So when I saw an alert on my phone on July 8 as I went to lunch that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had collapsed after hearing two loud bangs, my mind struggled to find an explanation. “It sure couldn’t be a shootout,” I thought. “Maybe someone set off fireworks and had a heart attack.” But then came bleeding scares and a gunman.
As I watched Japan grapple with the decidedly un-Japanese horror of a gunman’s attack, I realized how much my exposure to gun violence had colored my expectations of a country’s response. to a shootout. The muscle memories of shootings in the United States surfaced, but I soon realized they didn’t quite apply to the other end of the gun violence spectrum – the side where it doesn’t happen. almost never.
Ten years ago was the first time I changed my plans because of a shooting. A gunman fired into a Colorado movie theater in 2012 during a midnight screening of the movie “The Dark Knight Rises.” I was looking forward to watching the movie at the cinema, but decided against it after that.
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Later that year, a gunman killed elementary school students in Connecticut. Then a gunman opened fire in a church. A nightclub. A concert. A Walmart. A press room. Nowhere seemed safer.
After extensive research, I mentally planned how I could escape a gunfight. I weighed the risks of playing dead and decided not to. I decided I wasn’t brave enough or strong enough to stop a shooter.
But Japan has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world. When high-profile violent attacks do occur, they usually take the form of stabbings and arson attacks. Strict gun laws make it difficult to own and use a gun. Ten people were shot in 2021, and eight of them were associated with the yakuza, Japan’s criminal syndicate. One person died in 2021 from a gunshot wound that was not self-inflicted, according to Japan’s National Police Agency. In the same year in the United States, there were 20,957 people whose cause of death was firearm homicide, according to provisional mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On top of that, there is a social contract based on the understanding that what you do affects another person, which shapes everyday behaviors. Taxi drivers in Tokyo frequently warn me before turning around. I once saw a man scoop up his dog’s poop, then crouch down to spray the area with cleanser and wipe it down with a paper towel.
This does not mean that Japan is completely safe or pleasant, especially for women, girls and members of the LGBTQ community, who face sexual violence, harassment and discrimination. But the culture and low crime rate instill a sense of security — especially for someone who has just arrived from a country with a now-familiar cadence of mass shootings and an increase in violent attacks on Americans in Asian origin.
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The day Abe was murdered, I learned how a country reacts when people aren’t constantly anticipating a shooting.
When the former leader was taken to hospital with no vital signs, I recalled covering the 2011 assassination attempt on then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who was shot in the head at a constituent event. Japanese media used a term that indicated Abe had little chance of survival. But I was hopeful, remembering inaccurate initial reports that Giffords was dead.
But Giffords survived after being treated by a highly trained surgeon who specializes in trauma care, particularly in the treatment of gunshot wounds. The chances of finding a doctor with such experience at Nara Medical University Hospital were probably close to zero.
Abe was pronounced dead that afternoon, and the hospital scheduled a press conference. In the United States, it would be typical for doctors or medical examiners to detail entry and exit wounds and bullet trajectory.
But at the hospital, officials struggled to describe the cause of Abe’s heart failure. One of the doctors repeatedly said the wound had gone to the heart, which reporters eventually deciphered as a reference to a bullet hitting a main artery in his heart, causing massive blood loss. I wondered when the staff there had last been shot and how difficult that moment must have been for them, under the pressure of the national spotlight.
In the United States, there is usually a rush to find out whether active shooter protocols have been followed, which inevitably turns into a debate over gun rights and control. But because the suspect in Abe’s murder used a homemade weapon, there were no questions about the proper permits. It was clear he was an outlier in a country where there are around 192,000 licensed firearms, or one for every 651 people.
In Japan, security around politicians is relaxed due to relative safety. Events often take place in public spaces with minimal barriers. A day before his death, Abe had attended a campaign event where he pushed his way through a crowd, punching and taking selfies with voters.
Nara police admitted there had been security breaches, central to their investigation. But what are the appropriate active shooter prevention protocols in a country where such a threat is almost non-existent?
In the United States, news outlets are often criticized for advancing too quickly or sorting out coverage because there are so many shootings. Last year, days after I landed in Atlanta to cover the aftermath of a gunman’s attack on Asian-owned spas, the news cycle shifted to a shooting at a Colorado supermarket.
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While Japan’s mainstream media was quick to react the next day over concerns that coverage of Abe’s shooting at a political rally could influence the upcoming election, there has been widespread coverage since on the shooter’s motives. More than a week later, social media is still talking about the collective shock.
The day after the attack, as I watched Prime Minister Fumio Kishida deliver a speech at a political rally while barricaded from voters, I wondered if the precautions would last. An act committed by a sniper with a personal grudge does not necessarily portend an increase in gun violence in Japan. I wondered if I would feel less safe here; although i have lost my instinct to look for an exit, i have not forgotten what it is like to live in a country where anywhere can be dangerous at any time.
A week after filming, I walked around Shibuya Scramble, one of Tokyo’s busiest shopping areas. In perhaps a sign of Japan’s enduring perception of security, it didn’t even occur to me to look for a potential attacker.
Andrew Ba Tran in Washington contributed to this report.