For a country that prides itself on its low gun crime, the shooting death of former leader Shinzo Abe has come as a great shock
News that former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had been shot in broad daylight has shocked not only Japan but the entire world, which has come to associate the relatively low-crime nation with strict gun control.
Japan, with a population of 125 million, had just 10 firearm-related criminal cases last year, resulting in one death and four people wounded, according to police.
Eight of those cases were linked to organised crime syndicates known as yakuza.
Tokyo had zero gun incidents, injuries or deaths during that same year, although 61 guns were seized there.
Much remains unclear about the motive behind the suspected gunman, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, who was taken into custody at the scene of Friday’s attack.
Guns a rare sight in everyday Japan
Mr Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, was shot while campaigning in Nara in western Japan for candidates for his ruling party and died later in hospital. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Sunday.
Although major universities in Japan have rifle clubs and Japanese police are armed, most Japanese people go through life without ever handling, or even seeing, a real gun.
Stabbings are more common as a fatal crime. And so the debate over the right to bear arms is a distant issue in Japan and has been for decades.
“Japanese people are in a state of shock,” said Shiro Kawamoto, professor at the College of Risk Management at Nihon University in Tokyo.
The campaign event where the attack occurred drew a huge crowd of people, making security a challenge, Mr Kawamoto said.
“To assume this kind of attack will never happen would be a big mistake.”
Police confirm suspect used homemade gun
Adding to the complexity were reports that the weapon used in the shooting may have been homemade, meaning that existing gun controls could be ineffectual.
Police later confirmed the firearm used was a homemade weapon and had confiscated several similar weapons from the suspect’s home.
The head of Japan’s hunting association Yohei Sasaki told Japanese national broadcaster NHK that he suspects the firearm used in the attack was homemade.
“Also, a shotgun would never make a plume of smoke like footage of the incident shows.”
Mr Sasaki said he’s never seen a firearm like the one seen used in the attack and describe it as “crude” looking.
Director of Armament Research Services NR Jenzen-Jones agreed the weapon used in the attack on Mr Abe likely was likely a “craft-made” firearm.
The arms investigations specialist compared the likely weapon to a Civil War-era musket, in which the gunpowder or the propellant is loaded separately to the bullet projectile.
“Firearms legislation in Japan is very restrictive, so I think what we’re seeing here, with what’s probably a muzzle-loading weapon, is not just an attempt to circumvent the control of firearms, but also the strict control of ammunition in Japan,” he said.
Firearm owners face strict checks
Under Japanese law, possession of firearms, as well as certain kinds of knives and other weapons, like bowguns, is illegal without a special license. Importing them is also illegal.
The ownership of firearms is usually associated with hunters and farmers, who must be licensed.
Those who wish to own firearms must go through a stringent background check, including clearance by a medical doctor, and declare information about family members.
They must also pass tests to show they know how to use firearms correctly. Those who pass and purchase a gun must also buy a special locking system for the weapon at the same time.
Passing all those hurdles will allow that person to shoot at clay targets. Hunting requires an additional special license. Even police officers rarely resort to firing their pistols.
Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s brother, declined to comment on those reports.
The last time a high-profile shooting occurred was in 2019, when a former gang member was shot at a karaoke venue in Tokyo.
Attacks on politicians are even more unusual.
There have been only a handful in the last half century, most notably in 2007 when the mayor of Nagasaki was shot and killed by a gangster — an incident that resulted in still further tightening of gun regulations.
The last time a former prime minister was killed was in 1936 during Japan’s pre-war militaristic build-up, one of a series of similar assassinations.