Issue:

August 2022

Shinzo Abe’s murder and the media

A hearse carrying the body of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leaves the Zojoji temple in Tokyo - Rodrigo Reyes Marin, All Rights Reserved.

Media critics could find plenty of grist to their mill in the aftermath of Shinzo Abe’s murder. For a start, there were the near identical headlines that ran in the big national dailies on July 8, stating simply that the former prime minister had “died after being shot” in Nara – a product of risk-averse editorial decisions. 

Breaking news of the incident, saying Abe had “collapsed”, confusingly suggested he had suffered a heart attack. Amateur videos taken at the scene and circulated online made it clear that he had been gunned down. Millions found themselves scouring the internet for a better picture of what had happened. 

This was another small signpost in the death-march of the traditional print and broadcast media: After all, it could be asked, if professional journalists and editors are slower at getting timely news to our newspapers and screens than bystanders with cellphones, then what use are they?

Then there was the decision by editors in Japan to steer clear of the word “assassination”, (暗殺), which suggests the killer was motivated by politics or ideology. Sources inside the newspaper industry said this was to avoid conferring legitimacy on Abe’s presumed killer, Tetsuya Yamagami, when his motives were still unclear.

Yet the word is widely used in the Japanese media when citing the assassination of foreign leaders such as President John F. Kennedy, who was also targeted by a lone killer with opaque motives.  

As some pointed out, domestic media steer clear of the word because of its association with Japan’s chaotic and murderous prewar era, when political killings were common. The 1960 killing of Inejiro Asanuma, then chairman of the Japan Socialist Party was the most famous Japanese assassination of the postwar era – but it was referred to as a “death by stabbing” in the domestic media.

There were other timorous editorial decisions, such as censored closeup photos of the homemade gun used by Yamagami. Some newspapers (and Japan’s biggest news agency, Kyodo) carried the pictures, taken by the Nara Shimbun, but banned them from being published on websites, apparently to avoid encouraging copycat killers. 

Images of the gun, the killer and the murder could be found online, however, fueling a small army of amateur sleuths. Many, for example, were struck by the light security around Abe and the sight of his assassin wandering about freely for several minutes before attacking his target. Some even speculated that the killing was a false-flag operation in a worrying echo of the conspiracy theories that now plague the aftermath of violent incidents in the U.S.

Once the domestic media deployed their huge resources, a lot of careful, diligent reporting followed.

Journalists determined that Yamagami was driven by hatred of the Unification Church, whose members are commonly known as Moonies. His road to middle-class prosperity was blocked when his widowed mother drained the family purse to make donations to the cult. 

According to family sources quoted in the Mainichi Shimbun, she donated about ¥100 million, including insurance money from her husband’s death, to the church. Testimony from neighbors and colleagues helped build a rich picture of an intelligent, flailing man who grew bitter as he slipped down the social ladder. 

Relatives recalled phone calls from a young Yamagami and his two hungry siblings, demanding food. Instead of going to university, he joined the Maritime Self-Defence Force in 2002, the year his mother declared bankruptcy. Work colleagues described an ordinary but prickly character. Fuji TV interviewed neighbors who recalled him noisily building a small arsenal of home-made weaponry in his one-bedroom apartment. Rather than eject the troublesome tenant, the building management asked everyone to be “considerate”. 

The most contentious issue in reporting of the Abe killing was the delay in publishing the name of the church. For several days, the mainstream media referred to the Moonies as simply a religious group, avoiding any mention of its name – this despite the fact again that it was being widely discussed online.

A reporter for the Mainichi, who spoke anonymously, says the media were being “careful” in not outing the church until the name had been confirmed.  “Religions are a difficult issue for the media,” said the source.

Press clubs played another role, reckons Kaori Hayashi, a professor of media studies at the University of Tokyo. “I think it was because the police at first didn’t reveal the name,” she said. “Confirmation by the authorities is still a big factor for the Japanese media.”

There were, of course, other ways of confirming the name, such as talking to families. And it was revealed online that Yamagami had blogged or written about his feelings on the church. In any case, it was left to the weeklies tabloids to bridge the gap between cyber- and mainstream reporting. Shukan Gendai leaped first, outing the church and “again fulfilling their role”, said Martin Fackler, a former Tokyo bureau chief of the New York Times, “to write what the big dailies cannot.”

Gendai noted that Shimbun Akahata, the newspaper of the Japanese Communist Party – a long-time adversary of the church – had reported last year that Abe had sent a video message to an affiliate of the Moonies, praising their focus on family values, for which he was condemned by lawyers for cult victims.

Once the Unification Church acknowledged Yamagami’s mother was a member at a press conference on July 11, the reporting dam burst. Reporters have dug deep into the connections between the cult and right-wing politics. The South Korean church, founded in 1954 by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-professed messiah, has invested heavily in conservative causes, much of it financed by selling religious baubles in Japan. Fiercely anti-communist, it set up the Washington Times newspaper in 1982 as a platform for anti-liberal views and forged ties with a string of conservative American leaders including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Surprisingly to some, the connections included politicians with the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the party Abe once led and which has governed Japan for all but a few years since 1955. One of the party’s elders, Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a former prime minister who some experts say brought the church to Japan, where he used it to promote anti-communist views and win votes.

The Mainichi summed up the feelings of many in a July 27 editorial when it surveyed this little-known history: “It is only natural for the Diet and media organizations to clarify the state of affairs. And above all, the LDP should take a look at its long history and provide an explanation to the public and wind up its relationship with the religious group.”

If Yamagami’s wider aim was to exact revenge on the church and its enablers, he could hardly have done a better job.


David McNeill is professor of communications and English at University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo, and co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee. He was previously a correspondent for The Independent, The Economist and The Chronicle of Higher Education