Shinzo Abe, former PM, departed this earth as any politician would want to depart this earth: in a hail of bullets (or a hail of one bullet) with his shiny shoes on, next to his flunkies, spouting platitudes on the hustings. Or perhaps given the option, he might not have wanted to depart this earth supine in the street in a pool of his own blood, and might have preferred to skip the hustings altogether, perhaps choosing to stay in bed that morning with his own catamite in his lap.
As with the death of any celebrity, the tragedy brought about a great outpouring of grief and, in roughly equal quantity, a great outpouring of utter bollocks — in the mainstream media, on social media, and in your local pub.
The main themes of the gush of nonsense have been that Abe’s violent death
— was a marker of a terrible destructive change in Japan wherein foreign habits of violence have been imported — ‘American-style gun violence has arrived in Japan!’
— was a tragedy whose pathos was intensified by the fact that Japan is such a peaceful and sweet place where nothing bad ever happens and people are just polite to each other all the time
— was a unique and extraordinary tragedy the like of which has not happened in Japan or anywhere else in the world at all, except in foreign places where, you know, it happens all the time
— was the result of a plot by a rival habatsu (faction) or aliens or vicious pixies or a particularly savage strain of Covid as can be clearly discerned by nothing meaningful at all
So, American-style gun violence is coming to Japan, people have been bleating like a flock of sheep that probably ought to be subjected to the gun for being so flock-minded.
No, American gun violence isn’t coming to Japan. One shooting does not make a massive and fundamental cultural shift. America has a very real gun culture — it’s written into the national psyche. Even people who want some kind of controls on guns generally don’t want guns actually outlawed, because to do so would get them shot. In many states you can buy a gun almost as easily as you can buy a beer. There are more guns than actual humans in the US. Every day there are dozens of shootings, dozens of deaths … The daily tally of gun fatalities and injuries rivals that of a war zone. That’s what we call a gun culture.
You just cannot buy guns in Japan. It’s almost impossible. Shooting incidents are vanishingly rare. People hate guns and look upon America’s obsession with them as a very dangerous eccentricity, something only gaijin can understand. American style gun violence is coming to Japan in exactly the same way that American style gun violence is going out of fashion in America.
Oh, and far from being bought, the gun used was homemade — two bits of pipe taped together.
This was an event whose pathos was elevated beyond even the many mass shootings in the United States due to the inherent peacefulness and rationality of Japanese society, we are told by the same seers who see gun violence in their morning miso. I saw this view expressed by a number of Americans who I do not normally associate with drooling imbecility.
The murder of one man more tragic than the murder of dozens of kids at Sandy Hook or Uvalde? Really? More tragic than the Las Vegas Strip shooting that took 60 lives and injured over 800? More tragic than the Orlando night club attack?
There is no equivalence between Abe and the innocent victims of the shootings in the US. Heads up: Abe didn’t deserve to get shot. No one deserves to be killed or attacked, and no death should ever be celebrated. But Abe was not a cute ten-year-old with a whole life to live. Nor was this Ghandi or Nelson Mandela or Tom Hanks that got shot. Abe was the heir of a political dynasty, he was a nationalist and ultra-capitalist. Abe stated that the Nanjing Massacre was largely fabricated, denied that Japan was responsible for forcing women into sexual slavery during the second world war, and nominated Donald Trump for the Nobel peace prize. He repeatedly visited Yasukuni shrine, which memorialises Japan’s war criminals, pushed to change Japan’s constitution so that it could project its military power abroad, and his economic policies, so-called Abenomics, was nothing more than a locally branded version of the unfettered capitalism (aka neoliberalism) that is currently driving worldwide poverty, climate change, and pretty well everything else that’s shit.
Incidentally, Abe was forced out of power not by opposition to his policies but by his own loose bowels, which seems to be to be a powerful metaphor or some kind. But I digress.
No, there’s no emotional comparison between Abe the would-be warmonger and a classroom full of kids or a cinema full of folk on a good night out. Of course, there’s not meant to be. The claims I have talked about are about the people who post them, a combination of a desire to ingratiate yourself to your Japanese and liberal friends by sticking broken glass in your eye and to jump up and down in the background of news shots of smoking rubble waving a me-too bucket of tears at the audience.
As for safe Japan? There’s no reason why the relative safety of any country should intensify the pathos of any heinous act but it’s not clear that Japan is actually the utopia of safety the stereotype gives us. Japan has a history of political killings and attempted killings to rival the shakiest democracy. Abe’s own grandfather Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, was stabbed in the thigh and seriously injured (1960). Having one mayor of Nagasaki shot dead (1990) is sad, but having two shot dead (2007) is downright careless. A quick count suggests eight political killings or attempted killings since the second world war (compared to six in the UK in the same period).
Granted, in absolute terms Japan’s violent crime is quite low but it’s no stranger to random acts of brutality or mass killings. Perhaps our perception of these mass killings is skewed because the go-to weapons in Japan are petrol and knives rather than guns or bombs. The Myojo building arson in Shinjuku in 2001 killed 44 people, which puts it up there with some of America’s worst massacres. Nineteen people were killed and 26 injured at a care home in 2016 in a knife attack by just one perpetrator. A knife attack on an elementary school in Osaka left eight children dead and 15 people injured. A knife attacker in Akihabara managed to kill seven and injure ten. There have been ten such mass killings since 2000 (compared with eight in the UK in the same period and the Japan attacks took many more lives). Granted, it’s not US levels of violence but neither is it Hello Kitty Land either.
As it turns out, Abe’s killing wasn’t political at all, but motivated by the politician’s perceived, or assumed tolerance of, or involvement in a religious cult, specifically, the Moonies, the Unification Church, the mob famous for its coerced marriages of stadia full of strangers in the 90s.
Now here’s an aspect of the killing that seems to have escaped scrutiny in the rush to dramatise the event with knee jerk invocations of America: cults and Japanese society.
Aum Shinrikyo anyone? Perhaps the most infamous of Japan’s cults, they were responsible for the deaths by sarin nerve gas of eight people (with 500 injured) in Matsumoto in 1994 and of 14 people on Tokyo’s subway in 1995, with 1,000 injured.
For a country that describes itself as secular there sure are a lot of cults in Japan, and they are woven into the social and political fabric — and here we *can* make an American comparison — like evangelism and mega-churches in the US.
Charismatic leaders peddling bunkum, respectability derived from their status as religions, the same status that keeps them exempt from tax while fleecing their members of their hard-earned. In the thirty-odd years I have been in Japan I have discovered cults and quasi-cults are pervasive. I accidentally (and briefly) worked for a company that was funnelling its profits to the Moonies. Another cult nearly broke up my family. Every other family on our street seems to belong to one cult or another. Any drive around the country takes you past at least one grandiose and piss-elegant cult HQ. Cults are like cockroaches, they seem everywhere and however many you see, there are more lurking out of sight.
I am not suggesting that any cult had Abe shot nor that they had any involvement whatsoever, nor am I going to examine Abe’s Moonie connections here. I am saying that the confluence of a mad gunman, a powerful politician, and the murky connections between cults and government makes for a more meaningful conversation than facile comparisons with American gun violence and the peddling of nonsensical peaceful Japan myths.