Shinzo Abe Was Not The First Japanese Prime Minister To Be Assassinated
The well-known figure was the first Japanese Prime Minister to be assassinated in 86 years
The world woke up on July 8 2022 to the shocking news that Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been gunned down by a 41 year old gunman with a homemade weapon. Despite the severity of his wounds, Abe fought valiantly but succumbed to his injuries later that day.
A polarising figure, Shinzo Abe is arguably the most recognisable political figure in Japanese history. Hailing from a respected political family, Abe’s father had once served as Japan’s Foreign Minister while his grandfather (who himself had survived an assassination attempt) and great uncle had also served as Prime Minister in the past.
First ascending to the role of Prime Minister in 2006 at the age of 52, Abe became Japan’s youngest postwar Prime Minister. Abe’s term would last only a year as his popularity diminished and he resigned in 2007 citing health reasons. However, he would make a political comeback and regain the Prime Ministership in 2012. This time, he would serve for 8 years and became Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister.
Abe suffered from colitis, a chronic bowel disease. Just as he did in his first term, Abe would resign a second time in 2020 because of his condition. However, this time he left office in the good graces of the people. Despite his resignation, Abe remained active in politics and was killed while on a campaign tour in the Nara district.
Shinzo Abe’s tenure as Prime Minister was best known for his aggressive economic reforms. Dubbed “Abenomics” he aimed to overhaul the Japanese economy in order to establish Japan as a proper financial superpower. Abe also attempted to bring Japan out of its post-WWII pacifist stance through his efforts to revise Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution (Since WWII Japan is not permitted to have an army capable of going to war but has a self defense force to protect the country from outside, unprovoked threats).
With both his share of supporters and detractors, Abe was a capable leader and was recognised internationally as an adept politician. Frequently seen with various other Heads of State, Shinzo Abe stayed true to his goal of putting Japan front and center on the world stage.
Shinzo Abe’s assassination was an extremely shocking event in Japan and around the world. Gun violence is virtually non-existent in Japan due to how difficult it is to own a gun. In fact, the weapon used to kill Abe had to be made from scratch by the assassin himself. Secondly, Abe was a popular figure who, while active in politics, had not been governing the country for almost two years.
As rare as such a horrific incident is in the relative safety of today’s Japan, Shinzo Abe was not the first Japanese Prime Minister to be assassinated. In total, 64 men have served as Japan’s Prime Minister. 7 of them (including Abe) have been assassinated. Let us take a look at Japan’s other assassinated Prime Ministers.
Japan’s first Prime Minister, Itō Hirobumi served in the role from 1885–1888, 1892–1896, for 6 months in 1898 and lastly from 1900–1901. To date, he is the only Japanese Prime Minister to have served four separate times.
A Samurai prince who was educated in the UK, Itō sought to incorporate a Western approach to Japanese governance. Borrowing heavily from European constitutions, Itō adapted this style into Japan by replacing many of its more Christian-inspired laws with Japanese Imperial authority. Despite his vast power, he remained staunchly loyal to the Emperor.
Despite his status as a devout Monarchist, Itō understood the importance of international relations and forged ties with various Western countries. Even after leaving the Government, he continued to wield great influence as Resident General of Korea and President of Japan’s Privy Council.
In 1909, Itō was shot by An Jung-Guen, a Korean independence activist. During his time as Resident General of Korea, Itō was against Korea’s annexation from Japan. Itō kept a firm grip on Korea and had even made its Emperor abdicate in favor of his son whom Itō could more easily influence. Although he would reluctantly go along with cabinet’s decision to annex Korea, his actions had made him unpopular with various Korean nationalists. Itō was shot three times in the chest and died. While his assassin was executed for his crimes, many (including those in Japan) were sympathetic to his cause. It is widely believed that Itō’s assassination sped up the annexation of Korean from Japan.
Serving as Japan’s Prime Minister from 1918–1921, Hara Takashi is most well-known for being the first Christian and first commoner to serve in the role. Although born into a Samurai clan, Hara would convert to Christianity and renounce his status. Even as he became a well-known politician, he continued to refuse prestigious titles.
Becoming Prime Minister following the racial riots of 1918, Hara established himself as a moderate with no significant political leanings in any direction. Hara wanted to be seen as being no different from the common man and was quite unpopular among fellow politicians, conservatives and people of higher standing.
Unfortunately for him, Hara would also soon fall foul of his target demographic for his failure to push for Universal Suffrage. Despite having the majority to do so, Hara was reluctant to make any abrupt changes so early on. His cautious approach was seen as willful inaction by those who used to support him and he became increasingly unpopular on the left as well.
Hara was also the first civilian to serve as a chief of any of Japan’s Military Branches as he served temporarily as head of Japan’s Navy Ministry. Hara was also the sitting Prime Minister during the Japanese Siberian Intervention. The infamous military operation was costly to the Japanese economy and led to over 5000 Japanese casualties. This not only created resentment between Hara and the Army but a rift between the Japanese Government and Military as a whole.
Hara’s growing unpopularity soon reached a boiling point in 1921. While waiting to catch a train to Kyoto, Hara was stabbed to death by railroad worker Nakaoka Ken’ichi. Nakaoka had grown disillusioned with Hara’s performance as Prime Minister and was heavily influenced by the views of those around him. Although initially sentenced to death for his crimes, Nakoka’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. However, he was released after 13 years.
In spite of his unpopularity at the time, Hara Takashi’s time as Prime Minister has been looked at fondly from a historical perspective. He showed that even a common man could ascend to a position of power and took great strides in removing nepotism and cronyism from the Japanese Government. Living a simple life to the end, Hara’s most significant possession was a mere diary that he left following his death.
Hamaguchi Osachi served two consecutive terms as Japan’s Prime Minister from 1929–1931. The son of a local official, Hamaguchi would study law before embarking on a lifelong political career. Throughout the bulk of his career, he would remain in the Ministry of Finance.
With his experience in financial matters, Hamaguchi would become Japan’s Finance Minister and later Home Minister, basing his portfolio on improving Japan’s trade and economy. When he was elected Prime Minister, Hamaguchi seemed like the perfect man for the job.
Inheriting the government of a country whose economy was crippled by WWI and soon headed towards the Great Depression, Hamaguchi attempted to use his experience to steer Japan out of this crisis. Aware of his reputation, both the public and royal family threw their support behind him.
Although he had promised that he was “ready to die” for his country, Hamaguchi eventually proved unable to get Japan out of its economic crisis. Bad decisions and politicking affected his performance dramatically and he soon ran afoul of the Military for cutting their spending. This soon led to a drop in his popularity.
Near the end of his first term in office, Hamaguchi was shot by Tomeo Sagoya, a member of a Japanese ultra-nationalist group. In a morbid coincidence, Hamaguchi was shot near the same place where Hara Takashi had been killed. However, unlike his predecessor, Hamaguchi survived.
Despite the drop in popularity and recent assassination attempt, Hamaguchi was able to secure a second term in 1931. However, he had yet to fully recover from the shooting and his health soon took a turn for the worse. No longer fit to govern the country, Hamaguchi resigned just over a month into his second term. Unfortunately, his health did not improve and he passed away a few months later due to an infection from his wounds.
Nicknamed the “Lion Prime Minister” due to his appearance and personality, Hamaguchi endured nine months of agonizing pain before finally succumbing to his wounds. It does take the courage of a lion to win an election despite becoming increasingly unpopular and almost being murdered. True to his words during his inauguration, Hamaguchi died for his country.
Serving as Japan’s Prime Minister from 1931–1932, Inukai Tsuyoshi was also the country’s second oldest Prime Minister, having died in office at the age of 76. Born to a Samurai family, Inukai was a journalist by trade but later embarked on a career in politics.
With more liberal leanings, Inukai wanted to transition Japan into a Constitutional Monarchy in the style of the UK and move the country away from its feudal past and Imperially dominated roots. A popular figure, Inukai was able to keep the same Parliamentary seat for over 42 years.
When Inukai became Prime Minister at the age of 75, he inherited a Government tasked with handling a persistent economic crisis and was growing increasingly at odds with the Military. While he soon proved adept at handling the country’s economic situation, Inukai struggled greatly when dealing with Japan’s Army.
Although instructed by the Emperor to not send additional troops to China in order to maintain good relations with them, Inukai was forced by the Army to do so. Although the success of the Military brought popularity to Inukai’s party, Inukai himself sought to put an end to their growing power and planned to send a delegation in China in order to put the army back under control.
However, on 15 February 1932, Inukai would be killed by young members of the Japanese Imperial Army. 11 men who were barely 20 years old, stormed the Prime Minister’s residence. Inukai attempted to reason with the would-be assassins but was quickly gunned down. It was later revealed that the Army’s main target was movie superstar Charlie Chaplin who was in Japan as Inukai’s guest. They had hoped that murdering Chaplin would trigger a war with the United States but Chaplin would flee the country after having left to attend a sumo match with Inukai’s son.
Inukai Tsuyoshi’s death marked the beginning of a period of increased Militarism in Japan and was a significant moment in the rift between the Japanese Military and Government. Inukai’s killers were able to win public sympathy and receive lenient sentences while the Japanese Military also grew more powerful.
Takahashi Korekiyo served as Japan’s Prime Minister from November 1921 to June 1922. He would briefly return to office as Acting Prime Minister in 1932 in the wake of Inukai Tsuyoshi’s assassination.
Takahashi was the illegitimate son of a painter who was later adopted by a low-ranking Samurai. Unlike many of his more noble predecessors, Takahashi’s life was not easy. Having been taught to speak English, Takahashi went to the US to further his studies and found work doing manual labor. While in the States, Takahashi was sold as a slave by his landlord but was able to escape and find his way back to Japan.
Upon his return to Japan, Takahashi found work as an English teacher and later a high school principal while also taking lower positions in the Ministry of Education. Takahashi would later move to the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. During this time, he set up Japan’s first ever patent system and then embarked on a career as a banker.
Just 6 years after joining the Bank of Japan, Takahashi worked his way up to Vice President and eventually became President of the Bank of Japan in 1911. After his resignation in 1913, Takahashi returned to politics and was appointed Finance Minister. He served in this role until the assasination of Hara Takashi, following which he was appointed as Prime Minister.
Aside from being the second Christian to become Prime Minister, Takahashi’s 7 months in office were somewhat disappointing. Seen as somewhat of an outsider, Takahashi could not control his party nor steer Japan out of its growing financial hardships. Following his tenure as Prime Minister, Takahashi would go back to serving as Finance Minister to much greater success.
Takahashi’s efforts during the Great Depression did wonders to reduce the damage to Japan’s economy. However, he had angered the increasingly powerful Japanese Imperial Army by cutting their budget. As a result of this, he was assassinated by Military Rebels during the infamous 26th February attempted coup.
This incident was the last time a Japanese Prime Minister was assassinated until Shinzo Abe’s death in July 2022. However, Takahashi Korekiyo was not the only Prime Minister killed on 26 February 1936.
Serving as Japan’s Prime Minister from 1932 to 1934, Saitō Makoto was the last of two former Prime Ministers to be assassinated in 86 years. Born to a prominent samurai clan, Saitō was groomed to be a military man. He had graduated from one of Japan’s finest military academies and had spent time in the US studying to be a military attache.
Saitō would prove himself to be very capable on the battlefield and eventually served as Governor-General of Korea and as Japan’s Navy Minister. However, he would later succeed Inukai Tsuyoshi as Prime Minister following his assassination.
Saitō’s appointment came as a compromise of sorts in the wake of Inukai’s assasination. With the Military increasingly seizing power, the Emperor was advised to take measures to prevent a full scale military takeover. Thus, the decision was made to appoint a member of Government with significant military experience as Prime Minister.
Although his time in office initially seemed stable, Saitō resigned in 1934 in the wake of a bribery scandal. However, his reign was recognised as being relatively long for the time and was marked by Japan’s acknowledgement of Manchuria’s independence and withdrawal from the League of Nations. Following his time in office, Saitō was appointed as Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal.
Like his predecessor Takahashi Korekiyo, Saitō was targeted and assassinated by members of the Military on 26th February 1936. No Japanese Prime Minister would be assassinated for the next 86 years.
A look into how and why these Prime Ministers were assassinated only makes Shinzo Abe’s death all the more shocking. These leaders were killed during times of great instability both internally and internationally. Some also suffered from extreme unpopularity. It is quite apparent that none of these circumstances were at play (or at least not to the same extent) during Shinzo Abe’s assassination.
As of this writing, Shinzo Abe’s death seems to be nothing more than the work of a deranged individual with no clear motive. It makes his assassination all the more senseless but that being said, the killing of a renowned political figure is always tragic regardless of the circumstances.
For now, let us reflect on the life and achievements of this recognisable leader and wait until more information comes out in order for us to make sense of this unspeakable tragedy.
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