Commentary: Don't allow the attack on Japan PM Kishida to become a trend
Two assaults on Japanese leaders in one year suggests a trend. We need to avoid amplifying the message of their perpetrators, says Bloomberg Opinion columnist Gearoid Reidy.
TOKYO: What looked to be a once-in-a-generation event threatens to become a new trend.
When Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, was brutally slain on the campaign trail last year, it seemed a freak event. While assassination attempts were familiar in the pre- and immediate post-war Japan, it had been decades since since such a prominent politician was the subject of attack, particularly in a largely gun-free country where crime rates are low.
On Saturday (Apr 15), what now looks to be a near-miss attempt to attack Prime Minister Fumio Kishida not only brought back memories of Abe’s slaying, it underscores the risk of amplifying his killer’s message. And it raises uncomfortable questions over security arrangements for the Group of Seven (G7) summit that will be held next month in Kishida’s home constituency of Hiroshima.
The assault on Kishida is worse than it first seemed. Initial reports, using language about a "smoke bomb", seemed to suggest the incident was not all that serious.
Subsequent footage reveals a device more like a pipe bomb thrown from the crowd landing directly beside the prime minister. Only a combination of luck and fast reactions from security staff may have saved Kishida from harm; quick thinking from onlookers in the crowd seems to have prevented the perpetrator from throwing a subsequent device.
RISK FROM ATTACKS GROWING
While the motivation has not yet been determined, one thing is clear: After the second attack on a senior Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politician during a stump speech in less than a year, the risk from such events is growing.
Sadly, that’s to be expected given how Abe’s killing was exploited for political gain. Tetsuya Yamagami, the suspect in his assassination, largely accomplished his goals. He reportedly targeted the former prime minister for his supposed ties to the Unification Church, better known as the Moonies.
According to reports, the killer sought retribution for his impoverished upbringing, which he blamed on his mother’s lavish donations to the church. Having been unable to target the head of the organisation itself, he instead settled on Abe, supposedly due to the fact that his grandfather had assisted the church in the early post-war years.
Instead of recognising this as bitter delusion and focusing on the concerning security lapses surrounding Abe’s killing, media reports instead gave Yamagami bizarrely sympathetic coverage, and even took up his cause against the church.
For months, Japan’s front pages and TV shows were dominated by links between the ruling LDP and the Unification Church. Ties to the myriad other new religions, even the Soka Gakkai group that backs the ’s coalition partner Komeito, were not given the same treatment. Some seemed to revel in an opportunity to get one over a political opponent who couldn’t be taken down in life.
“Unification Church leader gave orders to approach Abe after appointment as Japan PM,” ran one typical headline, fully five months after his killing. Reports looking at the issue frequently used the language of “ties” between the LDP and the church, which often meant little more than holding meetings or shaking hands.
A relentless barrage of stories focused on how senior politicians, including Abe, met with the church representatives, but failed to provide the context that politicians everywhere routinely associate with interest groups, particularly those with money. Needless to say, many prominent opposition politicians were subsequently revealed to have also had such “ties” to the church during the late 2000s when the LDP’s popularity was in decline.
The killing declared open season on the Unification Church, previously seen as a difficult target. The media treatment threatened to take down Kishida’s administration, despite the fact that the prime minister has no links, exaggerated or otherwise, to the church. Legislation was rushed through to provide compensation to victims; lawmakers were made to pledge to cut any ties with the organisation, despite Japan’s constitutional right to freedom of religion.
None of this is to defend the Unification Church, whose reckoning was overdue. Yamagami may even have had a legitimate grudge. But people everywhere routinely grow up in impoverished conditions without resorting to assassinations; his message is invalidated by his method.
We should not be surprised if similarly vindictive copycats emerge - his cause has been so successful.
As mass shooting events have proliferated overseas in recent years, it has become common to avoid naming their perpetrators or explaining their motivations over concern from the “contagion effect” of such incidents.
Speaking after the Orlando shooting of 2016, in which 49 people were killing in a gay nightclub in the American state of Florida, then-director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey explained why he wasn’t naming the killer.
“Part of what motivates sick people to do this kind of thing is some twisted notion of fame or glory,” Comey said. “I don’t want to be part of that for the sake of the victims and their families, and so that other twisted minds don’t think that this is a path to fame and recognition.”
In New Zealand, it’s against the law to spread the vile manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, who killed more than 50 people in two mosques. And while these are inexact analogies, terrorism is terrorism nonetheless. In his intent, Yamagami was little different from so many killers who hold a grudge against society and want everyone to know about it.
We must exercise caution in amplifying their message - much less encouraging moves that seem to justify their actions. Yamagami wasn’t capable of committing a mass shooting due solely to Japan’s gun laws; his homemade, rudimentary 3D-printed gun nonetheless got his message across. The contagion that has resulted in mass shootings elsewhere may start to manifest itself as attacks on prominent politicians in Japan and across the globe.
That Kishida wasn’t the first victim of such a contagion was just luck. It may not endure forever.