The Washington Post
Watching Japan grapple with a rare shooting, through an American prism
Since moving to Japan a year ago, I’ve stopped scanning large rooms the moment I enter to mentally devise an escape route in case of a shooting.
It’s a habit I developed living in the United States, where more than 20,000 people were killed by gun violence in 2021 — and one I’ve unlearned in Japan, a country of 125 million where just one person was killed in a shooting in 2021.
So when I saw an alert on my phone on July 8 while on my way to lunch that former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had collapsed after two loud bangs were heard, my mind struggled to find an explanation. “Surely, it couldn’t have been a shooting,” I thought. “Maybe someone set off fireworks and he had a heart attack.” But then came alerts of bleeding and a gunman.
As I witnessed 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 shooting. The muscle memories from U.S. shootings kicked in, but I quickly learned that they don’t quite apply on the other end of the spectrum of gun violence — the side where it almost never happens.
A decade ago was the first time I changed my plans because of a shooting. A gunman shot up a Colorado movie theater in 2012 during a midnight screening of the film “The Dark Knight Rises.” I had been looking forward to watching the movie in the theater but decided against it after that.
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 newsroom. Nowhere seemed safe anymore.
After extensive research, I mentally planned how I might flee a shooting. I have weighed the risks of playing dead and decided against it. I have decided I am neither brave nor strong enough to stop a gunman.
But Japan has one of the world’s lowest homicide rates. When high-profile attacks occur, they usually come in the form of stabbings and arson. Strict gun laws make it difficult to own and use a firearm. Ten people were shot in 2021, and eight of them were associated with the yakuza, the Japanese criminal syndicate. One person died in 2021 of a gunshot wound that was not self-inflicted, according to Japan’s National Police Agency. The same year in the United States, there were 20,957 people whose cause of death was homicide by firearm, according to provisional mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On top of that, there is a social contract built on the understanding that what you do affects another person, which shapes daily behaviors. Cabdrivers in Tokyo frequently warn me before they make a U-turn. I once saw a man pick up his dog’s poop, then crouch down to spray the area with a cleaner and wipe it down with a paper towel.
It doesn’t mean Japan is totally safe or pleasant, especially for women, girls and people in the LGBTQ community, who face sexual violence, harassment and discrimination. But the culture and low crime rate instill a sense of safety — especially for someone newly arrived from a country with a now-familiar cadence of mass shootings and a rise in violent attacks on Asian Americans.
The day Abe was assassinated, I learned how a country reacts when people are not constantly anticipating a shooting.
When the former leader was taken to the hospital without vital signs, I recalled covering the 2011 attempted assassination of then-rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-ariz.), who was shot in the head at a constituent event. Japanese media were using a term that indicated Abe had little chance of survival. But I was hopeful, remembering inaccurate initial reports that Giffords had died.
But Giffords survived after she was treated by a uniquely qualified surgeon who specialized in trauma care, particularly in treating gun wounds. The chances of finding a doctor with such experience at the Nara Medical University Hospital were probably near zero.
Abe was pronounced dead that afternoon, and the hospital scheduled a news conference. In the United States, it would be typical for doctors or medical examiners to detail entry and exit wounds and the bullet’s trajectory.
But at the hospital, officials struggled to describe the cause of Abe’s heart failure. One of the doctors repeatedly said the wound reached the heart, which reporters eventually deciphered was a reference to a bullet hitting a main artery in his heart, leading to massive blood loss. I wondered when the staff there had last encountered a bullet wound, and how difficult the current moment must be 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 were followed, which inevitably turns into a debate over gun rights and control. But because the suspect in Abe’s killing used a homemade gun, there weren’t questions about proper permits. It was clear he was an outlier in a country where there are about 192,000 licensed firearms, or one for every 651 people.
In Japan, security around politicians is relaxed because of the relative safety. Events are often held in public spaces with minimal barriers. A day before his death, Abe had attended a campaign event where he made his way through a crowd, fist-bumping and taking selfies with constituents.
Nara police admitted there were security lapses, a focus of their investigation. But what are the appropriate active-shooter prevention protocols in a country where such a threat is nearly nonexistent?
In America, news outlets are often criticized for moving on too quickly or triaging coverage because there are so many shootings. Last year, a few days after I landed in Atlanta to cover the aftermath of a gunman’s attack on Asian-owned spas, the news cycle moved on to a supermarket shooting in Colorado.
While Japanese mainstream media was quick to move on the next day out of concern that coverage of Abe’s shooting at a political rally might influence the upcoming election, there has been extensive coverage since about the shooter’s motives. More than a week later, there was still social media chatter 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 constituents, I wondered whether the precautions would last. An act by a lone gunman with a personal grudge does not necessarily portend a rise in gun violence in Japan. I wondered if I would feel less safe here; although I have lost my instinct to search for an exit, I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to live in a country where anywhere could be unsafe at any time.
A week after the shooting, I took a stroll through Shibuya Scramble, one of Tokyo’s most crowded shopping areas. In perhaps a sign of Japan’s enduring perception of safety, it didn’t even cross my mind to scan for a potential attacker.