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Shinzo Abe, an ex-Japanese Prime Minister, is fatally shot while making a speech

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Japan is in shock following the assassination of one of the country's most powerful politicians, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. As Japan's longest serving prime minister, Abe has had a lasting impact on Japanese politics, including since he stepped down in 2020. And the attack is especially shocking in a place with such little gun violence. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul to update us on what's going on.

Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So describe first exactly what happened.

KUHN: Well, Abe was giving a campaign speech ahead of parliamentary upper house elections on Sunday. And at about 11:30 local time, he was shot in the back. He was rushed to a hospital. Doctors tried to save him, but they were unable to stop the bleeding. And they declared his death just after about 5 p.m. local time. At the scene, security agents tackled a suspect. Police arrested him. Police have identified him as 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, a resident of the city of Nara, where Abe was speaking. And Yamagami formerly served in Japan's military. Media pictures show that he appeared to be carrying some sort of improvised firearm, which looks a bit like a two-barrelled shotgun. The man's motive is at the moment still unclear.

FADEL: Now, this is a place where gun violence is so rare, right?

KUHN: Yes. It feels very safe to most people. The country has very strict gun laws. There are very few gun deaths every year. Handguns are banned outright in this country. And political violence of this sort has not been seen since the 1960s, at which time there were street clashes between the political left and the right. And the head of a Japanese socialist party was assassinated in 1960 with a sword. Now, in Japanese politics, you can be sure there's always a lot of sparring, both among and within the political parties. But there's also a consensus to keep that sparring civil, keep it behind closed doors and keep up a sort of harmonious facade.

FADEL: So quite a shock in Japan - how is Japan and the world reacting?

KUHN: With real horror to this. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida flew back from the campaign trail. He said Sunday's election is going to go ahead, be free and fair - and looking very distraught. This is part of what he had to say to reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER FUMIO KISHIDA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "I'm not aware of the background of this act. But it took place during an election," he said, "which makes it an attack on the core of democracy. It is a contemptible act of barbarism and cannot be tolerated. I condemn it in the strongest words." U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel called Abe an outstanding leader of Japan and an unwavering ally of the U.S. The White House said it was shocked and saddened; and their thoughts are with his family and Japan's people.

FADEL: And Abe remains a really important figure in the Japanese political scene. Can you tell us about that?

KUHN: Yeah. Well, even after he stepped down as after two terms as prime minister, eight years in total, he remained the head of the largest faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for most of the past seven decades. And his successors, including the current Prime Minister Kishida, have largely stuck to his conservative policies - strengthening the military, tightening the alliance with the U.S. and trying to keep the economy growing despite its aging, shrinking population. Abe's message was that Japan is back, both from two decades of economic stagnation and the earlier stigma of its defeat in World War II. Abe had many critics, but I think many would admit that he articulated his own vision for the nation's future and engineered a real shift in Japan's security and foreign policies.

FADEL: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul. Thank you.

KUHN: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.