Japan reacts with surprise and fear to the challenge of political violence

A woman cries in the Japanese town of Nara for the death of Shinzo Abe. / AFP

The assassination of the former prime minister represents a “challenge to parliamentary democracy” and to a society with severe weapons legislation

Almost 62 years ago, Japan witnessed the assassination of Inejirō Asanuma, the leader of the Socialist Party, in what is considered the first deadly political attack in the country’s contemporary history. The killer’s name was Otoya Yamaguchi. He was no more than 17 years old, but he was already a young ultra-rightist so convinced of his ideas that he had no qualms about going up on stage where Asanuma was participating in a debate and repeatedly stabbing him with a wakizaki, a kind of Japanese short saber.

During the six decades since, political violence has been counted almost on the fingers of both hands. At least the high voltage. There are eight registered attacks in which the victims died or were seriously injured. Almost all of them were attacked with knives. Cases like this Friday, which ended with the two-shot murder of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are very rare. For one fundamental reason: the extraordinary complexity of getting hold of a gun in Japan, where there are hardly any shootings. Last year, for example, ten were counted and eight of them were related to the yakuza. There was one dead. The contrast is very intense with respect to societies such as the United States.

The legislation is extremely strict and prohibits their possession except in the case of compressed air guns. The number of armories to obtain them is restricted to three in each of the forty prefectures of the country and all their material is subject to the control of the authorities. Vendors cannot sell handguns, and customers must return used or expired cartridges to them before buying new ones. The process to obtain the permit is long. You have to pass a training course, shooting tests, mental health tests and an investigation where family members and co-workers are even questioned. If the applicant has a crime on his record, he can forget about it. The same happens if contacts with ideological and radical groups are discovered. Every three years the license expires and this whole process starts all over again.

Abe’s death has been a particular shock to a peaceful society, where crime rates are very low. And it has immediately opened the debate on the threats to crime and the latent risk of political violence, even without knowing if the author of the death of the former prime minister acted under some kind of paranoia.

The ‘Washington Post’ reports from Tokyo how gun violence is an “extremely rare incident” in Japan. The head of government himself, Fumio Kishida, has warned that measures will be necessary to combat the phenomenon. Tomoko Yoshino, president of the Japan Trade Union Confederation, yesterday expressed her concern that “violence during the election period is a serious challenge to parliamentary democracy. There are many policy problems, but the solution must be based on sincere political debate at all levels of society.”

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