Japan Should Build on Abe’s Efforts by Enhancing its Defense Capability

Seiji Fuji

Abe had a thoroughly pragmatic viewpoint while keeping his ideals in mind

 Starting on the front page of its Morning Edition on August 2, The Sankei Shimbun ran a series entitled, “Loss, Challenges: Former Prime Minister Abe and Japan.” People who were close to Shinzo Abe reflected on the past and considered the challenges facing Japan in the future. The first article featured Katsutoshi Kawano, former chief of staff, Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). It read:

I had the chance to play golf with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in February. We finished the round and were soaking in the bath when I asked him, “Don’t security concerns make it hard for you to play golf, even now?” He replied, “It’s not so difficult after quitting the prime minister job. I can move about fairly freely.” That should have been just a casual conversation…
Right after Abe regained his position as prime minister, he made a striking impression on me when he traveled to Iwo Jima. That was in April 2013, when I was chief of staff of the Maritime Self-Defense Force. After the tour he was going to board his airplane when he suddenly kneeled down on the runway, put his palms together, and bowed his head. I’m ashamed to say that I never expected him to do that. Abe knew well that the remains of many people are buried in that location.
He sincerely wanted to pay his respects to those who died in the war. As a JSDF official, of course I was deeply impressed by this top leader.
Once I became the Joint Staff’s chief of staff, I began making direct weekly reports to Abe about the JSDF’s actions. Until that point you would never see a uniformed personnel member visiting the prime minister’s official residence so frequently. In Japan, it had been thought that “civilian control” meant the JSDF and politicians should keep their distance.
A newspaper company criticized this by saying “politicians and the JSDF have become closer.” But Abe did not agree, and believed true civilian control absolutely requires correct participation by the government.
Abe was a rare politician. He was a man with lofty ideals who maintained a thoroughly pragmatic stance as he worked to achieve them.
For example, he advocated for clearly specifying the JSDF in Article 9 of the constitution. I’m sure his true desire was to establish a solid position for the JSDF as a military. The limited exercise of the right to collective defense and the Japanese-South Korean agreement on the comfort women issue were to some extent compromises, but he made these decisions by thinking about how to come even one step closer to his ideal situation.
Abe accomplished great things. The security legislation he established created a structure for the JSDF to guard American ships and aircraft even during times of peace. Now American military leaders frequently remark that Japan has changed. Paradoxically, we can also say that the past Japanese-American alliance was fragile in some ways. Abe had a clear view of these gaps and worked to fill them in while knowing that his cabinet support rate might decline.
The current security environment has worsened since the Abe era. While watching Russia threatening Ukraine with nuclear force, it seems North Korea is more and more firmly committed to possessing nuclear weapons. We must always keep in mind the premise that Japan is surrounded by despotic nations with nuclear weapons, namely China, Russia, and North Korea.
Therefore, our discussions on strengthening defense capabilities cannot be merely an extension of the past. I hope the government will work to increase defense spending to the equivalent of 2% of the gross domestic product (GDP), as Abe proposed. Totaling defense spending as in the past will not lead to major transformation. The JSDF does not have a sufficient ability to keep fighting, from its quantity of machine gun bullets to its number of missiles.
Abe was even willing to discuss nuclear sharing. I think this demonstrated his firm awareness that no topic is taboo anymore when it comes to defending Japan’s people and territory. Losing a leader like Abe is a serious blow. I hope Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will engage in level-headed discussions and make resolute decisions based on a pragmatic viewpoint. (Interviewer: Kei Ishinabe)

 The JSDF is a military force to deter war. As Kawano points out, Japan’s neighbors – Russia, China, and North Korea – are authoritarian states with nuclear weapons. If we include South Korea in this group, they are all hypothetical enemies. We must have the ability to deal with these countries based on this perception. Abe’s efforts to this end were not mistaken, and we should build on them even further.

China defies Japan’s EZZ to conduct extensive military exercises

 American Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan on August 2 and met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on August 3. China vehemently opposed this and responded by conducting large-scale military exercises. The Sankei Shimbun posted an article on August 4 titled, “China Begins Extensive Military Drills to Blockade Taiwan After Pelosi Visit.”

The People’s Liberation Army of China announced that it would carry out large-scale military exercises near Taiwan. These began at noon on August 4 (1:00 p.m. JST). The drills are a countermeasure against Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The area for the drills surrounds Taiwan, and the Chinese media emphasized that this is a “blockade” of Taiwan.
China is attempting to carry out “major military drills,” including the firing of live ammunition in six air and ocean areas around Taiwan, until 12:00 noon on August 7. China warned ships and aircraft not to enter these zones during the exercises, which will likely have significant impacts on Taiwanese private-sector transport.

 The Joe Biden administration could not stop Pelosi from traveling to Taiwan due to the separation of powers in the United States, despite the high possibility this would provoke China and cause it to solidify its stance. Still, it is not normal for China to conduct drills in ocean and air regions surrounding the island of Taiwan, and the scale of them is also unusual. China is more openly displaying its extreme fixation on Taiwan. The sphere of these military exercises also includes Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), as well as the areas directly north and south of Yonaguni Island. A Taiwan crisis would certainly affect Japan as well, and we must have sufficient military capability to respond to this and other future circumstances in East Asia.

The SP was not close enough to shield Abe

 We now have a clearer picture of the security structure in place at the time when Abe was shot. On August 4, The Asahi Shimbun Morning Edition printed an article about this topic in its Society Section. It was titled, “Exposed 360 Degrees, Prefectural Police Questioned if Measures Were Sufficient, Four Officers did not Notice the Suspect: Security During Abe Shooting.

With an organization dedicated to protecting this important figure, why was it not possible to protect one individual from a gunshot? We interviewed people involved with the police, who revealed the state of the security structure at the time Abe was shot.
Around noon on July 7, the day before the incident, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) informed the Nara Prefectural Police that Abe would travel to Nara to campaign for the House of Councillors election. The police began considering security for the event at this time. That evening, they were contacted several times about the specific location of the speech, including information that it would be at the north side of the Kintetsu Railway Yamato-Saidaiji Station in Nara City, and that guardrails would be in place around the site.
LDP Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi gave a speech at the same location on June 25. The prefectural police created a plan based on the bodyguard and security plan used for Motegi, adding a few more officers because they expected more people to attend Abe’s event.
The security department staff drafted a working plan on the night of July 7. Right after their hours began on July 8, they reported to the head of the security department, and then to Chief of Police Tomoaki Onizuka, and received approval for the plan. There were no orders for revisions from Onizuka or anyone else.
Some people in the prefectural police questioned whether it was acceptable for the spot where Abe would stand to be exposed in all directions. However, nothing was changed because the plan had been set and preparations were already underway.
The security structure involved more than 20 people, including leaders from the prefectural police headquarters and the Nara Nishi Police Station. A few more than 10 of them were present at the speech. The configuration was partially changed on the day of the event based on factors such as the number of audience members. The onsite leaders included the headquarters chief. Four officers were assigned to guard Abe and stationed in the space inside the guardrails where he was to speak. Two officers, a Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department security police (SP) officer and a prefectural police bodyguard, stood to his right behind him on the diagonal. Two prefectural police bodyguards were to Abe’s left.
Only one officer on the right side was guarding Abe from behind. However, this bodyguard was mainly watching the area to the left when seen from the front of the stage, on the east side behind Abe, where many listeners had gathered. This is why he failed to notice the suspect, a 41-year-old man named Tetsuya Yamagami, moving from the sidewalk to the area behind Abe. The other three officers were mostly paying attention to the people in front of Abe, so they did not see the suspect’s movements.
After the first shot rang out, the SP moved between Yamagami and Abe and held out his bag-shaped bulletproof shield. The SP explained that he attempted to shield Abe with his body. However, the second shot grazed the shield and hit Abe.
Roughly 2.7 seconds passed between the first and second shots. Because the SP was stationed approximately two meters from Abe, it is thought it would have been difficult for him to fall upon Abe to protect him. The SP and other officers said they believed the sound of the first shot was caused by something like fireworks or a tire explosion, and did not immediately recognize it as a gunshot.
One police officer was positioned near the corner of the walkway where Yamagami was standing when the speech began. There was also another officer near the station bus terminal to the rear of Abe. The road behind Abe was not closed, and cars and bicycles passed by during the speech. None of the officers took notice of Yamagami, spoke to him, or restrained him as he moved due to these circumstances.
A leader in the police department stated, “I think the onsite police officers each did their jobs. The problem was that the overall security plan was insufficient, including security for the area behind Abe.”
The National Police Agency (NPA) established a verification team on July 12 to investigate the security preparations by confirming information through interviews with the Nara Prefectural Police, social media images, etc. They will prepare a security improvement plan based on their results by the end of August. Today prefectural police departments are in charge of guarding former prime ministers, but it is possible that drastic revisions may be made, including switching to a structure in which NPA is responsible for this in certain situations.
Another scandal may have factored into the careless security plan

 Although Japan has strict gun control, the perpetrator of this crime did not purchase a firearm – he used one that he made himself. I think Japanese bodyguards did not expect a shooting to occur because they put too much trust in this gun control, and it seems they lacked sufficient preparations, including bulletproof vests and shields. It was also terrible how the bodyguards behind Abe were particularly unprepared. Because it is difficult to guard a person from the rear during a speech, walls and other measures are generally used to protect them from attacks. It seems Yamagami abandoned his plan to shoot Abe during his speech at the Okayama Civic Hall and chose the site in front of Nara’s Saidaiji Station because he perceived that security would be weaker there.
The Nara Nishi Police Station, which has jurisdiction over the area where the crime occurred, was also involved in another scandal. It was planning to hold a press conference on July 8, the day of the shooting. Yomiuri Online ran an article about it on July 15, “[Exclusive] Nara Nishi Police Station was Planning Press Conference From the Day Before the Shooting, Had to Deal With Sudden Speech.”

The prefectural police announced they could not locate five pieces of live handgun ammunition that were kept in the police station in January 2022. After the prefectural police headquarters conducted an investigation including the possibility of theft, they found that five fewer bullets than planned had been distributed when replacing ammunition in November 2020 (before they became aware that bullets were missing). In early July, they established that no live ammunition had been lost.
According to a person involved in the investigation, the prefectural police headquarters planned to make an announcement about this scandal on July 8. The station leaders were extremely busy on July 7 with tasks such as making arrangements with the prefectural police headquarters.

 While this was going on, Abe’s speech was scheduled for July 8. Perhaps the careless handling of this event was due to the security plan created while the police were also dealing with another scandal. The male official identified as a suspect in the live ammunition loss was investigated for roughly 10 days and ended up with depression. On August 5, he brought a suit against Nara Prefecture for state redress. In my opinion, there are some deeply rooted flaws in the Nara Prefectural Police, an organization that kept incorrect live ammunition records and tried to blame an innocent staff member for its loss. We should clarify the issues with this police department as part of the NPA’s investigation regarding the security structure when Abe was shot. The assassination of a politician during an election campaign has once again chipped away at the myth that Japan is completely safe. Now is the time to carry out reforms aimed at more infallible security for important Japanese figures, based on the possibility of gun attacks.

August 5 (Monday), 10:00 a.m.