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Shinzo Abe's assassination was a rare act of violence in Japan. What happens now?


A wake and funeral service for Japan's former prime minister are taking place in Tokyo tomorrow and Tuesday. Shinzo Abe's death by gunfire Friday was a stunning event in a country where few private citizens own guns and where the last national political figure to be assassinated was killed by a samurai short sword in 1960. Pomona College politics professor Tom Le joins me now from Japan to discuss the significance of the shooting. Welcome to the program.

TOM LE: Thank you. Glad to be here.

RASCOE: You are in Kyoto right now, which is not far from Nara, the city where Abe was shot. How have people been reacting to this really rare display of political violence?

LE: Yes. I was at a laundromat just doing regular business when I was here, and I read about it about two minutes after it happened. So I had to ask the person next to me. And really, people are just in shock, not just because Prime Minister Abe was a famous and influential person, but that it was a death from a shooting, which is incredibly rare. So I think people, before they processed the ramifications of it - the political ramifications - it's that how could this possibly happen in Japan?

RASCOE: You know, Japan's National Police Agency reported just one person in the whole country died by gun violence last year. That's compared to more than 45,000 deaths in the U.S. How has Japan managed to do that?

LE: Yes, I think with most things that regulate people's behavior, it's incentives and sanctions, right? The higher the cost to do something, the more difficult it is to do. So in Japan, there are a lot of barriers when it comes to gun ownership, that there's a limited amount of types of guns that you can own, and also the amount of guns that you can own is limited. And you have to do background checks, register your weapons and ammunition with the police, and then have - go through inspections, as well, regularly and follow up with your gun safety education. So that's a lot of steps that people have to go through in order to maintain private possession of guns. I think with Prime Minister Abe, that's why the suspect had to use a jerry-rigged kind of homemade weapon.

RASCOE: How are the Japanese making sense of this shooting? Like - because, as you said, this was, like, a homemade weapon, is there concern that this could be the start of more of this type of violence, really - and let's be frank - U.S.-style violence creeping into Japanese society?

LE: I don't think so because there's an election going on in Japan now. And I think what makes Japanese democracy quite impressive is that you have politicians - high-level ones, such as Prime Minister Abe - stumping in person and really connected to the people. And already, the politicians are back on the road because there's an important election. So that hasn't changed. And then also the laws have not changed to make it easier to get weapons, right? More than likely, it'll be harder - whatever they can do to make it harder to get weapons.

When it comes to homemade weapons, that's a bit hard to regulate, so I think there's going to be some research done on what can be done to prevent this. But it's such an uncommon occurrence, this type of violence - I mean, there's other types of violence in this country - that the news reporting on the suspect - they're doing reports on how the gun was made, right? They're kind of teaching people how to do it on TV because the expectation isn't so much that there will be copycats. And so I think Japan might not adjust as we expect because it's such a uncommon occurrence.

RASCOE: You know, looking further out into the future, do you think that Abe's death will have a longer-term impact on Japanese politics and society?

LE: I don't think so. And the reason for that is Prime Minister Abe was the longest-serving Japanese prime minister in their history, and he was a powerful leader. He was great at the political game. He was well-liked in the international political community. We see the big outpouring of support from all these leaders around the world. And yet he still could not achieve many of the policies that he wants, such as constitutional reform, amendment changing the constitution so the self-defense force can be more normalized, changing the economy, addressing the demographics crisis. These are big structural problems, and he was one of the most capable ones of trying to get it done, and he couldn't.

So with him gone, people will talk about his policies and there will be those who will try to utilize his death to generate support for those policies within his party. But you still need a charismatic leader and invested public and structural changes to the economy, to family structures, work-life balance - there's a lot that has to happen to work right for his policies to go through, especially now that he's gone.

RASCOE: Pomona College politics professor Tom Le, thank you so much for joining us.

LE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD ORANGE'S "BUT YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.