The assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has produced waves of shock and indignation throughout the world. Abe was the longest-serving prime minister since Japan became a democracy, and after leaving office in 2020 for health reasons, he remained the “most powerful figure in Japanese politics, even without any formal title,” according to The Atlantic.

In an interview with CNN, Nancy Snow, the Japan director of the International Security Industrial Council, said this type of event is “not only rare, but it’s really culturally unfathomable. The Japanese people can’t imagine having a gun culture like we have in the United States. This is a speechless moment. I really feel at a loss for words.”

Political violence in Japan

Abe comes from a lineage of political leaders. His paternal grandfather, Kan Abe, served in the House of Representatives for almost 10 years. His maternal grandfather was the controversial Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, serving from 1957 to 1960. Abe’s father was a foreign minister and a leader of the Liberal Democratic Party.

It was in 1960 that Abe’s grandfather was stabbed in his home in Tokyo, surviving the attack. Three weeks later, “Inejiro Asanuma, chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, was killed in an attack by a sword-wielding 17-year-old,” according to The New York Times.

But violence against politicians is rare in Japan. There are a handful of recorded events, including the death of Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi in 1931, the shooting of Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai in 1932, and most recently the assassination of Iccho Ito, the mayor of Nagasaki, in 2007.

Ito was shot twice in the back “in a brazen attack by a gangster who was apparently enraged that the city had refused to compensate him after his car was damaged at a public works construction site,” according to The New York Times.

Since the 2007 assassination, Japan increased punishments for gun offenses, especially those committed by organized crime gangs. Discharging a gun in a public space, for example, now has a maximum sentence of life in prison. It is these harsh sentences and the difficulty to be approved for a gun, among other factors, that has led to low rates of firearm deaths in Japan.

Gun violence in Japan

According to Pew Research Center, in 2020, the U.S. saw 13.6 gun deaths per 100,000 people. Japan had a gun death rate of 0.02 per 100,000 people in 2019. One of the reasons this attack is so shocking is that gun violence in Japan is exceedingly rare and often committed by members of organized crime syndicates, per CNN.

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There were only nine reported deaths from firearms across a country of 125 million people in 2018. This dwarfs the 39,740 seen in the U.S. during the same year. According to data gathered by the University of Sydney, there are 0.25 guns per 100 people in Japan compared to about 120 guns per 100 people in the U.S.

Gun ownership

The foundational approach to gun ownership in Japan significantly differs from that of the U.S. Japanese legislation began with the 1958 Firearms and Swords Control Law, which aimed to disarm the population after World War II, and in principle, prohibits the possession of firearms and swords. Building off of this law, amendments were then made to allow strictly regulated exceptions for hunting and recreation.

The United States’ gun laws approach the issue from the other direction, as the Second Amendment aims to allow citizens to own firearms, and makes exceptions for those who cannot own one.

According to The Atlantic, “Handguns are forbidden absolutely. Small-caliber rifles have been illegal to buy, sell or transfer since 1971. The only guns that Japanese citizens can legally buy and use are shotguns and air rifles, and it’s not easy to do.”

It takes 13 steps to get a gun in Japan. The steps include taking a firearm classes, joining a hunting club, taking written exams, having medical evaluations and background checks, and interviews with family and friends, along with storage inspections and required continuing examinations, per The Guardian.

The man suspected of assassinating the former prime minister was tackled to the ground seconds after shots were fired, and officials say he tossed away an improvised firearm. In a Washington Post interview, a lecturer in Japanese history at SOAS University of London, Satona Suzuki, said the attack will leave the nation in shock, “but it’s not like America. It’s not crazy gunmen going to schools or malls.”

Utah, national leaders react to assassination of Japan’s Shinzo Abe