Skip to main content

Tetsuya Yamagami, center, holding a weapon, is detained near the site of gunshots in Nara, western Japan Friday, July 8, 2022.The Associated Press

For weeks before he murdered Shinzo Abe, Tetsuya Yamagami prepared, stockpiling homemade firearms and explosives and studying the former Japanese prime minister’s schedule.

Mr. Yamagami, 41, shot Mr. Abe twice on Friday while the politician was giving a speech in downtown Nara, a city in western Japan, in support of a candidate for Sunday’s upper house elections.

He used a homemade gun made of metal and wood, with two barrels connected by duct tape and pistol grip, which let off a huge amount of noise and white smoke. Police said they found other weapons with three, five and six barrels in Mr. Yamagami’s home, as well as rudimentary explosives.

Mr. Yamagami was arrested immediately after shooting Mr. Abe, who died five hours later in hospital. The shooter did not attempt to flee, witnesses say, as he was tackled by Mr. Abe’s security detail. Police said Mr. Yamagami confessed to wanting to kill the former premier.

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe mourned at wake in Tokyo

A former member of Japan’s navy, in which he served a three-year stint finishing in 2005, Mr. Yamagami lived in Nara and most recently worked at a manufacturing company in the surrounding Kansai region, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

He handed in his resignation in April, saying he was “tired,” and has since been unemployed, the paper said, citing former colleagues of Mr. Yamagami.

A neighbour of Mr. Yamagami recalled seeing him two days before the attack, saying he ignored her greeting.

“He looked very nervous, so I felt that he didn’t like to interact with people,” the 69-year-old retiree who gave her name only as Nakayama told Reuters. “Now when I think about it, at that moment it seemed like he was bothered by something.”

According to Japanese media, citing police sources, Mr. Yamagami told investigators he believed Mr. Abe was linked to a religious group he blamed for ruining his mother financially and breaking up their family. Police earlier said the crime was motivated by “hatred towards a certain group,” which they did not identify.

The killer told police he studied Mr. Abe’s schedule online as he built weapons in order to kill him. He had also hoped to kill a leader in the unnamed religious group, according to multiple reports.

Jeffrey Hall, special lecturer in Japanese studies at Japan’s Kanda University of International Studies, said the vague wording used by police about Mr. Yamagami’s motive was probably meant to avoid stoking any discrimination against the group’s followers, as well as avoiding any impact on Sunday’s election.

“Japanese society is generally suspicious towards newer religious groups, the word ‘cult’ will be used quite often,” Mr. Hall said, adding that several groups that have been speculated about online as being connected to the incident “are foreign in origin, although probably a lot of their followers in Japan are Japanese people.”

He said police and the media are walking a delicate line, as withholding information can provoke conspiracies and accusations the authorities are doing so because they are controlled by the groups involved.

“This kind of reporting, which may be motivated by a desire to prevent discrimination or by a desire to prevent an unfair impact on the election, could ultimately lead to a backlash against whatever group this person is affiliated with and possibly others that are just similar,” Mr. Hall added.

While conspiracy theories are not as mainstream or influential in Japanese politics as they are in some western societies, particularly the United States, Mr. Hall said that “if you search for the name of any of these new religions together with a politician’s name, you will find theories about them, regardless of whether there’s any real evidence for that.”

A right-wing nationalist who sought to restore traditional practices in Japan, Mr. Abe had ties with a number of faith groups, targeting conservative believers as a steady supply of votes for his Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr. Abe served as “supreme adviser” to Nippon Kaigi, a right-wing lobby group that also counts as members many other leading LDP figures. Nippon Kaigi promotes respect for traditional Shinto beliefs, including visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war dead are buried, including those responsible for Second World War atrocities.

There are also ties between both Mr. Abe and the LDP and the Unification Church, which quickly became a trending topic on Japanese social media Saturday. Many commenters resurfaced clips of a speech Mr. Abe gave at an event organized by the group last year, alongside former U.S. President Donald Trump and Cambodian leader Hun Sen.

Now officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the church was founded by South Korean pastor Sun Myung Moon in 1954 and is known for cultivating ties with conservative politicians around the world. The group has had links to the LDP dating back decades, including to Mr. Abe’s father, former Japanese foreign minister Shintaro Abe.

There are dozens of Unification Church ministries across Japan, with one in Nara situated less than 500 metres from where Mr. Abe was shot, according to the group’s official website.

In recent years, an offshoot of the Unification Church run by the late Mr. Moon’s son, Hyung Jin Moon, has also begun expanding in Japan. The Pennsylvania-based World Peace and Unification Sanctuary Church — also known as the Rod of Iron Ministries — is notorious for its attachment to guns, with members taking part in religious ceremonies holding assault weapons.

The Family Federation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Timothy Elder, director of world missions for Sanctuary Church, said the group had no information indicating any connection between Mr. Yamagami and the church.

“Sanctuary families in Japan did their best to support Shinzo Abe during his tenure as prime minister,” he added. “It’s illogical that one of them would seek to harm him.”

With a file from Reuters.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.