But understanding this background may prove as useful as knowing actress Jodie Foster in making sense of the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., sought to kill the President in order to impress Foster, with whom he was obsessed. A few months earlier, John Lennon had been shot in an equally senseless attack by Mark David Chapman, believed to have been inspired by JD Salinger’s novel ‘The Catcher in the Rye’.
Abe’s murder begins to feel closer to these episodes than to initial suspicions that he might be politically motivated. This might prove to be a relief, if at all possible; Japan does not need the bitter entrenched partisan division that increasingly marks other democracies, which a heavily political assassination could incite.
This does not mean that we should ignore the Unification Church. One thing that should have come out of this sordid affair might be to shine a spotlight on the Moonies and other fringe religious groups, an area of Japanese society that often flies under the radar.
Religion in Japan is not the ideological battleground that it can be in other countries, leading many to believe that the country is non-religious. Religion often has a more decorative place in society, especially in ceremonies through the various stages of life – a country where people are often said to be born Shinto, married Christian and died Buddhist. But it’s still there, and not just in quasi-Christian bands like the Moonies. Many will know of an elderly relative being robbed by a Buddhist or other sect for items believed to have healing powers. The Happy Science group made international headlines in 2020 with its claim that it could cure Covid-19, but otherwise it is little talked about, even in Japan, despite having extravagant installations in many city centers.
Since Abe’s murder, some media outlets (mainly tabloids) have declared the hunt open for an area of a company that mainstream news outlets often seem reluctant to touch. Other media, however, were hesitant to even name the organization Yamagami’s mother belonged to, though the Unification Church held a press conference acknowledging the connection.
The connections between the Moonies and Abe are much less clear, however. The former prime minister was not a member of the church, although he spoke at church-related online events alongside other figures such as Donald Trump. The ties may have been historic: Abe’s grandfather, post-war prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, is said to have aided the group and its Korean founder, the Reverend Sun-Myung Moon, seen as an ally in the fight against communism, to gain a foothold in Japan.
The murder also shone the spotlight on a fringe political group, the NHK party – so named because it opposes the national broadcaster. In a bizarre scene ahead of last Sunday’s upper house elections, party general secretary Akihiko Kurokawa said Abe was to blame for funding religious groups and burst into a singsong performance – live on NHK, no less – of a refrain, “It’s all Abe’s fault. Kurokawa also referenced the Soka Gakkai, the Buddhist organization that backs the Komeito, the Party’s junior coalition partner Abe’s Liberal Democrat.
All of this makes for captivating viewing. But what it tells us about Abe’s death – or the potential to stop such attacks in the future – seems limited. We don’t know if Yamagami believes what he tells the police, or even if he’s sane.
In seeking to prevent a future attack, perhaps the focus should also be on the socio-economic conditions that helped create Yamagami. His profile corresponds to a model. Contrary to the typical image that these crimes are the work of angry young men, several shocking murders in Japan in recent years have been committed by older men with broken homes, few economic prospects and few reasons to live.
The man suspected of killing 36 people in the 2019 arson attack on Kyoto Animation was 41 at the time, the same age as Yamagami now; like Yamagami, his father died at a relatively young age. The 61-year-old arsonist who killed 26 in an attack in Osaka last December was divorced and separated from his family, and had nothing in his bank account at the time.
In each of these cases, the target seems almost arbitrary – whether it’s the Osaka mental health clinic where one killer was treated, the animation studio from which another appears to have stolen his ideas, or the The country’s longest-serving prime minister. What the alleged perpetrators have in common is a history of mental health issues, unequal employment and separation from society. How the Moonies might be involved in Yamagami’s peculiar economic situation should definitely be looked at closely. Tomihiro Tanaka, the church’s leader in Japan, acknowledged it receives donations from members but declined to discuss details of Yamagami’s mother, citing the ongoing investigation.
There is a natural urge to want to make sense of these events – to explain the ‘why’. The unforgivable security breaches in Abe’s custody, which Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday called “problematic”, are certainly another place to look, with police responsible for the scene reportedly distracted by bicycles and missing the suspicious. An age seemed to pass between Yamagami’s first and second shot, a time when Abe could have been protected. The soul-searching around the security arrangements will certainly continue.
But sometimes there’s just no why. The most gruesome conclusion to his murder might be this: In a free society, even with as few weapons as Japan, a determined and deranged aggressor with luck cannot always be stopped.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• What the world was wrong about Shinzo Abe: Gearoid Reidy
• After killing, Japanese Kishida must forge his own path: editorial
• Abe’s great political legacy is starting to look worn: Daniel Moss
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg News editor covering Japan. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia and was the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion