Shinzo Abe shooting: how common is gun crime in Japan?

Longest-serving PM dies from injuries after being shot while on campaign trail

Shinzo Abe making a speech
Shinzo Abe is seen making a speech before being fatally shot in Nara, Japan
(Image credit: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe has died after being shot while campaigning in the southern city of Nara. He was airlifted to hospital in a critical condition but died soon afterwards from his injuries.

Prime minister Fumio Kishida described the attack on the 67-year-old Abe – who was Japan’s longest-serving PM – as “barbaric and malicious”, a sentiment that has been echoed by world leaders who have expressed their shock at the incident. Abe’s brother, the current defence minister Nobuo Kishi, described the shooting as a sacrilege against democracy.

A 41-year-old male suspect was arrested at the scene and is now in police custody. He is thought to be Tetsuya Yamagami and a resident of the city, with no known occupation. Images from the scene suggest that the assailant used an improvised or homemade weapon.

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Extremely low gun crime rate

The murder of “one of Japan’s most influential modern leaders” – as the Financial Times described Abe – has sent shockwaves across the country, which has one of the lowest rates of gun crime in the world.

Last year, there were just ten instances of shooting in the island nation of more than 125.5 million people, according to the National Police Agency.

A major factor behind this is the country’s extremely strict gun control laws. Handguns are outlawed and the only guns permitted for sale are shotguns and air rifles that require “strenuous effort – and lots of patience” to get hold of, said CNN.

To buy a gun in Japan, “potential buyers must attend an all-day class, pass a written test and a shooting-range test with an accuracy of at least 95%”, added the US news site. On top of this, they must undergo extensive mental health, drug and background checks, the latter “including a review of their criminal record, personal debt, involvement in organised crime and relationships with family and friends”.

Few gun-owning civilians

The result is that the level of gun ownership among Japanese civilians is one of the world’s lowest. According to Bloomberg and GunPolicy.org, the estimated total number of guns held by civilians in Japan was 310,400 in 2019, or 0.25 per 100 people – “the lowest level among the G-7 countries”.

By way of comparison, the number of guns held by civilians in the US that same year was 393 million, or 120 per 100 people; in the UK it was 3.2 million, or 5 per 100 people.

Japan was “ the first nation to impose gun laws in the whole world”, said Iain Overton, executive director of Action on Armed Violence and the author of Gun Baby Gun, in an interview with the BBC. “I think it laid down a bedrock saying that guns really don’t play a part in civilian society.”

Political violence is very rare

Political violence does happen in Japan. However, it is also extremely rare. Inejirō Asanuma, the then head of the Japan Socialist Party, was murdered in 1960; there was an assassination attempt against former PM Morihiro Hosokawa in 1994; and the mayor of Nagasaki was shot by an alleged gangster in 2007.

And nearly a century ago, in 1932, prime minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated, marking the last time a current or former Japanese PM was killed.

The infrequency of these incidents is “a measure of just how rare and shocking gun violence is in the country, where gun ownership is strictly controlled”, said Bloomberg.

Although Abe “did have a team of security police with him”, it appears that the shooter was able to get within a few metres of him “without any sort of check”, reported Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, the BBC’s Japan correspondent.

“The shooting of such a prominent figure is profoundly shocking in a country that prides itself on being so safe.”

Shooting could ‘change Japan forever’

Speaking to CNN, Nancy Snow, Japan director of the International Security Industry Council, said she thought the shooting would “change Japan, unfortunately, forever”.

Gun violence in Japan is “not only rare, but it’s really culturally unfathomable”, she added. “The Japanese people can’t imagine having a gun culture like we have in the United States.

“What this will do to the national psyche of a people who move about freely and have a social contract with each other, that they will not resort to this type of violence… I am devastated thinking about that.”

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