trousers. A puff of smoke behind Abe could be seen in another video shown in NHK.
Kyodo published a photograph showing Abe lying face-up on the street by a guardrail, blood on his white shirt. People were crowded around him, one administering heart massage.
TBS Television reported that Abe had been shot on the left side of his chest and apparently also in the neck.
Political violence is rare in Japan, a country with strict gun regulations.
In 2007 the major of Nagasaki was shot and killed by a yakuza gangster. The head of the Japan Socialist Party was assassinated during a speech in 1960 by a right-wing youth with a samurai short sword.
“I thought it was firecrackers at first,” one bystander told NHK.
Airo Hino, political science professor at Waseda University, said such a shooting was unprecedented in Japan.
“There has never been anything like this,” he said.
Police said the suspected shooter was a resident of Nara. Media said he had served in Japan’s military.
Abe served two terms as prime minister, stepping down in 2020 citing ill health. But he has remained a dominant presence over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), controlling one of its major factions.
Kishida, Abe’s protege, had been hoping to use the election to emerge from Abe’s shadow and define his premiership, analysts have said. Kishida suspended his election campaign after Abe’s shooting.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed deep concern over Abe’s condition.
“Our thoughts, our prayers are with him, with his family, with the people of Japan,” Blinken said on the sidelines of a G20 meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali. “This is a very, very sad moment. And we’re awaiting news from Japan.”
The United States is Japan’s most important ally.
The yen rose and Japan’s Nikkei index fell on news of the shooting, partially driven by a knee-jerk flight to safety.
Abe is best known for his “Abenomics” policy of aggressive monetary easing and fiscal spending.
He also bolstered defence spending after years of declines and expanded the military’s ability to project power abroad.
In a historic shift in 2014, his government reinterpreted the postwar, pacifist constitution to allow troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two.
The following year, legislation ended a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence, or defending a friendly country under attack.
Abe, however, did not achieve his long-held goal of revising the U.S.-drafted constitution by writing the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan’s military in known, into the pacifist Article 9.
He was instrumental in winning the 2020 Olympics for Tokyo, cherishing a wish to preside over the Games, which were postponed by a year to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abe first took office in 2006 as Japan’s youngest prime minister since World War Two. After a year plagued by political scandals, voter outrage at lost pension records, and an election drubbing for his ruling party, Abe quit citing ill health.
He became prime minister again in 2012.
Abe hails from a wealthy political family that included a foreign minister father and a grandfather who served as premier.
First elected to parliament in 1993 after his father’s death, Abe rose to national fame by adopting a tough stance toward unpredictable neighbour North Korea in a feud over Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang decades ago. REUTERS