When we learned that Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, had been shot to death in the city of Nara, a surprised colleague commented, “He would be low on the list of political figures you’d expect this to happen to.” In a sense, this is absolutely true, not least because Japan is a place where gun fatalities are nearly nonexistent. There was only one firearm-related death in the country in all of last year, and even obtaining a gun is close to impossible. Abe’s alleged assailant appeared to have used a homemade weapon: two tubes tightly swaddled in black duct tape, a steam-punk blaster that could have come out of the world of Mad Max. Video of the assassination shows a musket’s worth of smoke being discharged as Abe staggers off his soapbox, then collapses.
There are plenty of other reasons to put Abe low on that list. Japan is not beset by the kind of insurgent groups that took the lives of Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi. One cannot imagine a gang of Colombian mercenaries descending on Abe’s residence (which is what happened to Haiti’s Jovenel Moïse just last year), nor sectarian enemies throwing him into the back of a pickup truck en route to executing him (the fate of Muammar Qadafi). We still don’t know the motivations of Abe’s alleged killer, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, but by all appearances Abe’s death most closely resembles that of Sweden’s Olof Palme, who was shot in the back in Stockholm in 1986 on his way home from the theater, a murder mystery that lasted decades. Abe, like Palme, presided over a peaceful, prosperous country, a sober guy in a dark suit.
Yet as the most ambitious, most polarizing, and — with the exception of Junichiro Koizumi — most charismatic Japanese prime minister of the 21st century, Abe is pretty much the only Japanese politician worthy of an assassin’s enmity. No one could have predicted that this is how Abe’s life and career would conclude, but as shock hardens into reality, and reality in turn gives way to the grinding march of history, there is also a sense that it had to be him. Abe’s death is already becoming the most memorable part about his life, a tragedy that obscures in a puff of smoke who he was — an ultra-nationalist? A reformer? A visionary? — and what he meant. Nothing could be more Japanese than this confusion, this legacy born of trauma.
Japan is a country accustomed to trauma. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the foundational events of contemporary Japan — came as bolts from the blue. They jolted the nation out of its blind militarism, turning an emperor into a childlike figurehead, valiant generals into war criminals, and ordinary citizens into accomplices. The bombs were also so annihilative, so awful, that they turned the Japanese into victims and martyrs as well, a countervailing narrative that has persisted ever since. This is the confounding stew in which Abe, born in 1954, grew up, a mixture of denial and hard-won wisdom, humble pie and aggrievement, remembrance and forgetting. His grandfather was accused of war crimes but went on to become prime minister anyway.
Abe’s main claim to fame as a politician was his campaign to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, written for the Japanese by America’s occupying forces, so that Japan could assert its military power once more and shake off its de facto status as a vassal state. This ultimately unsuccessful campaign bore all the hallmarks of a hard-line nationalism, including a 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine to honor Japan’s war dead, many of whom were war criminals; denials that imperial Japan had used Korean and Chinese women as sex slaves during the war; and a general irritation with the notion that Japan must continue to make amends for its atrocities. “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” he later declared on the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.
Abe’s nationalist agenda was partly a response to a spiritual malaise that had supposedly overtaken Japan in the postwar years, an extension of the trauma of being made to fall to its knees and beg the United States for forgiveness and protection. Only a reinvigorated, remilitarized Japan could lift its people up and take its destiny into its own hands, a notion that has found expression in countless Japanese cultural and historical artifacts, most notoriously the novelist Yukio Mishima’s quixotic attempt to overthrow the constitution in 1970, but also more quietly in movies like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata, in which an aimless, disillusioned young protagonist finds purpose in joining the U.S. military to fight in the Iraq War. Abe was just one of the many personifications of this primal yearning, and the appeal of self-determination is undeniable. But it is accompanied by so many lies, and colored by the romantic militarism that led Japan down the path to ruin in the first place, evidence that this drive is spurred by demons that have never been properly reckoned with.
Pulling Japan out of its malaise was the defining feature of Abe’s other great legacy, Abenomics, a combination of government spending, bureaucratic weeding, and monetary easing designed to reanimate Japan’s walking-dead economy. Here was another response to trauma, the “lost decades” that followed Japan’s attempt to conquer the postwar world, this time through cars and electronics rather than mortars and artillery. The country’s deflationary spiral was caused by the bursting of a real-estate bubble, but was felt as an existential crisis, a punishment handed down by the inscrutable god of the markets, wrecking a tight-knit society and setting people adrift. (Tokyo Sonata’s main character is a salaryman who loses his job and is so ashamed that he hides the fact from his family, continuing to leave the house every morning in suit and tie.) Abe’s reform program is widely viewed as him being at his best, simultaneously radical and pragmatic, and while its results have been mixed, everyone can agree that Abe at least had the courage and the wherewithal to do something.
The final trauma of Abe’s career mostly gets a glancing mention in his obituaries: the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, which left a deep scar on the Japanese psyche and swept away an incompetent government led by the Democratic Party. It allowed Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party to resume the control that it has maintained over Japan nearly uninterrupted since the 1950s and Abe himself to regain the premiership in 2012 and rule for another eight years, a virtual eon in a country where prime ministers come and go with the seasons. I don’t want to strain the connection between Abe and a natural disaster, only to say that the tsunami, which erased whole towns in a burst of unfathomable power, reinforced the notion that Japan is a country plagued by mysterious forces beyond its control, which are then met with a quiet stoicism that often borders on myopia. Reflection and introspection are discouraged; things just happen, and life must go on. But trauma has a way of expressing itself: Go to the shoreline in Fukushima and you’ll see enormous concrete seawalls that have been constructed in the tsunami’s wake. They are meant to blunt the ocean’s fury, but in reality stand as terrible monuments of fear and denial — from most vantage points, you can no longer see the sea.
It is all too easy to see how Abe’s assassination could be viewed as yet another catastrophe without cause. It is easy, too, to imagine him becoming a martyr for the nationalist right, struck down by a world that, for whatever reason, is hostile to Japan’s ambitions. Abe was the epitome of those ambitions in every sense, as well as his country’s unexamined flaws. That his life is now shrouded in tragedy, that his militarism will be tinged with grief, is a perfect metaphor for a country that has played both the victim and the oppressor.