August 3, 2022
TOKYO – More than three weeks have passed since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 67, was shot dead.
Abe is the only prime ministerial Japanese politician to have been assassinated since World War II.
Based on interviews with investigative sources and analysis of video clips posted on social media, the Yomiuri Shimbun has investigated key points regarding police escort and security activities at the time of the attack.
With his left fist raised, Abe was speaking animatedly about the personality of a candidate for the House of Councilors election and gushed, “He doesn’t consider reasons not to do anything…” as a loud bang filled the air. Abe seemed confused by the sound for a moment and stopped speaking. He moved counterclockwise and turned to see what was happening just as a second shot was fired. Abe lost his balance and fell to his knees.
The shooting happened at 11:31 am on July 8 on a street about 50 meters from the north exit of Kintetsu Yamato-Saidaiji Station in Nara city. Tetsuya Yamagami, the 41-year-old suspect, was arrested on the spot. He was later handed over to the public prosecutor’s office on suspicion of murder. Yamagami had passed through the station exit around 10 a.m. earlier in the day to reach the site.
The suspect had hidden a home-made gun about 40 by 20 centimeters in a navy blue bag he was carrying over his shoulder. Investigators believe he was patrolling the site after his arrival to assess the area. Around the same time, police officers conducted an initial search of the spot where the former prime minister was supposed to give his address, probably looking for suspicious people or dubious items. However, they did not notice Yamagami’s movements.
“High risk” location.
At 11:10 a.m., the candidate and his supporters began addressing the audience in an island-like area separated from surrounding roads by guardrails, giving speakers a 360-degree view of the area.
Site listeners could hear speeches no matter where they stood. Last month, Toshimitsu Motegi, general secretary of the Liberal Democratic Party, gave a speech at the same venue.
However, a senior Metropolitan Police Department official in charge of VIP security expressed doubts about the security of the site, saying: “On the face of it it is a high risk site. I wonder why this location was chosen.” Such concerns stem from the fact that while viewers can hear a speaker from any position, the speaker is also open to attack from any direction.
Cars and buses passed behind Abe as he spoke. Had a security wall been put in place, for example by parking a campaign vehicle behind the former prime minister, the risk of an attack could have been reduced. But campaign cars couldn’t park there because the police didn’t impose traffic restrictions in the area. Although there were guard rails around Abe, an attacker could potentially have armed a vehicle by driving towards Abe at high speed.
Abe arrived at the site at 11:20 a.m., 10 minutes after the campaign speeches began. At 11:29 a.m., the hapless ex-premier stood on a boxy stump speaking platform and began praising the candidate.
At the time, four police officers — one from the MPD and three officers from the Nara Prefectural Police Department — were inside the space surrounded by guard rails. Other police officers tasked with security stood outside the crash barriers.
Yamagami, meanwhile, was standing behind Abe on a sidewalk across the street. The two were separated by a distance of just over 10 meters.
The attacker appeared to listen to Abe for about a minute before exiting the sidewalk, boarding the roundabout, and slowly approaching Abe from behind. As he neared his target, he took the gun out of his pocket, held it in both hands, and fired the first shot from about twenty feet away. It was 11:31 a.m
A senior police official said: “Police officers should have approached the suspect when he started taking to the streets. The fact that they didn’t do that is probably due to the personal positioning behind it [Abe] was lax.”
The police response after the first shot was insufficient. After firing his gun, the gunman moved closer – to within about 5 meters of Abe – and fired a second shot. There were 2.7 seconds between the first and subsequent shots.
According to a former senior police officer with knowledge of VIP security, it’s a fundamental principle that the closest member of the protection team moves to keep the VIP safe if anything unusual happens – like the sound of gunfire – either through the deployment his own body to protect or force the other person to the ground.
Initially, however, none of the four police officers closest to Abe ran towards the former prime minister.
For his part, the MPD bodyguard ran back and forth between Abe and Yamagami while holding up a bulletproof bag, but by then it was too late. The MPD member had been positioned 2 to 3 meters from Abe – but it turned out to be too far.
Some observers have pointed out that officers may not have immediately identified the first loud sound as gunfire because it was different from the “dry” sound of a gun. But that’s no excuse.
The other three officers failed to act in the heat of the moment and so did almost nothing until the second shot was fired.
Too few uniformed police officers
As to whether the gruesome attack could have been prevented, sources close to the police have pointed out an important fact: there were few uniformed police officers at the scene.
When a large number of uniformed police officers are deployed to a crime scene, this is known as a “security demonstration” and is intended to give would-be attackers the impression that an attack cannot be successfully carried out because the police would intervene.
It was not disclosed exactly how many uniformed prefectural police officers were deployed to the site. But in video clips of the shooting, it’s difficult to see uniformed police officers in the area — at least in the area behind Abe.