TOKYO — Former Japanese leader Shinzo Abe died on Friday after being shot at a campaign event, in an attack that shocked a country where gun violence is virtually nonexistent.
Abe, 67, was a towering political presence even after he stepped down as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. He had just begun a speech in the western city of Nara when gunfire was heard around 11:30 a.m. local time (10:30 p.m. Thursday ET).
Officials said that one person had been apprehended in relation to the shooting.
Abe was rushed to Nara Medical University Hospital after suffering cardio and pulmonary arrest. The hospital announced his death shortly after 5 a.m. ET.
Speaking from his office in Tokyo earlier in the day, a visibly shaken Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that while the attack was still being investigated, “it was a despicable and barbaric act that took place in the midst of an election, which is the foundation of democracy.”
“I condemn it in the harshest possible terms,” he told a hastily arranged news conference after returning from campaigning in the country’s north.
Kishida said no decisions had been made as to how the shooting would affect elections for the upper house of the Japanese Parliament, which are scheduled for Sunday. Abe, who stepped down in 2020, was campaigning for other members of the governing conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) but was not a candidate himself.
Abe dominated Japanese politics for the best part of a decade and has remained politically active since his resignation, leading the biggest faction in his party.
The incident sent shockwaves through Japan, where gun violence is extremely rare. Handguns are banned in the country and people must undergo extensive tests, training and background checks to obtain and keep shotguns and air rifles.
Nobuo Kishi, the Japanese defense minister and Abe’s younger brother, called the shooting an “attack on democracy.”
Iwao Horii, an LDP member of the upper house representing Nara, was standing next to Abe when the former prime minister was shot. “We heard two loud sounds while he was talking and he fell immediately after that,” Horii said at a news conference. He added that Abe was unresponsive when emergency medics tried to resuscitate him.
“This is something that shakes the very foundations of democracy and cannot be forgiven,” he said.
The shooting was also condemned by the country’s main opposition party, the center-left Constitutional Democrats, with party leader Kenta Izumi calling it “an unforgivable act of barbarism.”
The attack in Nara, western Japan, was stunning for one of the world's safest countries.AP
Messages of shock and well-wishes for Abe poured in from leaders around the world on Friday.
The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, said that he was shocked and saddened by news of the shooting.
“Abe-san has been an outstanding leader of Japan and unwavering ally of the United States,” Emanuel said in a statement Friday.
The White House also expressed shock at Abe’s shooting.
“We are closely monitoring the reports and keeping our thoughts with his family and the people of Japan,” a spokesperson said prior to news of his death.
Similar sentiments of disbelief were echoed by Asia-Pacific leaders.
“Deeply distressed by the attack on my dear friend Abe Shinzo. Our thoughts and prayers are with him, his family, and the people of Japan,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter.
"He was deeply committed to his role, and also generous and kind," New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said during a meeting in Sydney, Australia. “My thoughts are with his wife and the people of Japan. Events like this shake us all to the core.”
Though Abe had been praised for amplifying Japan’s profile on the world stage, his party was plagued by scandals and he was accused of mishandling the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with Donald Trump after he became U.S. president-elect in November 2016.
In a post to his Truth Social platform late Thursday, the former president called Abe “a truly great man and leader.”
“He was a true friend of mine and, much more importantly, America,” Trump said.
Abe hailed from Japan’s political elite and as prime minister had made reviving economic growth through his “Abenomics” policies a key pillar of his time in office.
Abe’s resignation two years ago came amid a worsening of his ulcerative colitis, a chronic bowel condition he’d battled for years.
He announced his resignation days after he set a record as Japan’s longest-lasting prime minister, having been in office for almost eight years. He previously served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007.
Arata Yamamoto reported from Tokyo, and Jennifer Jett reported from Hong Kong.