The shock waves from the assassination of Abe Shinzo are still resonating across the globe. Members of the political class, both from the most liberal to the most conservative, are singing eulogies to the career of the former Japanese Prime minister.
India’s prime minister and Hindu bigot, Narendra Modi, declared a day of national mourning on July 9th. Former US President Donald Trump announced that he would like to attend the funeral. Boris Johnson was “utterly appalled” and “Joe Biden was “stunned outraged and deeply saddened.” The Asahi Shinbun, the main Japanese liberal newspaper, claimed that a “bullet pierced the foundation of democracy.” Japanese premier Kishida also echoed the rhetoric of the threat to democracy. Aside from the standard platitudes uttered on the death of a foreign dignitary, these are largely nonsense.
The other theme that is echoed by even some of the quality press was that this was a completely unexpected event in a peaceful Japanese society. The ‘pax Japonica’ as an article in the British Financial Times called it. This too is largely false. While there has been a reduction in political violence since the end of the Cold War, Japan has been a country known for the remarkable number of political assassinations, not their absence. There was an attempt on the life of the mayor of Nagasaki in 1990, and an attempted assassination of former deputy Prime Minister, Shin Kanemaru in 1992. The former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa was shot in 1994, and Koki Ishi, an opposition backbencher, was stabbed to death in front of his home in 2002. In 2007, the Nagasaki City mayor was shot to death. These were political assassinations carried out mainly by right-wing extremists, the most famous being the assassination of the leader of the Japan Socialist Party, Asanuma Inejiro, in 1960, by a right-wing youth. These attacks really could be described as a “bullet piercing the foundation of democracy.” The murder of Abe, however, bears little resemblance to these events.
At the time of writing, the picture that has emerged of the main suspect is very different from the perpetrators of these previous attacks. Forty-one-year-old Yamagami Tetsuya, a former Naval Self-Defence force recruit, claimed to have no political differences with Abe. He had no record of political activity and sought revenge in a purely personal grudge against Abe for his support for the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, colloquially called the Moonies. He produced a homemade gun based on instructions he found on YouTube.
The suspect felt that his life had been ruined when his mother was bankrupted after making substantial donations to the organisation. It has been confirmed that she was a member and that she had been declared bankrupt in 2002. The cult is known for selling “spiritual goods”, mainly vases, for extortionate prices, on the grounds that the cult’s victims’ ancestors were experiencing pain in the afterlife and that buying an expensive vase was the only way to stop this. There have been numerous cases brought against the Moonies, including those taken to the Japanese Supreme Court for extorting money out of members and potential members
At first, the police would not name the religious group concerned. However, only after the House of Councillors election was held on Sunday when it had already become public knowledge via social media, did the press finally name the group. Since then, the propaganda of the group and the conservative media was been to imply that the perpetrator had been wrong to identify Abe with the cult.
To anybody who knows anything about the cult, this propaganda is not credible. It originated in Korea as an extremely right-wing and anti-Communist religious organisation. It was heavily promoted by the Korean CIA. It spread to Japan in 1959 and figures on the right, such as Abe’s maternal grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, a former class ‘A’ war criminal and effective ruler of Manchuria during the Japanese attempt to colonize China, played a significant role in promoting the organization in Japan. The growth of the cult in Japan and, in particular, the finances raised from supporters here, allowed the group to spread internationally.
Today it has around 600,000 members in Japan and they play an active role in providing support for LDP candidates. Their youth movement is active in many universities and they make up a substantial part of what has become known as the internet right in Japan. They were heavily involved in “Stop the Steal” demonstrations in support of Trump. It is not surprising then that Abe had sought their support and that both he and Trump recorded video messages to a meeting of the organisation last year. The support from such an organisation would have been too much for a politician like Abe to resist. The organisation, Lawyers against the Sale of Spiritual Goods, representing people filing court action against the Moonies, had specifically requested that Abe and other politicians have nothing to do with the cult.
The murder is best seen as blowback from a politics that opportunistically used the support of a religious cult that used unethical methods to raise money from its supporters. In particular, Yamagami was said to believe that Abe had protected the cult from legal action. That is not an unreasonable belief given that LDP rightists had used political influence to enable the cult’s founder, Moon, who had been convicted of tax evasion in the US, to enter the country, despite the fact that it was against Japanese law at the time. Abe had faced many other accusations of using his political influence to protect friends and associates from legal action. Yamaguchi Noriyuki, an associate of Abe, accused of raping journalist Ito Shiori, is one example. Civil courts have ruled that she was raped by him. Though significantly there was no criminal prosecution.
What political effects will the murder have? The Kishida government was returned with an increased majority in Sunday’s House of Councillors election. However, even before the election, the opposition was expecting to do badly. This was mainly because of the role that the big conservative private sector unions had played in breaking up an agreement for the opposition parties to agree on joint candidates. An opinion poll in Tokyo showed that 13% of people had changed their vote as a result of the murder. However, looking at the vote in Tokyo, it must have been largely a swing of right-wing voters from other parties to the LDP. The overall turnout was only 52%, slightly higher than the record low of 49%, so any outpouring of sympathy for Abe was quite limited.
However, the LDP right will attempt to turn Abe into a martyr for their cause. While his death removes prime minister Kishida’s main opponent within the Liberal Democratic Party. Kishida will come under more pressure to revise the constitution to complete Abe’s political dream. Since there is a 2/3 majority for constitutional revision in both houses, and with increased fears of China, a battle over the constitution is looking increasingly likely. Despite his majority, there is no guarantee that Kishida will be able to carry it through.
If a bullet has pierced the foundations of Japanese democracy, it was not one of those fired by the aggrieved but misguided individual who shot Abe. The attempts of the LDP right to suggest that all criticism of politicians is dangerous because people who might kill them are a much bigger threat. As is the host of repressive legislation they have already passed and their plans to weaken human rights provisions in their proposals for constitutional revision. The danger to democracy comes largely from the backers of former Prime Minister Abe.
A powerful socialist alternative is needed in Japan to fight for democratic rights and for the interests of working-class people.