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Before Abe: A Brief History of Political Assassinations in Japan

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Before Abe: A Brief History of Political Assassinations in Japan

The assassination of a political leader in Japan is rare today, but that wasn’t always the case.

Before Abe: A Brief History of Political Assassinations in Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi (seated, center) with members of his cabinet in 1931.

Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Japan is considered one of the safest countries in the world, in particular due to its very low crimes rates. Among the G-7 states, it has by far the fewest gun-related deaths per capita (in 2019 there were only nine such incidents; last year there was only one). The last politically motivated assassination of a national-level politician happened over 60 years ago, in 1960, when the leader of Japan’s Socialist Party, Asanuma Inejiro, was killed by a far-right activist during a televised debate. (The mayor of Nagasaki was killed by a yakuza member in 2007, reportedly due to a personal grudge.)

While it would be unfair to say that Japan’s political climate remained serene in the interim, with several far-left groups committing acts of terror during the 1970s and 1980s, and the totalitarian sect Aum Shinrikyo responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, it was by and large stable. Political assassinations were assumed to be a relic of the past, unthinkable in modern Japan.

However, the acrid smell of gunpowder filling the air and the column of white smoke unleashed by the handmade shotgun that killed former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo on July 8 belie this assumption.

Abe’s murder harkens back to Japan in the 1920s and ‘30s, when assassinations of politicians and officials rocked the country on a regular basis, and violent action became the method of choice for those unhappy with the direction Japan was heading.

The history of political violence in pre-war Japan is inseparable from the evolution of Japanese nationalism since the late 19th century. While the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which abolished the Tokugawa shogunate and brought back the emperor’s rule, was initially supported by many samurai, some of them later came to be disillusioned with the new government’s reforms. As their privileges and wealth were taken away over the years after the Restoration, they sought a solution in their traditional trade – war, advocating for the conquest of Korea and Taiwan, as well as reviewing Japan’s unequal treaties with Western powers. The government, however, was not in a rush to do either, which led to the Satsuma rebellion of 1877, which was quickly quashed and was followed by several decades of social stability.

However, the failure of the samurai rebels did not stop other like-minded individuals from forming nationalist secret societies like Gen’yosha (the Dark Ocean Society) or Kokuryukai (the Black Dragon Society). These groups espoused a radical foreign policy agenda, supporting aggressive territorial expansion by Japan in East Asia, as well as placing relations with Western countries on a more equal footing. While these secret societies eschewed violent methods and instead relied on propaganda to influence public opinion, it was exactly Japan’s resulting expansionist foreign policy that caused the first major assassination of a Japanese politician in the 20th century.

In 1905, Korea became Japan’s protectorate, with the position of resident-general given to Ito Hirobumi, who had been the country’s first-ever prime minister and occupied that post a total of four times. On October 26, 1909, Ito was meeting Russia’s Finance Minister Vladimir Kokovtsov when he was shot dead by a young Korean nationalist named An Jung-geun. The killer, who believed that Ito had been deceiving the emperor into colonizing Korea, was executed, while Korea itself was swiftly annexed in 1910.

The early 20th century also saw the evolution of the Japanese right-wing ideology. It was initially outward-looking, focusing on Japan’s expansion in East Asia, and in time bonded with the political elites who had the same goal in mind. However, World War I saw the birth of a new far-right movement, which can be characterized as fascist. The new generation of far-right ideologues believed that further territorial expansion was impossible unless the Japanese empire was stabilized and its society reformed. Thus, Japanese right-wing extremism from 1910s through 1930s was focused inwards, popular rather than elitist, and aimed at establishing a dictatorship.

Prime Minister Hara Takashi became the first high-profile victim of this new radical movement. Known as a liberal, Hara was disliked by the Japanese left but positively reviled by the military and the far-right groups, who considered him too weak and indecisive. On November 4, 1921, Hara arrived at the Tokyo railway station to catch a train to Kyoto, when he was mortally wounded by a young ultranationalist called Nakaoka Kon’ichi, who worked at the station as a switchman. Before that, popular discontent had resulted in damaged property, arrests, and injuries; it now led to the death of a Japanese leader.

The Japanese military also became a hotbed of radicalism, with young officers joining underground organizations and holding meetings, where they would read and discuss forbidden literature. In just a few years, the military became the main political force in Japan, overtaking parties and big business – whom many people blamed for all of their country’s ills. And unlike the previous generation of Japanese nationalists, these low-ranking officers and soldiers refused to be content with non-violent means, coming to support terrorist methods to achieve their goals.

On November 30, 1930, Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi was wounded at the same train station where nine years earlier Hara had been murdered. The attack was carried out by Sagoya Tomeo, a far-right activist and a member of the radical group Aikokusha (The Patriot Society). For Japanese ultranationalists, Hamaguchi, who survived the assassination attempt but died of complications a year later, was a symbol of the weak and passive “old guard” governing the country.

In 1932, radicalized members of the military mounted the first attempted coup d’état, which was preceded by a string of assassinations of senior bureaucrats and industrialists. Police investigation pointed to a group called Ketsumeidan (The Blood Brotherhood), but, like Abe’s assassin decades later, the terrorists did not attempt to evade justice and surrendered to the police. On May 15, several groups of young officers carried out multiple coordinated attacks, killing Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi and throwing grenades into politicians’ homes and party headquarters, after which they, too, surrendered into police custody. Interestingly, public sympathies largely lay with the rebellious officers, whereas Inukai’s death failed to elicit such feelings.

The second attempted coup was mounted on the snowy morning of February 26, 1936, becoming both the culmination of the fascist movement in Japan and its death knell. Throughout the day, Tokyo was rocked by a series of attacks, resulting in the deaths of several prominent politicians and businessmen. Among the terrorists’ victims were former prime ministers Saito Makoto and Takahashi Korekiyo, with current Prime Minister Okada Keisuke only surviving because the attackers mistakenly shot his brother. This time around, however, their attackers’ actions were soundly condemned by both the public and the emperor, and as a result, the rebels returned to their barrack to await arrest. By 1936, the Japanese people had rejected terrorist tactics, and it became obvious that murdering a few elderly politicians would not be enough to change Japan’s political system.

Former prime ministers Saito and Takahashi, who died in the 1936 attempted coup, were the last Japanese leaders, current or former, to have been assassinated, until Abe’s murder on July 8 of this year. And while these two events are separated by 86 years of Japanese history and massive socio-political shifts, the assassination of Japan’s longest-serving prime minister evokes the dark tradition of the country’s far-right extremism and politically motivated attacks on Japanese leaders.