TOKYO: Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe was shot at a campaign event in the western region of Nara on Friday (Jul 8), with public broadcaster NHK saying that a man armed with what appeared to be a homemade gun opened fire at him from behind.
He died of his injuries at about 5pm while in hospital, a hospital spokesperson said.
"It is a barbaric act during election campaigning, which is the foundation of democracy, and it is absolutely unforgivable. I condemn this act in the strongest terms," said Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shortly after the shooting.
"Former prime minister Abe was shot at around 11.30am," chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters.
"One man, believed to be the shooter, has been taken into custody. The condition of former prime minister Abe is currently unknown," he added.
"Whatever the reason, such a barbaric act can never be tolerated, and we strongly condemn it."
The attack on Japan's former prime minister comes despite the country's famously low levels of violent crime and tough gun laws, and with politicians campaigning ahead of upper house elections on Sunday.
Footage broadcast by NHK showed Abe standing on a stage when a loud blast was heard with smoke visible in the air.
As spectators and reporters ducked, a man was tackled to the ground by security.
Local media identified the suspect as 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, citing police sources, with several media outlets describing him as a former member of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, the country's navy. Abe's younger brother, Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, declined to comment on that.
Police said the suspected shooter was a resident of Nara.
The gun used in the shooting appeared to be a homemade firearm, NHK said.
NHK later reported the suspect told police that he was unhappy with Abe and intended to kill him.
"A LARGE BANG"
Witnesses at the scene described shock as the political event turned into chaos.
"He was giving a speech and a man came from behind," a young woman at the scene told NHK.
"The first shot sounded like a toy bazooka. He didn't fall and there was a large bang. The second shot was more visible, you could see the spark and smoke," she added.
"After the second shot, people surrounded him and gave him cardiac massage."
Abe was bleeding from the neck, witnesses said and photographs showed. He was reportedly initially conscious but subsequently lost consciousness, NHK reported.
Nara emergency services said he had been wounded on the right side of his neck and left clavicle. Kishi said Abe was getting blood transfusions.
NHK showed live footage of Abe's wife, Akie, on her way by train to the hospital where he was being treated.
Officials from the local chapter of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said there had been no threats before the incident and that his speech had been announced publicly.
Kishida, himself on the campaign trail, returned to Tokyo. He said he has asked all Cabinet members to return to the Japanese capital, adding that the government will consider how to respond after first grasping the situation.
"SADDENED AND SHOCKED"
Jiji reported a government task force had been formed in the wake of the incident, and reactions were already beginning to pour in.
"We are all saddened and shocked by the shooting of former prime minister Abe Shinzo," US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said in a statement.
"The US government and American people are praying for the well-being of Abe-san, his family, and people of Japan."
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced alarm over the shooting.
"This is a very, very sad moment," Blinken told reporters at a G20 meeting in Bali, saying the United States was "deeply saddened and deeply concerned".
Prime Minister Kishida's special advisor Gen Nakatani told reporters "terror or violence can never be tolerated", Jiji reported.
Kishida goes into Sunday's upper house election hoping, analysts say, to emerge from Abe's shadow and define his premiership.
Kishida suspended his campaign after Abe's shooting and was returning to Tokyo, media reported. The government said there was no plan to postpone the election.
Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, held office in 2006 for one year and again from 2012 to 2020, when he was forced to step down due to the debilitating bowel condition ulcerative colitis.
He is a hawkish conservative who pushed for the revision of Japan's pacifist constitution to recognise the country's military and has stayed a prominent political figure even after stepping down.
Japan has some of the world's toughest gun-control laws, and annual deaths from firearms in the country of 125 million people are regularly in single figures.
Getting a gun licence is a long and complicated process even for Japanese citizens, who must first get a recommendation from a shooting association and then undergo strict police checks.
Airo Hino, political science professor at Waseda University, said such a shooting was unprecedented in Japan. "There has never been anything like this," he said.
Japan has seen "nothing like this for well over 50 to 60 years", Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University who focuses on Japanese politics, told AFP.
He said the last similar incident was likely the 1960 assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, the leader of the Japan Socialist Party, who was stabbed by a right-wing youth.
"But two days before an election, of a (man) who is so prominent ... it's really profoundly sad and shocking."
He noted, too, that Japanese politicians and voters are used to a personal and close-up style of campaigning.
"This could really change."