When the chickens came home to roost: Behind the assassination of Shinzo Abe

“The political meaning of Abe’s death, the consequences, I no longer have the luxury of thinking about” ― Final line in a letter the killer sent to a journalist the day before the incident.

At 11:30 am on July 8, two days before Japan’s House of Councillors election day, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was giving a speech at a roundabout in front of Saidaiji Station in Nara, Japan’s ancient capital, when someone shot him in the back. The attack put him into cardiopulmonary arrest (a medical euphemism for “death”). As soon as the news broke, the whole country was in an uproar. TV stations interrupted their regular programming to switch to live coverage of the crime scene, repeatedly showing what little information was available in fragments, as well as footage of the incident taken at the time. The perpetrator was apprehended on the spot. His name, photo, and personal information that he resided in Nara City and was a former member of the Maritime Self-Defence Force were immediately reported.

Doctors confirmed Abe died as they waited for Akie, Shinzo’s wife, to arrive at the hospital where he had been brought. In the meantime, a large amount of precious blood for transfusion was procured to forcefully keep him medically alive. It was a “life-extending” treatment that amounted to pouring water into a bucket with a big hole in it.

News of Abe’s death quickly travelled around the world, with messages and tweets from world leaders praising Abe’s years of political achievements and praying for his soul. These included messages from Russian President Vladimir Putin and United States President Joe Biden, who are in serious conflict over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is no surprise that politicians in mutual conflict were united in their condolences. It is acceptable for those in power to kill civilians, but it is absolutely unacceptable for civilians to kill those in power.

It is no wonder that news of Abe’s assassination shocked the world. The mere fact that a former prime minister of a developed country such as Japan was shot by someone is shocking enough, but Abe was not just a former prime minister: he was the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s postwar history, and, even after ceasing to be prime minister, remained the shadow ruler of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He was the best-known and most important of all Japanese politicians, and the one most enthusiastically worshipped by the right and most hated by the left. In terms of his political weight in Japan, he is comparable to the now deceased former prime minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher. Furthermore, Japan is not a gun society like the US, with only a few deaths per year due to gun crimes. In such a “peaceful” Japan, one of the country's most prominent politicians was, of all things, murdered by a shooter.

Immediately after the incident, Japan’s politicians, both ruling and opposition, mainstream media, pundits, and other prominent figures, all declared it an “unforgivable challenge to democracy” and a “crisis of democracy”. On the other hand, since Abe was the most hated politician by the opposition and the left, right-wing commentators and right-wing accounts on social networking sites were quick to blame the incident on the left’s attacks on Abe. However, as the background and political beliefs of the shooter, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, came to light, the picture changed dramatically. Yamagami was not a leftist anti-Abe activist, but had always been a supporter of the LDP and had right-wing leanings. However, it gradually became clear that he had serious problems with the Unification Church (now the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification), an anti-Communist religious cult to which his mother was devoted, and Abe had close ties to this religious cult. (The close relationship between Abe and the Church was well known in leftist circles, but was not publicly known.) Yamagami told investigators who questioned him about his troubles with this religious group that he was not acting out of opposition to Abe’s political beliefs. As the facts came to light, it was proven that his statements from the beginning were not mere exculpatory rhetoric.

Nearly 50 years ago, in 1963, Malcolm X, a leading member of the Nation of Islam, when asked by a reporter about the John F Kennedy assassination, said that it was a tragedy brought on by America’s own pervasive use of violence in every corner of the country and that the “chickens had come home to roost.” By saying this, he neither endorsed nor justified the assassin. This statement was an indictment of the violence that infested all of the United States, including the violence that killed Kennedy. Nevertheless, at the time, his comments drew loud condemnation from all over the US. The uproar led to his suspension by the Nation’s supreme leader, Ilijah Muhammad, and his subsequent political independence from the Nation.

Abe’s assassination, even more than the Kennedy one, can be considered a case of chickens coming home to roost. Again, we must consider the relationship between the “chicken” and the “roost,” not to affirm the violence that killed Abe, but to clarify the existence of structural violence in Japan that brought it about. We can identify at least four chickens.

The first chicken: The LDP’s cosy relationship with the Unification Church

The first and biggest chicken in the nest is the cosy relationship between the Unification Church (known as Moonies in English-speaking countries) and the LDP. In the wake of this incident, opposition parties, weekly newspapers, and political accounts on social networking sites have all begun to accuse the religious cult of close ties to LDP politicians, including Abe. The Unification Church, officially called the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, was founded in 1954 by its founder, Moon Sun Myung, in South Korea, and has gradually grown into a big cult under the patronage of the anti-Communist dictatorship of the time. Its teachings are unique in that it portrays Korea as God’s country and teaches that Japan, which colonised Korea, and China, which is ruled by Communism, are both Satan’s countries. It also forces Japanese believers to donate large sums of money, claiming that Japanese must donate as much money as possible to atone for its past colonisation of Korea.

In the actual activities of this organization, its anti-Communist elements were much greater than its Christian elements. In 1968, it formed an anti-Communist political organisation called the International Federation for Victory over Communism, which served as a political assault force against the leftist student movement that was rapidly gaining momentum at the time. In the 1980s, its aggressive fundraising in Japan became a social problem. It forced Japanese believers to make donations to the extent that their lives and families were ruined, forced them to borrow money and even to engage in prostitution and swindle money from other relatives who were not believers. In addition, it visited the homes of ordinary citizens, especially the elderly, to force them to buy expensive “holy” pots and seals by threatening them that their ancestors were cursed and would otherwise get sick or suffer accidents. There have also been several incidents of killings believed to have been carried out by Moonies members. These fraudulent and violent methods have become a widespread social problem and have often been brought up in the Diet, and lawsuits have been filed and convictions have been obtained on numerous occasions by former believers. However, the cult was never eradicated from Japan. From the very beginning, it was deeply connected with ruling politicians in Japan.

Nobusuke Kishi, the grandfather of Abe, was once a Class A war criminal who returned to politics and even became prime minister through the beneficence of the US. From the very beginning, Kishi was close to Moon Sun Myung through two political ties: anti-Communism and subservience to the US. When Moon was imprisoned for tax evasion in the US in 1984, Kishi even sent a letter to US President Ronald Reagan, requesting that Moon be released. In it, Kishi stated

I understand that Rev. Moon is a man of integrity and has devoted his life to promoting the ideals of freedom and correcting the errors of communism. His presence is rare and precious now and in the future, and is essential for the maintenance of freedom and democracy.1

It is unprecedented for a former Japanese prime minister to ask a sitting US president to release a criminal, but this example alone gives us an idea of the closeness between the Moonies and ruling party politicians. Abe also had close ties with the cult. He appeared many times on the cover of Sekai Shiso, a Moonies-affiliated magazine, and repeatedly addressed and lectured at affiliated organisations. In addition, his ideal image of Japan, encapsulated in the phrase “beautiful country”, originally came from the words of Shuki Kuboki, the first president of the Unification Church of Japan and of the Japan Federation for Victory over Communism, “Beautiful Country Japan”. 

The cult penetrated not only Abe’s office but also many Japanese politicians in the ruling party and even some politicians in the opposition. It has invited politicians to various Moonies-affiliated organisations and media outlets, sent believers as volunteers to help with election campaigns, and even provided campaign strategists and political secretaries. This kind of collusion is what is behind this assassination incident.

Tetsuya Yamagami’s mother is a devoted follower of the Moonies and donated over a million dollars to the cult in total. The Yamagami family was originally a wealthy family, running a company and owning real estate. However, when his grandfather died, Tetsuya’s mother sold all the real estate she had inherited and donated it to the cult, which caused the company to go bankrupt. Tetsuya’s older brother suicided and Tetsuya himself attempted suicide. Tetsuya was a serious person, studied well, and had excellent grades, but because of the breakup of his family, he gave up going to university and joined the Maritime Self-Defence Force. However, he quit after three years, and then began to move from one job to another as a casual worker, the last of which was a factory job as an agency labourer. In other words, typically Tetsuya Yamagami was a child of a family whose head was caught up in a cult, and an undeniable victim of the Moonies. Tetsuya had a Twitter account, which was identified after the incident (it has now been deleted from Twitter), and in it he candidly describes his suffering and anger as a child of the cult family, inviting sympathy from readers.

It is also clear from his tweets that he was neither a leftist nor a supporter of the opposition, but rather a conservative. Even in his tweets just two months before the incident, he made a post in which he ridiculed the opposition party’s insistence on protection of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, and more recently, a tweet in support of the LDP’s constitutional amendment proposal. Yamagami hated the Moonies, which drove his mother mad and destroyed his family, but politically, he was a conservative political believer who supported the LDP from the beginning. At some point, however, he learned that Abe had close ties to the cult, and so he began a program of damaging it by damaging Abe. In a letter to a freelance journalist who hosted an anti-Moonies blog, sent the day before the assassination, he stated

My history with the Unification Church goes back about 30 years. From my mother's joining the Church, to her spending over a hundred million yen, to the breakup of my family, to my bankruptcy.... My teenage years passed along with these events. It is no exaggeration to say that my experiences during that time continued to distort my entire life. …Although I was bitter about Abe, he is not my original enemy. He is merely one of the most influential Church sympathisers in the real world. 2

Realising that it would be impossible to kill a Church leader and that killing one would not be very effective anyway, Yamagami narrowed his target to Abe. He tried to obtain a gun, but was unable to, so he made his own gun out of two iron pipes, made his own shotgun shells, and repeated test-firing. He was not a lunatic, but, as an individual, was highly competent, patient, and hardworking.

But opportunities were hard to come by. Then came the 2022 Upper House election. He used the opportunity of the election to follow Abe around to his campaign stops in Saitama and Okayama, but in each case he was heavily guarded. However, Abe’s street speech in Nara was hastily scheduled because the LDP candidate in Nara was struggling. Since the speech there was unscheduled, Abe’s security arrangements were weaker than usual. Yamagami, who had learned this information on the Internet the day before, took advantage of the weak security to shoot Abe in Nara, which was incidentally Yamagami’s hometown.

Successive LDP administrations, including Abe's, continued to cosy up to the Moonies and neglected the enormous amount of victimisation it created, and paid no attention to the growing anger and hatred among the victims. It is no wonder that a sliver of the hatred that accumulated and was directed inward was directed at Shinzo Abe, the Church’s most influential spokesman and protector.

But there was another cause for the shooter to have chosen the extraordinary measure of shooting Abe. That is the second chicken: poverty and despair.

The second chicken: Poverty and despair

After the incident, according to media reports, Tetsuya Yamagami told an interrogator: “I ran out of money and thought I would die by the end of July”. He resigned from the factory where he had been working until May due to ill health. His bank account had a balance of only $2000 as of July 8, the day of the incident. He also stated that he had debts of at least $6000 and that he “decided to attack in July” because he thought he would no longer be able to make ends meet by the end of that month. The police believe that he may have done the shooting out of a sense of desperation in the midst of his destitution.3

Abe was the longest-serving prime minister in Japan (the second Abe cabinet lasted from 2012 to 2020. If we include the first Abe Cabinet, Abe’s tenure as prime minister is the longest of all time in Japan). He was the most influential and powerful politician in Japan, reigning for many years as the head of the overwhelmingly powerful LDP-Kōmeitō coalition. But what did his long reign bring to Japan? Prosperity and growth? No. On the contrary, it brought downfall and stagnation. Despite the second Abe administration coining the term “Abenomics” and making economic growth the centrepiece of its policies, and despite repeated massive fiscal stimulus packages, Japan’s position in the global economy has continued to decline. The year before the second Abe cabinet was formed, Japan’s nominal GDP per capita ranked 14th in the world, but, by 2021, the year after the second Abe cabinet ended, it had dropped to 28th place. This represented a twice-over worsening in the country’s position. In terms of purchasing power parity, rather than nominal GDP, Japan was ranked 36th in 2021.

One of the major causes of this decline in position was the stagnation and decline of Japanese workers’ wages. This was a natural consequence of the neoliberal policies pursued by successive LDP-Kōmeitō cabinets, including the Abe administration. The average wage of Japanese workers peaked in 1995-1996 and has been declining ever since. Japan is the only country in the world not experiencing war or civil war in which wages have been declining for more than 20 years – a rare case in world history.

The Abe administration raised the minimum wage slightly, but this was largely offset by the price hikes that had been occurring surreptitiously in the meantime. Real wages continued to fall. One of the main causes of the decline in nominal and real wages has been the prevalence of informal employment that the government promoted. As of 2020, it accounted for 37% of employed workers, and for 22% of male workers (more than half of all female workers were already informal). In 1985, when Japan’s economy was strong, the percentage of men in informal employment was only a few percent, and most of them were young. However, since the late 1990s, when Japan’s prolonged recession began, this figure has skyrocketed.

Yamagami was one of the workers caught up in this wave of casualisation. Agency workers not only earn low wages, but also have no job security. It is no wonder that he felt despair when he could find only temporary work at the age of 41. It is also the current LDP-Kōmeitō coalition, including the Abe administration, that has allowed such poverty and despair to continue.

Unlike the US, mass-murder incidents are rare in Japan where guns are banned. However, the common denominator among the perpetrators of these rare mass murders is that they are either unemployed or precariously employed, and that they are male. Men driven by poverty and despair usually direct their anger at those who are vulnerable, usually unwary passersby, train passengers, and especially women and children. Whatever the motive or background of the crime, targeting innocent civilians, especially women and children, is absolutely unforgivable. But Yamagami was different. He targeted the most politically powerful person in Japan, even though it would have been much easier to target ordinary citizens. He narrowed his target to the “roost”4 and he did it single-handedly.

The third chicken: The ideology of self-responsibility

However, even if he had fallen into poverty, Yamakami would not have resorted to the final measure of murdering Abe if there had been a proper welfare system, help from others, and public supports. But even here, the LDP-Kōmeitō coalition, under its neoliberal policies since the 1980s, has spread the ideology of self-responsibility and instilled in people the idea that it is shameful to get help from social welfare. It spread a distorted “common sense” to every corner of society that people should manage on their own efforts, without relying on others around them or on politics. Emphasising the self-help and self-responsibility of each helpless and vulnerable individual is to let go of political and social responsibility and to institutionalise social irresponsibility. The welfare system has become increasingly difficult to access and the amount it provides has been increasingly slashed, making it impossible to maintain even a minimum standard of living. And there is no established system of political or administrative consultation when people are stuck with health or economic problems, so Japanese people are forced to solve their problems individually or with their families.

Many Japanese people, when left in such a self-responsible (i.e., socially irresponsible) situation, choose to kill themselves rather than others. The number of suicides in Japan used to be over 30,000 and remains in the 20,000 range today. While Japan's homicide rate is among the lowest in the developed world, its suicide rate is consistently among the highest in the developed world: in 2020, the suicide death rate was 16.7 per 100,000 population, but for males, this rate rises to 22.9.

Health problems are the leading cause of suicide, followed by suicides for “poverty and economic problems” in second place, and “family problems” in third. Most suicides, however, are brought about by more than one cause. This was the case with the Yamagami family. Tetsuya’s father suicided when he was very young. His brother had been seriously ill since childhood (one of the reasons his mother joined the Church) and eventually suicided. Tetsuya himself attempted suicide. However, after trying his personal “solution” of suicide, Tetsuya sought a “new solution” that was also personal, but in a completely different direction. He set his sights on his “roost”.

The fourth chicken: The hollowing out and deterioration of democracy

Whether it is the problem of damage caused by the Unification Church, the problem of poverty, or the spread of self-responsibility ideology, all of these are also political problems, and, in a healthy society, these problems should be resolved through political change. This is the ideal form of democracy. In Japanese society, however, this democracy has been completely hollowed out. In the postwar period, except for a brief period, Japan has consistently had the LDP in power. Particularly since the second Abe administration, the power between the ruling coalition and the opposition has only increased, making a change of government in Japan almost a pipe dream. It is an extremely rare example of an officially multi-party system in which the same party has been in power for nearly 80 years since the end of World War II. I have already discussed the structural factors that led to this hollowing out of democracy in an earlier article.5

But the problem is not merely that a change of government has not occurred (or is unlikely to occur). It is equally serious that the LDP has been in power for so long that the ruling party has become deeply entangled with a number of special-interest groups (the cosy relationship with religious cults is one example), and that politics has deteriorated and become increasingly patrimonial. A patrimonial system is a system that was seen in pre-capitalist feudal societies or in some Third World countries, where political power and administrative systems that should be public are treated as if they were the private property of a few politicians and their families or a very small group, and where personnel in key positions and public policies are determined by the interests and agendas of the families or groups. The US political scientist Francis Fukuyama warned that this “re-patrimonialisation” of politics was underway in many parts of the world.6 Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Fukuyama boldly proclaimed the triumph of liberal democracy and “the end of history,” but what followed was not the global expansion of liberal democracy but the spread of new patrimonial states.

In Japan, this shift to a patrimonial system of government took place rapidly during the second Abe administration. Under the Abe administration, the problems of Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen, where public favours were given to Abe’s family and personal friends; the annual “Cherry Blossom Viewing Parties” held at public expense to support Abe personally, to which many celebrities were invited; the term of office of bureaucrats loyal to Abe was arbitrarily extended; the rape case involving a journalist who was very close to Abe was covered up, and so on. As far as Abe, his family, and their close associates are concerned, any problems are either kept in the dark or, even if socially problematic, ultimately no legal or social sanctions are brought against those truly responsible. This situation has continued for years and years, and trust in the ruling party’s ability to cleanse itself and in democracy has completely lost ground.

If the politicians cannot be held accountable for even the Moritomo-Kake incidents and the Cherry Blossom Viewing Party, how can they solve the Moonies problem, which is far more serious and far more entrenched in the centre of power than these two? If the normal channels of objection in a democracy are completely blocked, there is only one thing that individuals can do, in all ages and cultures. Thus, the chickens came home to roost.

A crisis for democracy or an opportunity for democratic revival?

Rather than this incident causing a crisis of democracy, it should be seen as reflecting a crisis of democracy that was already deeply underway. The incident itself is part of the crisis of democracy and its consequences in contemporary Japan. Normally, one should avoid blaming the victim of a crime, and it would normally be unacceptable to see incidents like this as self-inflicted suffering. However, in the theory of self-responsibility promulgated by the Abe administration and its crony ideologues including Heizo Takenaka, a well-known neoliberal, all consequences are attributed to the person responsible. The ideology that they espouse and spread throughout Japanese society should be applied to themselves as well. Therefore, the normally unforgivable discourse of “self-inflicted suffering” is justified here. That is exactly what they themselves supposedly advocated. Many of the chickens they unleashed have come home to roost. Who can they blame but themselves?

Instead of reflecting on their past actions, however, ruling politicians and right-wing commentators are using this incident to attack the opposition parties and leftist forces, and to launch a full-fledged campaign to change Japan’s Constitution. In fact, in the House of Councillors election, held two days after the assassination, the LDP won a landslide victory, as expected, which means it can now propose a constitutional amendment. This will further hollow out democracy and cause it to decline even further. It will further aggravate the crisis of Japanese society, which is already in an irreversible state.

What can be done to turn this tragic event into a better future? Not, of course, by deifying Abe or giving him a state funeral, much less further strengthening the ruling party’s absolute system, which is the very cause of this incident. What is needed to make this incident a chance for “democratic revival” rather than a “crisis of democracy” is to investigate all the causes that led to it, and to purge all the detritus that has accumulated under the long-term autocratic regime. The first step would be to unravel the problem of collusion between the Moonies and ruling party politicians, and to banish the Moonies from Japan. The Japan Communist Party and other opposition parties have already set up special teams to pursue the issue, and the weekly media are reporting new evidence of collusion between the Church and ruling party politicians one after another.

However, the cosy relationship between the Church and politicians is not limited to the ruling parties; it also involves some opposition politicians. Some members of the opposition party have also given speeches and received donations from church-affiliated organisations. Opposition parties must also face up to their own problems. Moreover, the Moonies is not the only religious cult deeply involved in Japanese politics. Many cult groups, through their financial power, their extraordinary enthusiasm, and their organisational strength, are feeding into many politicians and political parties, both ruling and opposition. Various cults fill the political void created by the loss of influence of traditional political and economic organisations such as labour and agricultural unions. We must cut off all influences of cults and restore democracy in Japan.

Japan’s democracy is already in a critical condition. The change of Japan’s Constitution proposed by the LDP will lead to the death of democracy. We must not allow this to happen. Perhaps this tragic incident could serve as a defibrillator (AED) or epinephrine for critically ill patients. Whether it actually plays such a role, or whether it plays a role in delivering the critically ill patient death, will depend on our struggles and movements.

  • 1https://news.yahoo.co.jp/articles/ 7fcce835a7d3851e8bc1c374a3d26b2c348da0f8
  • 2https://www.theheadline.jp/articles/659
  • 3https://www.sponichi.co.jp/society/news/2022/07/17/kiji/20220717s00042000079000c.html
  • 4In fact he abandoned the idea of throwing a grenade at Abe out of concern bystanders would be affected. https://www.asahi.com/articles/ASQ7N6QVCQ7NPTIL01Q.html
  • 5Seiya Morita, 'Japan's 2021 General Election Results, and its Crisis of Democracy,' Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, January 21, 2022, http://links.org.au/japan-2021-general-election-crisis-democracy
  • 6Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy, Profile Books, 2015.