OPINION - How the shocking assassination of Shinzo Abe could change Japan’s constitution

·2-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

News of former Prime Minister Shinzō Abe assassination will have a lasting effect on Japan. As a backbench MP, Abe was giving an election speech in the ancient capital of Nara when a lone gunman shot the former leader in the neck, leading to his death within a few hours.

It remains unclear why the suspected assassin, Tetsuya Yamagami, carried out the attack. The 41-year-old told investigators that he intended to kill Abe, with whom he “had grievances,” and appears to have cobbled together a makeshift firearm to carry out the murder. He had served in Japan’s Maritime Defence Force for three years in his 20s and had quit his most recent job in manufacturing several weeks before.

Yet the shocking murder is unlikely to spark discussion about gun control and mass shootings. In a country with strict arms laws, the incident will instead extend long-standing debate about social deviance and societal breakdown. If Japan is not known for everyday murderous violence, it has been home to periodic one-off violent acts by disturbed individuals, such as the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway and the 2019 arson attack of an anime studio in Kyoto, leading to the deaths of dozens in each case. Abe’s own will be lined up beside them.

Yet the attack’s most lasting impact likely to go beyond this for it comes two days before Japan goes to the polls in an Upper House election seen by many as vote on one of Abe’s signature policies: revision of the constitution.

The former leader made his name – and secured his position as Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister – by rejigging the economy through his famous “Abenomics” program. However, his most “ardent desire,” as he declared while in office, was to open Japan’s Constitution for revision. The document has famously remained untouched since promulgated under US occupation in 1947 and is seen by many arch-conservatives as a foreign imposition. The biggest debates focus on Article 9 in which the country renounced war as a sovereign right. The “Peace Article” has been substantially reinterpreted since initially set forth, and Japan’s Self Defence Force ranks as the ninth strongest in the world by budgetary expenditure. Yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as recent sabre-rattling by China over Taiwan have raised concerns that Japan needs to have first-strike capacity. Abe was unable to push this through while in office, though he laid the critical groundwork for it. It may be that his sudden death gets it across the line.

Kristin Surak is an Associate Professor at the London School of Economics

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