Shinzo Abe, military
Abe longed to rebuild Japan’s military might. Photo credit: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Preemptively dismissing the assassination of Shinzo Abe – two days before a transformative election – as the act of a lone nut is a grave error.

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In a familiar pattern following the assassination of a public figure, the worldwide media is showing little inclination to dig deeper into the recent shooting of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

The brazen daylight attack on Abe — captured on video during a campaign stop, in a country with virtually no gun homicides — shocked the world. Japan’s rates of gun violence are preposterously low by any standard: Just one shooting fatality was recorded in all of 2021.

But why Abe, and why now? The first prime minister to serve multiple terms since 1948 and the longest-serving PM in Japanese history, Abe was a powerful and controversial figure in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, the party that has controlled the country for nearly 70 years. 

He was a nationalist reactionary, an apologist for World War II war crimes who denied the rape of Nanjing, and a supporter of rearmament and of doubling Japan’s defense budget (he also nominated Donald Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize). But despite looming large in domestic politics, he did not wield any direct power on the day he was killed. 

As paeans from conservatives around the world poured in, praising Abe’s deft diplomatic skills and vision, police settled on a puzzling motive behind confessed killer Tetsuya Yamagami’s actions: Possibly based on internet rumors, Yamagami concluded that Abe was connected to the “Moonies,” or the Unification Church, the worldwide movement founded by Sun Myung Moon (that also owns the conservative Washington Times). Yamagami allegedly believed the church defrauded his mother and bankrupted his family. 

The leader of the church’s Japanese congregation confirmed that Yamagami’s mother is a member and attends services once a month — but said there was no record of the church soliciting or receiving a donation. Neither Yamagami nor Abe were members, he added.

So, another random act of violence by another addled lone wolf, signifying nothing? In all likelihood, this saga will follow a predictable pattern: More mundane details about the shooter will trickle out, then interest will fade. Over time, Abe’s assassination will be consigned to the long list of odd occurrences with powerful consequences and implications that may never be truly understood. 

We should reject this lazy impulse and at least contemplate a more penetrating analysis.

Ask Why — And Ask Whom

Time and again, in cases where political figures were killed, media and government have without fail quickly concluded that the full explanation involved insane or disgruntled individuals — with no significant political connections — operating on their own. When we look more deeply at such cases, though, we sometimes find disturbing details and relationships that were kept from the public. For example, consider John Hinckley Jr., Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin. Hinckley’s family, very bizarrely, were close friends and political supporters of George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president and former political opponent, who would have ascended to the presidency had Reagan not survived.

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Some living in Japan today remember an overtly political assassination: the 1960 killing, live on television, of Socialist Party leader Inejiro Asanuma, felled by an ultranationalist wielding a traditional foot-long sword. Some will note that the anti-communist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), founded by Abe’s grandfather — himself a former prime minister, pardoned former war-crimes suspect, and the Socialists’ bête noire — received millions of dollars of covert support from the CIA, and the murder set the once-formidable Socialist Party on a path to irrelevance from which it never returned.

But in the US, where four presidents have been assassinated and two have had direct attempts on their lives, the official stories characterize the perpetrators as demented loners — or at least, in the case of Lincoln’s killer John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators, a small, isolated group acting independently, disconnected from higher levels of power.  

That is to say: The “accepted” view is that no political faction or strategic alliance has ever used assassination to remove its domestic enemies from power or otherwise silence them. This denial that American history has been influenced by organized efforts to subvert the will of the people seems both logically and statistically difficult to justify (surely Donald Trump’s sprawling effort to prevent Joe Biden from taking office ought to give pause to those who always assume the best about that).

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A more direct counter argument might be based on the ruthlessness of various military, intelligence, political, and industrial alliances — those forces dubbed by scholar C. Wright Mills “the power elite,” and associated with what former University of California, Berkeley professor Peter Dale Scott later described as “deep politics.” These same forces display overt hostility toward political opponents and often aid and abet military coups and other violent leadership changes around  the world. 

The head-in-the-sand response to suggestions that the murders of political leaders might have political motives also doesn’t comport with law enforcement thinking. When private citizens are killed, the first thing police do is figure out who stood to gain the most. And they often find that conspirators — a rapacious business partner, a jealous domestic partner, a venal relative — colluded in the death. Sometimes, the schemes are incredibly sophisticated and fantastic, with elaborately staged evidence pointing to a false perpetrator. 

In the case of Abe — as well as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and others — it’s different. The victim was killed in full view of witnesses. There is video evidence. Later identifications were made from what we were told is conclusive evidence. 

However, just because an individual was seen committing an act — or confessed to it (especially in a country like Japan, where close to 100 percent of cases result in convictions, and confessions may well be coerced) — that’s not the end of the investigation. It should be the beginning. 

The Investigation Begins

Sirhan Sirhan, mugshots

Sirhan Sirhan mugshots. Photo credit: California State Archives

Just because a known actor perpetrated a crime, even when the person says they acted alone, does not mean they are telling the truth; the person may not know the full truth themselves. 

Although the issue has not emerged in Yamagami’s case, it is interesting to contemplate the number of cases where murderers experienced strange disengagement prior to and during their crimes, and amnesia afterwards. One of the most prominent examples is Sirhan Sirhan, who claimed to have fallen into a “trance” on the night Robert F. Kennedy was shot, and years later wondered if he wasn’t a “Manchurian candidate” programmed to kill. He has been found to be unusually susceptible to hypnotism.

On the other hand, Lee Harvey Oswald, whose motive was divined to be a desire to achieve fame and notoriety, explicitly said he didn’t do it and had been framed — and was silenced before more could be learned. 

James Earl Ray, the accused killer of Martin Luther King Jr., similarly said that he did not do it — and some have indeed made a strong case for his framing

We know the CIA secretly conducted experiments in mind control — through a project called MKULTRA — to see whether killers could be controlled or manufactured. This, along with domestic and foreign intelligence services’ infiltration of opposition groups (COINTELPRO), is a matter of historical record. 

Thus, when a powerful person is killed, it is incumbent on all of us to think like a detective, to consider the question, cui bono? — i.e., “who benefits”? 

It is not the purpose of journalism to quickly close ranks around official doctrine and establishment positions, to always play it safe — as, for example, the media did when Jeffrey Epstein, the keeper of so many secrets of the powerful, managed to hang himself while on suicide watch in state custody. 

It is our job to question, exhibit skepticism, and — keeping our minds and eyes open — dig for answers.

That doesn’t mean we need to perpetuate the cartoonish theories and baseless speculation of the MAGA minions. It’s not an either/or situation. 

Instead, with Abe’s death, let’s simply do what investigators do and postulate how the crime could have been planned and executed. And ask: Who benefits?

Cui Bono? 

hearse, Japan, Shinzo Abe

A hearse carrying the body of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe passes the prime minister’s official residence in Tokyo after the funeral ceremony while police officers bow their heads and salute on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. Photo credit: © Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO via ZUMA Press

Remember that Abe was a militarist and nationalist who warned of very real threats from both China and Russia. He was a big supporter of Taiwan’s independence. He urged Japan to revisit its constitutional prohibition against creating and maintaining an offensive military and to at least double its defense spending. 

Abe’s political stance threatened the interests of China as well as Russia. Yet, his death was not in any way helpful to those adversaries. 

Instead, Abe’s assassination unleashed a reactionary tsunami. The conservative LDP won more than half of the upper house seats on Sunday. The win means, for the first time, the LDP may be able to proceed with the Abe-backed proposal to amend the Japanese constitution and turn away from its post-World War II legacy of disarmament and pacifism. 

For those who see an existential threat to Japan from China and Russia, Abe’s death was an unfortunate occurrence that nevertheless had a powerful effect. 

Where Japanese rearmament and regional military rise will lead, we do not know. But we do know that this “lone nut” killer gave new energy to the pro-military wing of Japanese politics. Again, cui bono

In some ways, it reminds me of what happened after John F. Kennedy’s death, when the US began its massive escalation in Vietnam, something Kennedy had staunchly resisted (that, too, is something documented that has nonetheless been obscured by historians and others favored by the establishment). Of course, Abe’s allies got what they wanted, but my point is that in so many cases, militarism comes out on top. 

Motivating a Shooter — What If?

Wondering about possible scenarios like the brilliant TV homicide detective Columbo is a good exercise in these instances. 

Perhaps the perpetrator’s obsession and anger at his mother’s bankruptcy was known. Perhaps the perpetrator was determined, at all costs, to redeem his mother. Perhaps someone offered him a sizable sum to commit a grave crime, and persuaded him that the act of revenge would somehow correct a perceived injustice. 

Surely, there are countless examples of those who would make an ultimate sacrifice for a larger cause, for honor, for a loved one. Especially in a country where there is a living memory of the ancient honor code of Bushido, which led officials to resign when they personally did nothing wrong in order to “take responsibility” — or plunge a sword into their bowels over some indignity. 

Now, we know Japan has stringent gun control. And we know this man made his own weapon. Our natural instinct is to conclude that anyone who would bother to do the hard work of constructing a homemade weapon would be an unlikely player in a sophisticated, organized plot. 

Yet, that’s exactly what I would have him do, were I behind any plot. The less sophisticated-appearing, the better. 

Why is it essential to ponder these things and to want to know more? Because these extraordinary acts change history. They introduce great volatility and impel significant changes of political direction and policy. This is the stuff that alters everything. And when that happens, it is imperative that people interested in the success of the “ordinary” democratic process seek clarity. 

To be sure, often, a cigar is just a cigar. But establishing whether everything is as meets the eye — or if there is more to the story — well, that’s what journalism is supposed to be all about. 


  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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