Ex-classmates: The suspect in Abe’s murder was shy, private and nice

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A former elite high school student thought nothing of the name of the suspected gunman who killed Shinzo Abe when it was released to the public on July 8.

But within hours, the news media was searching for quotes and interviews with the former student.

The suspect’s name, Tetsuya Yamagami, eventually clicked. They had been in the same class at the Elite High School in Nara Prefecture more than 20 years ago.

“How is that possible?” said the person. “He was such a good guy.”

Those who knew Yamagami from his school days have similar descriptions of him: he was a bit shy, a bit awkward, but a nice and considerate person.

They also said that Yamagami revealed very little about his troubled home life, which is believed to have led in part to his shooting of the former prime minister.

“He would often put his hands on his desk and rest his chin on it and gape,” said the person who shared a class with Yamagami as a sophomore.

Yamagami seemed to prefer being alone. But he flashed a happy grin when the classmate addressed him, smiled “OK” to agree with the classmate’s decisions, and was always humble and considerate, the former student said.

“He was a guy who would accept anything.”

Yamagami was a member of the school’s “Ouendan,” a jubilant cheer group, and became known for shouting at the top of his voice on both hot and cold days.

“They did vocal exercises and worked their abs all year long until nightfall,” the former classmate said.

The school’s baseball team was talented enough to compete in the national tournament that spring.

Yamagami cheered as loudly as possible in the stands of Hanshin Koshien Stadium, the former classmate recalled.

RESPONSIVE FIREFIGHTER

In addition to having a competitive baseball team, the prefecture’s high school was considered an academic elite with a high percentage of its graduates being accepted into top-ranked universities.

But the former classmate and Yamagami shared a sense of “mediocrity,” saying things like “learning is hard” and “I feel lazy.”

Yamagami has consistently expressed a desire to become a firefighter rather than attend university after graduation, so it was not surprising that he joined the Maritime Self-Defense Force, the former classmate said.

“I guess he chose a profession where he could be of some use to society,” the person said.

By the time they entered the third grade of high school, they were in different classes and didn’t have many opportunities to talk.

After graduation, they lost contact with each other.

According to investigative sources, Yamagami said his mother’s large donations to a religious group after her husband’s death led to the family’s financial ruin.

He said he targeted Abe believing he was closely associated with the group, the sources said.

The former classmate said Yamagami never talked about living in abject poverty during high school.

But such domestic life might explain why the shy student joined the cheering pep squad.

“I didn’t think that was typical,” the former classmate said of his extracurricular activities. “Maybe he was concerned about his family background and was trying to cheer himself up and those around him.”

NICKNAME ‘LEADER’

Another former high school classmate said Yamagami was given the nickname “Dancho” (leader) of the cheering cheer group, even though he wasn’t one.

The former classmate, now 41, said she was in the same class with Yamagami when they were third years.

She recalls Yamagami building his body before a national baseball tournament in the spring.

“The celebration team was famous for their hard training,” she said. “They had training runs and strength exercises like the athletes do.”

The woman said that Yamagami is the type of person who takes his time and that he is a serious student who often reads books by himself.

But Yamagami was not a loner.

She said classmates would ask Yamagami to show them how to strike poses like members of the cheering pep group.

Despite his shyness, he taught them the poses at recess, she recalled.

The school’s baseball club reached the quarterfinals of the national tournament, playing against Yokohama High School, whose lineup included future major league star Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Yokohama won the game, but Yamagami “was cool,” she said. He waved his arms around with full force and put his fists in the air in the stadium.

She never saw Yamagami after they graduated from high school.

It was only after Abe’s death that she found out about Yamagami’s personal life and hardships.

She said she did not know that his father had died or that his mother had joined the Unification Church. She was also unaware of the family’s financial problems and that Yamagami, unlike most high school students, did not attend university.

She was also disheartened to hear that Yamagami was struggling to keep a steady job and that he had recently been unemployed.

“Was he lonely?” She said she keeps wondering now. “Could something have been done before this happened?”

(This article was written by Misuzu Tsukue and Shunsuke Abe.)

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